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A Song Everlasting

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From the universally admired, National Book Award-winning, bestselling author of Waiting--a timely novel that follows a famous Chinese singer severed from his country, as he works to find his way in the United States

At the end of a U.S. tour with his state-supported choir, popular singer Yao Tian takes a private gig in New York to pick up some extra cash for his daughter's tuition fund, but the consequences of his choice spiral out of control. On his return to China, Tian is informed that the sponsors of the event were supporters of Taiwan's secession, and that he must deliver a formal self-criticism. When he is asked to forfeit his passport to his employer, Tian impulsively decides instead to return to New York to protest the government's threat to his artistic integrity.

With the help of his old friend Yabin, Tian's career begins to flourish in the United States. But he is soon placed on a Chinese gov­ernment blacklist and thwarted by the state at every turn, and it becomes increasingly clear that he may never return to China unless he denounces the freedoms that have made his new life possible. Tian nevertheless insists on his identity as a performer, refusing to give up his art. Moving, important, and strikingly relevant to our times, A Song Everlasting is a story of hope in the face of hardship from one of our most celebrated authors.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published July 27, 2021

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About the author

Ha Jin

50 books708 followers
Ha Jin is the pen name of Jin Xuefei, a novelist, poet, short story writer, and Professor of English at Boston University.Ha Jin writes in English about China, a political decision post-Tiananmen Square.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 135 reviews
Profile Image for mesal.
215 reviews52 followers
June 28, 2021
Thank you to NetGalley as well as Knopf Doubleday for providing me with a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Ha Jin's upcoming novel is a character-driven, reflective tale about a Chinese singer forced out of his home country, taking refuge in the United States and hoping to become naturalized. You can really tell that the author drew from his own experiences as a man who moved from China to the States, rejecting mainland politics and forging a different life.

The writing style is very straightforward, with short, simple sentences that methodically get the story across to the reader. That isn't to say that the language itself is plain. Quite the opposite: the author constantly uses poetry and verse in his writing, elevating it to a degree. At first I thought I wouldn't be able to get used to such a writing style, but one chapter in and I stopped noticing it entirely, drawn in by the plot, characters and setting.

Neither NetGalley nor Goodreads specify this anywhere, but I'm pretty sure this is fiction, regardless of how realistically it has been written. (You could have fooled me into thinking that Ha Jin was writing Yao Tian's biography. I would have believed you.) The author really takes you into the minds of the characters and the reasons behind every tiny action, leaving no detail unmentioned.

I felt that a lot of this book managed to relate to current affairs as well. No matter the year, there is always a government in the world that the people find controlling and oppressive, and that truth has not changed even today. I found that many of the poems Ha Jin quoted, or the lyrics Yao Tian wrote, perhaps unintentionally could easily be used in reference to countries that aren't China but would fit just as well. I won't be quoting them, though, regardless of how much I want to, because at the end of the day this is still an ARC. If you want to see what I'm talking about, read the book when it comes out next month :)
Profile Image for Trish Ryan.
Author 4 books17 followers
July 15, 2021
I really appreciated the subtle intensity of this book. It is written in such straightforward, unemotional prose that it’s easy to miss how slowly some of the traps the author sets tighten around his character. The whole book had a different, almost detached tone that set it apart from other books I’m reading right now and made the individual scenes memorable and thought provoking. A great read.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy of this book.
Profile Image for Roger DeBlanck.
Author 6 books117 followers
August 26, 2021
While on tour in New York City with one of China’s state-authorized musical troupes, renowned singer Yao Tian decides to make a little extra cash for his daughter’s tuition by taking on a side performance after the troupe’s last scheduled concert. Once back in China, Tian learns that the cash he earned had been funded by a Taiwanese freedom group. Even though Tian had been unaware of the circumstances, state officials order him to provide a self-criticism and to relinquish his passport.

Tian immediately foresees how his honest mistake of only wanting to secure money for his family has now escalated out of control with government superiors intent on branding him a dissident and ruining his career. With the support of his wife and daughter, he makes a heartrending decision with the hope that his predicament in China hopefully calms down and resolves itself. However, the Chinese government then blacklists him, and his quest for personal and artistic freedom places great strain on his family and also on his ability to sustain his singing career.

