Waiting – Ha Jin
March 18, 2016 § 2 Comments
First published in 1999
Waiting is a story in which nothing happens, and yet at the same time, everything is happening. The three main characters in the story – Lin Kong, Shuyu (Lin Kong’s wife in the village) and Manna Wu (Lin Kong’s lover in the city) – are constantly waiting for something. And because they’re constantly in waiting mode, it seems as if nothing is happening, because they’re literally waiting for something to happen. Lin is waiting for the day his wife will finally agree to get a divorce, so that he can officially be with Manna. Manna, of course, is constantly waiting for the divorce to finally happen so that she can officially become Lin’s wife. And Shuyu, well, it seems as if she’s constantly waiting for Lin to love her.
In the midst of all this waiting, 18 years come and go. In these 18 years, Lin doesn’t get divorced, Manna doesn’t get to marry Lin, and Shuyu, well, she just goes through the motions of daily life. Nothing happens, nothing changes.
But 18 years have come and gone. Youth and naïveté is replaced by age, maturity and cynicism. Passion and urgency are lost, replaced with complacency and a quiet acceptance of fate. 18 years is a long time. And even if things don’t change, nothing ever stays the same.
Why didn’t Lin Kong just up and divorce his wife if he so wanted to be with Manna? Why did Shuyu hold on to this man knowing he didn’t love her, and why did she decide to patiently wait for him to return every year? Why did Manna, such a strong character with an even stronger personality, wait for Lin Kong, who seemed so subdued and reluctant? Why didn’t she simply give up and find herself someone else more worth her time?
Why did they all decide to wait? And why were they able to wait for 18 long years?
To me, that’s the essence of the book. Never once did I feel like the characters were doing something that I couldn’t understand. I knew exactly why Lin tried to divorce his wife every year, and why every year, Shuyu would refuse. I could feel the frustrations that Manna would have every year after Lin Kong returned to the city still a married man, and I could understand why she decided to wait for yet another year.
Unlike how many of us function today in this instant-news instant-everything world, this book gave me a reason to pause. Must we go about everything in warp speed? Are our bonds and ties so meaningless that we can cut them off simply by clicking the ‘unfriend’ button? Do we care so little, that we don’t care to wait any more?
Waiting is huge in my own life. I believe in the timing of things, in pacing and in being in the right place at the right time. I wait for things to fall into place. I wait for it to feel right. I wait for that click in my heart that tells me, yes, it’s time.
The New Yorker describes this book as “a suspenseful and bracingly tough-minded love story.” I think that’s quite apt. It’s not your typical boy-meets-girl-and-falls-desparately-in-love kind of love story. It’s a love story that’s full of little remorses and silly mistakes and deep, dark feelings.
Now he couldn’t help thinking, Why do people have to live like animals, eating and reproducing, possessed by the instinct for survival? What point is there in having dozens of sons if your own life is miserable and senseless? Probably people are afraid, afraid of disappearing from this world – traceless and completely forgotten, so they have children to leave reminders of themselves. How selfish parents can be. Then why does it have to be a son? Can’t a girl serve equally well as a reminder of her parents? What a crazy, stupid custom, which demands that every couple have a baby boy to carry on the family line.