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Three Characters of Ha Jin’s

The collection of stories in Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom feature protagonists who share one obvious trait: they are lost in their own homeland, dealing with a corruptive government and unyielding cultural habits. Some have returned to their homes after spending time abroad, others have never left. Still, they all face a certain stigma related to being ‘outsiders’, ones who challenge the deeply ingrained social norms of their peers and communities.

The two ignorant peasants in “A Bad Joke”, Shaona, the little girl away from her family for the first time in “In the Kindergarten”, and Chen Jinli, the ‘tainted’ woman back from New York; all are struggling to assimilate into their current environments. It is their reaction to the opponents in each story that determines whether they succeed or fail—surrounded by deceitful, self-serving antagonists, each reacts in his or her own way –resorting to deceit themselves– with very different outcomes.

The two peasants in “A Bad Joke” are so intertwined that, for the purpose of this paper, we may refer to them as one character. Simply called “the tall man” and “the short man”, they had been arrested for telling a joke that, as it spread, had been misconstrued from it’s innocent state to one that was politically inflammatory. The men plead innocence, claiming to be poor and ignorant of current political affairs.

We know simply from their description that they are poor farmers: they have “swarthy faces marked with big parenthesis,” –conceivably from working long hours in the hot sun, and “carious teeth”—obviously too poor to afford dental care. Their station in life immediately marks them as outsiders among the culturally savvy salesgirls and officers. But despite their feigned ignorance, at first we are not quite sure if they are truly clever, or truly uninformed. Surrounded by characters who are deceitful by design, it is tempting to assume the two men are the same way.

Yet it soon seems that they are somewhat confused and unaware of the seriousness of the charges against them: when they are first confined to a cell, they are actually more grateful for the free meal. When they realize that their original attempt at clearing their names is futile, they resort to begging for leniency. Still, this gets them nowhere, and they are locked in a cell, solidifying the fact that they will always remain separate from the society they pleaded would accept them. Shaona, at first frightened by her new surroundings, ends up empowered by them.

She doesn’t beg, she doesn’t fight—she simply observes, accepts, and, as much as a five-year old can, she calculates. Separated from her family, her loneliness and sense of isolation in her foreign surroundings is palpable. Yet Shaona is bright, and her survival skills quickly emerge. Afraid that Dabin will retaliate against her after she tattled on him, she intercepts any impending conflict with a peace offering of peanuts. When the other children are still hoping for a dinner of purslanes after their second day of picking, she remains “sulky the whole time.

” She alone had understood Teacher Shen’s deception, and, through deception of her own, planned revenge. When a rabbit was spotted and all the children ran after him, Shaona remained behind. She “squatted over the duffel…and peed on the purlanes in the bag. ” Through this bold act of defiance, Shaona found the strength she would need to survive: “She felt that from now on she would not cry like a baby at night again. ” By reacting against deception with deception, Shaona became a part of her new home.

Unlike the two peasants or Shaona, Chen Jinli, the protagonist in “The Woman from New York” was not looking for acceptance in unfamiliar surroundings: she was an outsider in her own hometown, and was desperate to regain her standing within a community who wanted nothing to do with her. Unlike the peasants who were comically perplexed by their situation, or a very determined Shaona, Jinli’s actions reeked of desperation. Jinli was suspect after returning to her town after spending four years in New York.

She had come back as a foreigner—more American than Chinese, and was treated as such. Her motives seemed sincere: to reconnect with her family, especially her daughter. She pleaded with her in-laws, applied for jobs, tried to purchase an apartment. At every step, she failed. At first persistent, she was woefully ineffective at accomplishing her goal. There was an ambiguity underlying her sincerity: when she had the chance to confront Professor Fan, she didn’t show up. After a failed attempt to gain custody of her daughter, she abandoned her efforts.

After stating that she would never move away, she divorced her husband and quietly left town. Unwilling to admit to her true experience in New York, Jinli chose instead to abandon her efforts to return home, and remained an outsider by choice. Each of these stories revolves around a protagonist who uses deceit, in one form or another, to accomplish his or her goal. Some are mildly deceitful, such as the two peasants who feign ignorance. Others are more daring, such as Shaona’s act of peeing on the purslanes.

Jinli’s deceit comes in the form of her unwillingness to expose her activities in New York—lying by not offering complete information. In the first case, the deceit has a benign effect on the peasant’s fate. In the second, it causes the empowerment of a little girl. In the third, it is the direct cause of Jinli’s failure. With such different outcomes, it is hard to determine the moral of these stories. Is it that deceit is harmful? Is it that, when applied properly, deceit is a useful tool in accomplishing goals? Perhaps there is no moral, and to claim to find one would be, in itself, deceitful.

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