With tender and touching compassion, Ha Jin charts Tian’s manifest struggles, frustrations, and heartaches in his fractured relationship with his homeland and with his family. I was thoroughly gripped to Tian’s plight, and I appreciate Jin’s ability to explore Tian’s predicament with a brilliant combination of aching fervor and subtle humor. The novel also possesses a degree of dread as it veers towards tragedy, yet Jin is masterful at balancing the reality of distress with an antidote of hopefulness.

Ha Jin’s graceful, unembellished prose captures keen cerebral insights and lovely sensory details, and his seemingly simple tale of an immigrant striving to find his grounding resonates with a humane politicism that is unique and vital in today’s literary world. A Song Everlasting is a memorable novel, and it ranks alongside Waiting, War Trash, and A Map of Betrayal as my favorites among Ha Jin’s substantial body of work, which includes many fine novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, and nonfiction books.
Profile Image for Sarah-Hope.
1,048 reviews85 followers
September 24, 2021
I was disappointed by Ha Jin's A Song Everlasting, the story of a Chinese tenor who travels to the U.S. when he begins to suspect that he may be facing a struggle with the Chinese government. The brief bottom line is this: the writing style holds readers at a distance, with a "this happened, this happened, this happened" narrative that offers almost nothing of the characters' interiority. The problems faced by Ha Jin's protagonist are significant and have the potential to be engaging, but I never felt connected to him or his story sufficiently to make my reading more eager.

I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher; the opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,409 reviews316 followers
July 1, 2021
By disposition Tian abhorred politics, but he had his principles and believed in justice and personal freedom.~ A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin

He was just a singer who wanted to sing the songs that he loved. He sang with great soul and feeling, the music carrying him away emotionally. He was tired of the proscribed patriotic songs.

Tian was an acclaimed singer from the People’s Republic of China, on tour in America, when he was asked to sing at a commemoration concert for National Day. The rest of the troupe returned to China on time, while he stayed over a day for the concert. After returning home, his action makes him suspect and Tian learns that his visa was to be impounded by the state. Tian talked it over with his wife, a beautiful professor, and he decides to leave China before he lost his visa.

It is the start of a journey Tian did not envision, his actions precipitating China’s endeavor to bring him home, to silence his singing by threat when bribery failed. Tian remains idealistic and sure over years separated from his wife and daughter, staying faithful and sending the bulk of his earnings home, Tian’s career faltering under political pressure.

“Freedom is largely an illusion,” the Chinese Ambassador told Tian, noting that freedom is nothing if you are powerless and hungry. The state can provide all your needs, he advises. He could be wealthy. But Tian did not want more, he did not want fame, he only wanted to “be an artist following my own heart.”

Ha Jin’s novel shockingly reveals life in China, how corruption and control is tolerated through the provided essentials. In America, Jin is completely self reliant. Until Romneycare, he rarely had health insurance, which becomes essential when he discovers he has cancer.

Tian may have eschewed politics but his situation forces him to consider the politics of China and America, the cost of freedom and the lure of security. Learning the truth of the Tiananmen massacre, and knowing his sister was imprisoned for being a part of a religious group, leading to her unnecessary death, he is changed, forced to reconsider his motherland where the truth is hidden and greed fuels graft and power abuses the people.

A fellow Chinese musician asks, “What if your country is an evil power,” that has ruthlessly harmed your family, and reduces humans to tools? His friend from Beijing, searching for the American Dream, notes “we have been caged by all sorts of rules…adopted as our way of life,” as if coded into their DNA. “You call me a traitor to China,” Tian writes, “but China betrayed me first.”

If a country had betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?~ A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin

Tian is notified that he is considered a defector. He will never be able to return. The cost of his freedom is risk. It was frightening to Tian, but he continued to work hard and accept the challenges. And in the end, becoming an American saves his life and brings him happiness.

