Monthly Archives: June 2008

A free life by Ha Jin: how lonely can you be

I went through Ha Jin’s novel A Free Life quickly. One of my purpose of reading this book is to see what he has went through in his oversea life as an oversea writer who accomplished writing in English. The oversea experiences he exposed in his novel is quite typical.

I spent a long time trying to find the original quotes in the book but failed to locate them in this 700 page book. So here are just some sentences I recalled from my memory:

If you live in America without a wife and friends, after 5 years, you will feel extremely isolated and lonely. After 10 years, you will have a mental problem.

Nan was trying to take on English writing and forfeit writing in Chinese. He worried it might mess up his whole life without getting anywhere. The challenge is like climbing a very high mountain without even the summit in vision.

There are more quotes. But one week after I read it, I cannot recall all of them now.

During my first two years in US, I had spent quite a lot of time with oversea Chinese here, and had an idea of the general conditions of them. What the book mentioned is quite typical. Living oversea for many years is a very unique experience that is very hard to imagine if you have never gone abroad for a long time.

My friends used to describe coming to US like living in a dream. For me, my feeling is it is like floating in the air, my hands and feet cannot touch anywhere, cannot be grounded. All the strong feelings in China gradually lost. I couldn’t feel those feelings anymore. They used to be what I felt of my existence from, which I used to guide myself through life. They are those essential so called “precious things in life”. It was strange to see them all gone.

Yes, after 5 years, most of the memory in China will be lost. For 10 years, it is probably completely gone without much trace left. You lose the whole system of reference. If the person cannot take root in the new culture and obtain a new frame of reference, I don’t know if the reader can imagine what it is like.

One word oversea Chinese used very often is the feeling of “Dry”. Like all the water gradually leaves the body, we feel very dry. We say “dried to death”. Life needs to be enriched with water.

I felt this gradual loss of feelings and the sense of groundless immediately after I came to US, and I knew my most urgent task was to grow myself in this culture, (just like a cell growing on matrix). I knew this is a matter of life and death. It is a matter of survival. If I had free control of my time, I would definitely devote all of it to learning of this new culture madly. I had never expected this struggle to be this long.

I remember a question on blogpost is: if you dig a hole to China, where should you start? My answer is: the closest way to China is to dig a hole right through this thick American culture. That is the only way we can go back to China. You have to go beyond, stay on top of the game, if your choice is to stay. The world is already becoming one country. Just like in China, there are many provinces so you learn the cultures of various provinces. Since the world is becoming one country, you also need to learn other cultures. If so, I guess it is better for me to learn here. It is actually quite a lot of fun, if you can stay on top of the game. Recently I just realized that I need to enjoy my life here. Find good food here. Do whatever I like to do. Relax and enjoy my life here. I’ve been too hard on myself, always prepared to endure long time of pain before the taste of accomplishment. Life is in very simple things. Realizing this, the raw material of life start growing in this culture. After all, this body is capable of experiencing life, sensing the world, feeling the emotions, synthesizing beauties and recreate with its powerful force of life. The heart just needs to be exposed, be touched so it can grow big and strong.

People need to be good at two things: one is to be able to work just by oneself; the other is to be able to work with other people. There are always time you need to endure a long time of working just by yourself.

Anyway, thought of taking this chance to record the oversea experience. I couldn’t have imagined this kind of experience before I came abroad although I was very confident of myself then. As far as I know, the oversea experience wasn’t talked much in the literature. This article hopefully can give you some idea of what it is like. It feels so good to be in the mother language. Like fish going back to water.

Extra about oversea experience:

The endless creativity I had felt before going abroad gradually left me. In a class, when asked to come up some creative use of an invention (a material change color responding to temperature), I could not come up with anything, while other students come up with many things from their daily life. I felt so bad.

I have forgotten a lot of concepts since I don’t know their English words. When I googled them and saw their Chinese version, I was stunned that I had forgotten that concept for so long. For example, magpie.

I thought losing YY will be very painful. But here in US, I didn’t even feel much the pain. No intensity at all. Nevertheless, the pain was there and lasted for a very long time, and sometimes it suddenly became very painful when i realized what I had lost.

Reading Ha Jin’s novel Waiting, I had the feeling that I am part of them, we are one.

Sometimes reading the journal since childhood or just looking at pictures from the past, it recalled what life is used to be like, how rich it was when I was not confined by language. How different it was! It was totally a different mental state!

A friend graduating from the best university of China couldn’t argue with an American when they had a car accident.

Doctors said detainee of Guantanamo bay may suffer brain damage because of extreme isolation.  National Geography’s special issue about Intelligence of animals points out that social interaction is responsible for the intelligence in animals.

Not being able to speak the language in a culture is like living in the darkness. You don’t see much light around you. But you are requried to do your job here.


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