In “Waiting”, Ha Jin uses his knowledge of contemporary Chinese culture to pen a narrative as timely as it is relevant. Jin’s protagonist, Lin Kong is a man living in two worlds, and struggling to make sense of not only the cultural battles he faces, but those of his own heart as well. As a twenty-seven year old medical student in the military in the early 1960s, and due to increasing pressure from his ailing parents to marry, Lin agrees to an arranged marriage. He returns home to meet Shuyu, the woman his parents have selected for him,. Although she is a year younger than he, Kong finds her woefully unattractive. As a young man very much immersed in the Cultural Revolution going on in China at the time, Lin found himself repelled by Shuyu’s bound feet. It was an old fashioned custom still practiced in the small village where she lived, albeit mocked by Lin and his contemporaries. Kong feels his parents’ choice for a bride is completely unacceptable and begs them to call off the engagement. They do not relent however, and Lin finally relents out of a sense of duty to his parents.
Over the next twenty years, Lin is overcome by feelings of shame toward his wife. He never allows her to visit him at the military hospital where he works and relegates himself to seeing her for only ten days each year. Their daughter, Hua, is born three years after the marriage, but Lin decides to keep himself emotionally and sexually removed from the relationship. Despite this fact, Shuyu remains a devote wife. She never complains or questions anything and takes care of their daughter, although she must do it alone. While Lin does not hate his wife, he also is not in love with her. He attempts to treat her with respect and kindness, but remains physically and emotionally removed from his marriage.
Not long after their daughter was born, Manna Wu arrives at the hospital where Lin works to teach anatomy at the nursing school. She becomes involved with a young officer named Mai Dong. While she eventually falls in love with him, she is hesitant to accept his marriage proposal, as she is unsure where she will be posted after graduation. She turns to her teacher, Lin for advice. He confirms her decision to put off the marriage until after the graduation. Manna declines Mai’s offer of marriage and he subsequently breaks off the relationship, inevitably choosing another woman as his wife.
Meanwhile, Manna and Lin’s friendship develops further. By the late 1960s, Lin and Manna declare their love for each other, but continue to remain cautious. In the Chinese military, affairs between military personnel are strictly frowned upon. Men and women are kept separated in public, not even allowed to walk together outside the compound. If they were found out, the result would be catastrophic, quite possibly resulting in an end to their careers.
By the early 1970s, Manna tires of waiting for Lin to put an end to his marriage, and he decides to finally take action. For more than a decade that follows, he still returns every summer to Goose Village, repeatedly asking Shuyu or a divorce. She finally capitulates, but then, when the couple arrives in court to make the divorce official, Shuyu reverses her decision. As a result, Lin must wait a few more years to get his divorce. There is an unwritten rule that a man can divorce his wife without her consent after eighteen years of sexual separation. In the mid 1980s, Lin finally brings Shuyu to Muji City where the couple divorces and he is finally free to marry Manna. Lin and Manna have twins shortly thereafter, and Shuyu remains in the city with Hua, raising her alone as she has always done.
Despite the new marriage he desired and the family he and Manna are creating together, he is surprised to discover that Shuyu turns out to be much more attractive than she was years ago when hey first met. Subsequently, given the added responsibilities of husband and father, his relationship with Manna becomes exponentially more stifling.
As the book concludes, Shuyu is certain she will succeed in winning back Lin and he will one day return to she and their daughter. Lin however, is once again wavering between two women; his own heart is a mystery unto itself.
Jin’s novel examines the lives of these characters through the lens of a single decision and beyond. He introduces a protagonist who is placed into the texture of daily life in a place where the demands of the human heart must stand against the weight of hundreds of years of Chinese custom and culture. The author also presents the idea of delayed gratification in a manner that does not necessarily culminate in the happy ending most readers anticipate. Real life is not that black and white, and sometimes even a desire to do the right thing does not garner the most desirable outcome.