Ha Jin’s style of writing is without embellishment, there are no ornate verbal mechanisms to elicit an emotional response. It is straight forward storytelling. Still, I found great humor and developed an emotional attachment to Tian.

I noted the mention of poetry throughout the book, Tian reading Mark Strand or The Best American Poetry 2012. Ha Jin is a poet, a man who came to America for education and stayed after realizing the cost of the motherland. In his poem I Sing of an Old Land, he wrote,

I join those who fled and returned,
who disappeared in other lands
bearing no hope but persistence, no honor but the story,
no fortune but parents and children,
singing a timeless curse,
a curse that has bound us together
and rooted us deep in the wreck
of our homeland.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
Profile Image for an-chi.
211 reviews21 followers
October 9, 2022
This is my first book by Ha Jin, and I could feel his passion of telling the stories of his people through words. There are many topics of modern Chinese society mentioned in 'Everlasting Song' - sad but ture. Many details seem too real to be a fiction. This story of an Chinese immigrant is overall too slow but optimistic.

Profile Image for Royce.
295 reviews
August 28, 2021
Ha Jin said the “price for freedom is uncertainty.” This is the central theme throughout his latest novel, A Song Everlasting. This book took me longer than usual to read because of the writing. He writes in the most understated way. It is very difficult to describe but you want to read every word so you do not miss one detail of the story. It is a similar theme Mr. Jin has written about in his earlier work; newly arrived immigrants from China facing uncertainty but willing to live in a foreign place, America, in exchange for living free. His writing is so extraordinary, it is hard to imagine that he learned English when he was a teenager. Highly recommend this beautiful story.
Profile Image for Mandy.
3,123 reviews266 followers
July 20, 2022
Tian is a celebrated Chinese singer but feels he has no option but to emigrate to America after falling foul of the Chinese authorities by outstaying his visa when invited to perform in the US. He abandons not only his successful career but also his wife and daughter. Freedom and artistic integrity are ranged against pragmatism as Tian has to make some very difficult decisions. He struggles to rebuild some sort of career in this new country and has to remain separated from his family, not even able to go back to China when his mother is dying. There’s a strong political message here about China’s repressive regime and Tian’s plight is convincingly portrayed. I very much enjoyed following his trajectory as he builds a new life and meets a range of characters who become part of it. Ha Jin’s style is quiet and unadorned, but curiously detached, and keeps the reader at a distance. In spite of the dilemmas and conflicts Tian has to face, we get little sense of interiority and I found it hard to truly to relate to him, to really get to know him. The narration is very much of the “first this, than that, then something else” type and the book could easily have been a biography rather than fiction. However, although I was struck by the style it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book overall and I found the story compelling and no doubt all too common when artists are put into conflict with repressive regimes. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews209 followers
November 25, 2021
A prominent singer from mainland China takes a side gig for money, runs afoul of the government, is asked to forfeit his passport, bolts to the United States. Our protagonist navigates separation from his family, finding work in a different environment, and some of the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.

The title is likely a reference to the classical poet Bai Juyi, and the 长恨歌, or the 'Song of Everlasting Regret'. But unlike the ancient poem where the emperor is forced to order his own beloved killed, our protagonist grows more distant from his wife and daughter, and cannot attend the funerals of his own family. And for a while he takes gigs and tutoring jobs to make his way. It's easy to imagine an artist who puts art and their own integrity above money, although I find it hard to imagine that someone could have lasted that long in one system and been that naive before bolting.

The narrative questions aside, I appreciate Ha Jin's writing style. His descriptions are direct, with a tendency to add a some quote, song lyric, or allusion. He writes in detail about certain aspects of the emigre experience and being part of the Chinese diaspora that I could imagine this being an autobiography. Or in writing on his protagonists' options when the walls start to close in - that part is well-crafted. I admit I'm confused about the mixed messages and if the character works as an grand allegory about freedom and art, but in the details, there's a lot to appreciate here.
Profile Image for Barbara Nutting.
2,665 reviews83 followers
February 15, 2022
Such an excellent story giving a peek into what it is like living under the Communist China regime. The characters are so real that I can’t believe that they aren’t living breathing people!

