Waiting, by Ha Jin

Picking up this quiet book after last week’s The Clockers was like bursting out of the rapids into a wide pool of water, where ripples gently rock your craft and the roar of the water is replaced by the soothing buzz of crickets and cicadas. Price’s sprawling saga of inner city violence gave way to this focused exploration of a man’s heart.

Lin Kong is a doctor in the Chinese Army, living at the army hospital in Muji City. Every summer, he visits his home in the rural village where he grew up and where his wife and daughter still live. His marriage to Shuyu was arranged by his parents, and after the wedding, Lin is disappointed to find that she looks decades older than her age and was illiterate. Shuyu is old-fashioned both in appearance, with her bound feet measuring only four inches long, and by nature, humble and deferential. Hard-working, she labors in their plot of land, takes care of Lin’s parents until their deaths, and raises their daughter Hua.

Meanwhile, Lin has fallen into an understanding with a nurse who lives in a dormitory at the hospital. Forbidden by hospital rules to live together or even to walk together outside the hospital grounds, they still spend time together. For many years Manna has eaten meals with Lin, walked with him inside their restricted area, and waited for him to divorce his wife. The hospital rule is that a man had to be separated from his wife for eighteen years before he can divorce her without her consent. As the story opens, Lin has not had relations with his wife for seventeen years, since Hua’s birth.

Of course, if Manna had known from the outset how many years she would have to wait for Lin, she might have made different choices. On his annual visit home, Lin would ask Shuyu for a divorce. Sometimes she would agree but always changed her mind when standing before the judge. Part of what fascinated me about this story was the way minor, seemingly inconsequential choices over the years can lead to an impasse that no one wants or can find happiness in.

It is the mysterious nature of happiness, or—let’s not go overboard—just contentment that is being examined here. Unfulfilled longing can eat away at your soul, but getting what you ask for can be a curse.

Of course, I was reminded of Faith Wilding’s 1972 monologue, “Waiting”. As Wilding herself describes it:, the monologue “condenses a woman’s entire life into a monotonous, repetitive cycle of waiting for life to begin while she is serving and maintaining the lives of others.” When I first read it in Judy Chicago’s book Through the Flower, a few years after its inaugural performance at Womanhouse, it jolted me into a new understanding of wasted time and the need to be mindful of each moment.

Although this brief description of the story as a man trying to divorce his loyal wife while also keeping the modern woman he loves on a string would be enough to raise the hackles of any self-respecting feminist, I gave the book a chance because it was by Ha Jin. I’d read another book of his, a seemingly simple story that ended up resonating deeply, not just with me, but with everyone else in my book club. I found Waiting just as satisfying.

I particularly like stories like this one where we stay with one or two characters, examining them from all sides, observing their natures gently unfolding, just as I like to stay awhile in that quiet pond, listening to the cicadas ruffle the air with their song, watching the damselflies skim across the water’s surface, instead of paddling quickly past to get somewhere else. Stories like this one reveal the depth and complexity of a person, of each person. They remind me to pay attention. To be present in this moment, instead of waiting, as Wilding says, for what might come next.

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