Since I know very little about China I found the book very informative - an eye-opener. It shows how the mainland Chinese government can manipulate and deceive - the Olympics are a good example.

The issue of health care in the US was shown in all its inadequacies - who can afford to be sick in this country? The costs are astronomical and unfathomable.

I’ll look forward to reading more by this author.
965 reviews
October 4, 2021
This was a pretty slow read but I was not tempted to put it down. This is a very good writer who shows a lot of tenderness for the main character, an expatriate Chinese singer. There is a lot of Chinese politics that was only somewhat interesting to me but a good portrayal of the immigrant experience.
Profile Image for Marcus.
174 reviews2 followers
January 22, 2022
Striking in how weirdly unadorned and plain it is. I think I found that refreshing, or lifelike in some ways? It was easy to pay attention to, which is what I needed, and Feodor Chin has a spectacular voice. A good introduction / easing into Boomer Fiction, I think... maybe I'll finally try some Philip Roth this year.

The song may be everlasting, but the social credits are not.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,315 reviews92 followers
July 20, 2021
If this book were to be retitled along the lines of Jin’s most famous work, Waiting, it would be called Settling. Tian was a moderately famous singer in China, but circumstances force him into self-imposed exile in America. He leaves his wife and daughter in Beijing, attempts to continue his career in New York, and the book follows him for the next 7 years.

I get it, this novel is about the immigrant experience and the difficulties that someone as famous and talented as Tian can face. But I felt there were too many inconsistencies with his perception, his expectations, and his aspirations. Before he immigrated, Tian was an internationally renowned, well-traveled performer, but was sheltered by the insular existence of being Chinese. He’s incredibly naïve with one example being that he didn’t even know about universal healthcare until he’d been in the States for over 6 years. As the book plods along, we see how he copes with challenges, bureaucracies, and relationships, but nothing profound really happens to Tian. There are a few interesting episodes, and really, Tian is a good guy, but overall, this wasn’t the most captivating of Jin’s books.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.
7 reviews
August 31, 2021
This is a beautifully written book. Although quiet in its telling of a life lived by a famous Chinese singer who leaves China for the US to escape what he fears will be increasing control of his career and life by the Chinese government, it is an incredibly powerful book. Once I started it, I couldn’t stop reading. It is very moving in it’s straightforward narrative. Ha Jin is an extraordinary author.
Profile Image for Peter.
212 reviews5 followers
September 28, 2021
Exceptional story that —within Ha Jin’s usual frame of the Chinese diaspora —is a powerful testament to the power of freedom, and its impact on creativity. Ha Jin, as usual, is merciless towards the Communist state, and never shies from revealing its moral bankruptcy as it stifles, threatens and slurs an exiled singer who has found his voice in Boston. Within all of this is a simple and moving love story.
Profile Image for James.
581 reviews13 followers
September 13, 2021
Extremely sloppy compared to the other books I’ve read from him, but also much more tender and optimistic. There’s something appealing about the sentimentality and love of the good old USA in this book, but also something that badly needs an editor.
Profile Image for Bagus.
357 reviews78 followers
September 24, 2021
By nature, Yao Tian is much like Václav Havel who negotiated his position in communist Czechoslovakia. He was a playwright who only wanted to create art and followed his instinct as an artist to create distinguished plays. Yet in the process, he unintentionally found himself in conflict with the authorities who sees his works as political and threaten the security of the state. Similarly, Yao Tian also did not think much when he decides to take the job singing at a concert in front of the Chinese diaspora during the brief visit of his troupe to New York City. At that time, he only thought of it as an easy way to make money, with $4,000 in a single performance that he considered will be useful for his daughter’s college tuition in the future. Upon returning to China, he found themselves labelled as a subversive element by the Chinese authorities and they attempted to confiscate his passport before he finally escaped to the United States.

Like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov before him, Ha Jin was also cursed to write in English as an exile, even though, unlike his two exile predecessors, he still writes about China with the intention to spread his message to an international audience. He was a student at Brandeis University in 1989 when the Tiananmen incident happened, an eventuality that would hasten his decision to fully immigrate to the United States. Through the character Yao Tian, Ha Jin tries to embed his integrity into a character that seeks objectivity in his artistic pursuit as a singer. Prior to his exile in the US, Yao Tian was a famous and privileged singer in China, albeit most of his repertoires are propaganda songs. He is hardly a political man, yet it’s through this character that Ha Jin shows how even without any ill-intention, an artist could be in conflict with the state. Since anyway, who can guarantee what an artist intended to say when they perform something and who can guarantee how the audience’s interpretation will be? This has become the fear of Stalin too in the late 1930s during the Great Terror, in which many artists in the Soviet Union were sent into gulags.

Yet beyond the heavy political message in his writing, I find Ha Jin’s prose amusing, living up to the thematic symbol of this novel. Yao Tian’s life is like a song. A song could consist of many elements, but mainly sound and silence. The sound could strike a high tone and also a low one in some parts of the song. His first thirty-something years of life in China could be said as an uneasy negotiation between his position as an artist and the Chinese government position to keep the artists in the top position as long as they follow the official lines. Yao Tian’s life slowly went downhill after his arrival in the US as an exiled artist. His career was sabotaged, his passport was revoked by the Chinese authorities, and his reputation was tarnished by the media that kept feeding the world on his failure as a result of his prodigal action towards his warm Chinese motherland. Yet on a positive note, Ha Jin demonstrates to us that there are many ways humans could still amend their lives even after meeting consecutive failures, and I see Yao Tian’s character as the very nature of the human condition.

Some people might take the bait of Ha Jin’s tendency and see this novel as anti-CCP propaganda, but there are more positive aspects to this novel as well even if we discount the political message. Music has been regarded as a universal language and this might be another message that Ha Jin tries to elaborate on through Yao Tian’s character. If political discussion could lead to nowhere and even values could be compromised when money is involved, then probably with music we could have a more honest dialogue. Susan Sontag once wrote that art used to be regarded as a mimetic expression, to mirror what happens in everyday life during antiquities. It was recent that art took its turn as something that carried values and ideas, and thus required further interpretation to understand the hidden meaning. Yet not every artistic expression is political or carry hidden intention. Some artistic works are meant to be understood by using our senses, much like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita belongs to the realm of fiction, but not in a realist sense.
Profile Image for Laura Hill.
728 reviews39 followers
July 24, 2021
Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

A beautifully understated and surprisingly engaging book about a Chinese tenor struggling to make it on his own in the US after finding himself on the wrong side of the Chinese party. I appreciated the picture of modern China and an individual Chinese artist through Tian’s experiences with the Chinese government, friends, and family as he is bribed, blacklisted, and receives appeals to his love of and duty towards his country. Where some of the government techniques were things I had heard of, many were not, and I was surprised at the insidious nature of government manipulations outside of China through local operatives, foreign newspapers, etc. Tender and reflective, this is the story of Tian’s life, not a political treatise or call to arms. Tian in some ways is a bit of an innocent — decidedly apolitical and consistently working to maintain artistic integrity and personal principles. I learned a lot and was surprised that the book kept pulling at me as it isn’t my typical fare. Definitely worth reading.

A few quotes:

“This new understanding threw him into a peculiar kind of excitement, because it indicated that the citizens and the country were equal partners in an agreement. Tian gathered that this equality must be the basis of democracy. Now he could see why the Constitution meant so much to the United States. It was the foundation of the nation. With such a realization he became willing to defend the Constitution, even to bear arms if he was called upon, simply because he believed in noble ideas and was willing to sacrifice …”

“He realized many immigrants were in varying degrees of the same situation: They were attempting to break loose from the grip of the past and to start over in a faraway place, but few of them could foresee the price for that new beginning, or the pain and the hardship that came after.”

“In the context of the Tiananmen massacre, China seemed to him more like an old hag, so senile and so ailing that she had to eat the flesh and blood of her children to sustain herself. In the back of his mind lingered a question to which he didn’t yet know the answer: If a country has betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?”
Profile Image for Mary Coder.
76 reviews13 followers
August 1, 2021
THANK YOU KINDLY! @pantheonbooks @penguinrandomhouse for an ARC of "A Song Everlasting" by award winning author Ha Jin.
The bestselling author of Waiting—delivers a timely novel that follows a famous Chinese singer severed from his country, as he works to find his way in the United States.
With a steady and sure prose this book tells a story through the feelings of Yao Tian, an immigrant artist whose desire to express himself freely finds out he isn't free to do so at all. A performance in the US leaves him at odds with his country & his desire for self expression so he must sing the song of his heart. I felt this conflict with him throughout his journey. It's not hard to imagine his woes and triumphs if put in his predicament in Ha Jins moving tale that I highly recommend. 🎼
🎼 🎶🎵 🎶 🎶🎵 🎶🎵
#bookreviewpost #bookblogpost  #newbookpost  #booknerdsofig #bookstagrammer  #bookbloggin  #reviewpost #honestreview
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Profile Image for Chrystal.
754 reviews51 followers
August 8, 2021
Similar to his previous novel A Free Life which follows the struggles of a Chinese immigrant family in America, A Song Everlasting follows a Chinese singer who is searching for freedom to live his life, both as an artist and as a human being.
Profile Image for Courtney Ferriter.
436 reviews24 followers
September 14, 2022
** 3.5 stars **

Enjoyed this overall, but I felt held at a distance from the main character, Yao Tian. Jin has some wonderful musings about the value of freedom and the necessity of sacrificing for it throughout the novel, though. I continue to be of the opinion that Ha Jin's short stories are stronger than his novels.
Profile Image for Angie Gazdziak.
112 reviews3 followers
August 28, 2021
Solid 2.0. A lot was lost between the Chinese to English translation, I think, and there are a few jokes that didn't fully translate. I read one review that raved about the subtle satire of the novel, but I didn't pick up on any satire. It may have been there, but ultimately it felt like you could read it as anti-Chinese propaganda or a very dry, plodding novel.
Profile Image for Laura.
331 reviews
August 11, 2021
I appreciated the author’s ability to articulate the tensions between freedom and security with an emphasis on how these things are not mutually exclusive. The novel was disjointed at times, weirdly detailed about things that didn’t seem that significant and a little thin where I wanted more.
138 reviews
May 5, 2022
Ha Jin uses simple, straight forward prose that speaks directly about the protagonist, Yao Tian's state of mind. This book examines the artistic life, artistic freedom, the long reach of the Chinese government, the immigrant experience, especially for a dissident and the search for love and companionship. Yao Tian lives in Beijing with his wife and daughter. He is a fairly famous singer on tour with his choral ensemble with the last stop in New York, when an old friend, Yabin, asks him to extend his stay to sing at an event. He gets permission from his choral director but when the Chinese government finds out that Taiwan immigrants also organized the event (in addition to people from mainland China) they asked him to write a self-criticism and asked him to turn in his passport. He knows this will limit his artistic freedom so with his wife's urging, he quickly arranges for an invitation to perform in the US and leaves China. Both his choral director and his old mentor urge him to return but his wife tells him he should stay. At first he gets good singing gigs arranged by his old friend Yabin. Yabin is a few years younger than Tian and very affable. He has different girlfriends throughout the story which Jin uses to contrast with Tian's loyalty first to his wife and then to his roommate Funi. Tian's mother and sister belong to Falun Gong in China, where it is forbidden. His sister is imprisoned and dies - they are told she died of kidney disease but Tian believes she was killed so her organs could be sold. He is very upset about this and agrees to sing with Divine Grace, which is the Falun Gong touring group. Now the Chinese government is very upset with him and knows he cannot return home. Yabin's girlfriend Freda offers to become his manager. She keeps trying to seduce him and one time when the Chinese herbalist has given him something he thought was for his throat but later learns was an aphrodisiac he has one night of extended passion. Then Freda keeps insisting they be together when he tries to say it was a mistake. Freda tells his wife and makes a scene and won't leave his apartment. He shoves her out the door where she hits her head and she calls the police so he must spend a night in jail. She later recants that he hit her but the damage to his reputation is done and he is no longer welcome on the Divine Grace tour or other events. So he begins working for a construction company that Yabin has been working with. He moves to Boston to work for this company and meets Funi, a young single woman who works for the company. Eventually they decide to move in together to save money. At first they are just roommates but he kindly helps her through a hospital visit for a UTI and a miscarriage and they start doing more like cooking together. He and his wife don't agree on how to raise their daughter - his wife wants to push her and he is more content to let her find her own passion. To make money he sings at a casino. He is happy singing and doesn't mind the circumstances though the Chinese gossip papers like to portray him as having lost status. When his mother is dying, he tries to return to China to see her and the Chinese government cancels his passport so he cannot go back. With finality, he knows he will live in the US forever. When his wife and daughter come to visit colleges, his wife prefers the Ivy League schools with their beautiful buildings and prestige but he knows his daughter doesn't have the scores to get in. His wife is not happy with the daughter's boyfriend but Tian feels like he is a good young man. Eventually, his daughter goes to UMass Boston and her boyfriend goes to Brandeis. Tian realizes that his wife does not intend to emigrate. She likes her position as a college professor in Beijing and doesn't want to lose this status. Her English is not good enough to teach in the US and she feels too old to learn it. Tian expects her to file for divorce, which she does, and he realizes their passion had cooled with the separation. He felt that despite the hardships he'd endured, he still preferred artistic freedom to the state telling him what and where he could sing. He liked that he didn't have to watch every little thing he said. With his US naturalization he is able to sing internationally again and his star begins to rise. So the Chinese government again tries to convince him to return to China. While he was unknown, they didn't care but they felt it made them look bad to have an international star leave the country. He declines. Just as he is beginning to do really well he is diagnosed with lung cancer. His ex-wife and local Chinese friends urge him to take the "conservative" approach which would be using herbs to feel better but his daughter's boyfriend and Yabin urge him to go to see western doctors. He undergoes chemotherapy and radiation and survives. During this time, Funi and his daughter become closer and Fumi offers to marry him. She says that is because she has insurance (the author makes a point of how important the Massachusetts "Romney" healthcare is and the fear that it might be overturned and then Tian could not afford the care) but the reader can also tell that she loves him. Tian feels like they care for each other in a very pure and authentic way and he agrees to marry. His voice is not as strong so he opens a vocal singing school since he can no longer perform himself. Eventually he and Funi are able to afford their own, slightly nicer apartment. I really appreciated how Jin highlights the appeal of artistic freedom and the price in terms of beginning over in a new country, being ostracized, tricked but also helped by people. Jin interweaves politics into the story only so much as they affect the characters' lives and it makes the story seem very timely and also timeless. While he allows for different solutions to work for different characters, Tian is definitely rewarded for the choices he made though to be clear, he is rewarded in a way that is meaningful to him, which is to say, he lives with someone he trusts and cares for and has freedom. He is not famous and does not enjoy the perks he would have had bestowed had he remained in China and been a shining star for them.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Diane.
61 reviews4 followers
July 20, 2021
Ha Jin demonstrates his expertise as a storyteller through the fictional life of Yao Tian, a famous Chinese singer.

Tian’s story begins with a decision to perform at an unapproved private event in New York City while visiting from China on a state-sanctioned US tour, and the consequences of this decision unravel for decades. Tian soon learns that the sponsors of this private event were supporters of Taiwan’s secession, and when faced with an order to forfeit his passport, Tian chooses to uproot from his home and leave his family in China to immigrate to the US.

Ha Jin leverages Tian’s story to explore the heartbreak of separation from loved ones while giving voice to the uncertainty that largely defines immigration for so many individuals. Tian is written with such intimate precision that the reader quickly becomes wrapped up in his world.

This is a slow moving novel, maybe slower than I would typically prefer, but in exchange the reader is provided with a story that is so rich in details and emotions. Ha Jin’s writing is beautiful through its simplicity, and I absolutely loved immersing myself in this work.

Thank you to Pantheon for this gifted copy!
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,470 followers
August 25, 2022
The idea here was interesting, but the protagonist was so passive that it sort of put me off. I realize that it is a relatively realistic portrait of life as a Chinese conscientious objector in the US, but I was just not drawn into the characters or the story all that much. I liked Waiting and War Trash better than this one. Maybe I had set my expectations too high? I dunno, but I was underwhelmed even if I liked some of the descriptions of traditional Chinese music and culture vs the US and that particular culture shock that the protagonist lived through.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
388 reviews
September 16, 2021
I really have to stop reading Ha Jin. I don’t know if the writing was deliberately bad or if it was a poor translation from Mandarin into English (literally or inside the author’s head). The story seemed interesting, but i couldn’t get past the writing.
15 reviews
October 27, 2022
The protagonist, Yao Tian, is a China based professional singer. Well known in his country and abroad, Tian is happily married to a University professor Shuna and has a daughter.

On his US performing tour with a China delegation, met his old friend, Yabin. Yabin opens his eyes to differences between performing for his motherland and for a democratic country like the US. He was equally attracted by the extra fees that he earned and the freedom to choose what songs to sing from that one trial performance.

Post his return, he suffered. His unit decided that he acted irresponsibly and wanted to confiscate his passport. He managed to leave in time for the US.

There began his exile from China. For more than 6 years before he saw his wife again, he experienced how life is like in a country like the US. He had to find his own work and this is not always professional singing engagements. He did handy work. He learnt and took on home improvement jobs to make ends meet. He continued to ensure he practices his co am cords daily. He moved from city to city. Shuna was unbelievingly supportive of his stay in the US. She wanted their daughter Tingting to able to move to the US for her tertiary education. Tian met Freda whom he had a one night stand with. Freda proved to be a great helping hand when he met with trouble. To save living cost, he also became a room mate with a plain looking, stocky woman called Funi who was 13 years his junior. Both eventually married. While he was in the US, his only sister died at the hands of the communist regime of China for being an ardent believer of Falun Gong.

Tian worked really hard to survive in the US. He found out he had stage 3 cancer but through sheer determination and family support, he pulled through. He set up a small business teaching students singing. And stayed in the US with Funi.

This book allowed me to see the sharp contrast between communist China and a democratic country like the US. It depicts the brutal, hypocritical, corrupt and rigid system of communist governance in China. Events like the Tiananmen are re-characterised. The healthcare system is broken. People are expected to be 100% aligned to the communist ideology else they need to self criticise and will be ostracised. What was an eye opening for me is how the Chinese government will thwart one’s plan to make a living abroad if one is deemed an ideological traitor of communism. In the book there were a few examples of how Tian could not find decent singing engagements. There were spies planted in his daily life- all thanks to the underground workings of the communist party in the US.

The characters in the book depict the differences in attitudes towards life and money for the mainlanders in China and the China diaspora in the US. Yabin and Funi were genuinely helpful and supportive of Tian. Yabin helped Tian find jobs, moved to a different city in search of a better life and introduced him to home improvement jobs. Funi was an incredible woman. Her unfailing care of Tian during his cancer treatment gave Tian the mental strength to pull through the tough times of his chemotherapy and radiation sessions.

On the other hand, Shuna was more focused on money. At the early part of Tian’s stay in the US, while still married, she was willing to allow Tian to have another woman in the US. Shuna didn’t reach out to Tian immediately upon learning of his illness. She seems heartless to me. There is another character called Freda, who is Tian’s one night stand. Freda displays a thoroughly “flexible” attitude. She blows hot and cold. You never quite know when to believe her words. You will see that she can be ardently loyal at one moment and totally brutal at another. She is well connected. Very versatile. She can switch from one job sector to another. She did help Tian along the way but not after giving him a lot of trouble.

Tingting and her boyfriend Jawei, in my opinion, represent a good human side of China’s new young generation . They can differentiate between right and wrong. They have an education in the US and hopefully they can return to China to build their future using a correct value system that embodies hardwork, transparency, compassion and freedom of choice/speech.

I rate this book a 5 for the insights to how some exiled China citizens are treated and how they possibly eked a living in the US.
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