By Ha Jin

Pantheon. 240 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey

Freedom can be so terrifying that only the bleakness of the alternatives would recommend it.

The Chinese immigrants, mostly living in Flushing, N.Y., who populate Ha Jin's exhilarating short-story collection have plenty to be anxious about.

They wrestle with the same problems other people do: troubled marriages, personal betrayals, job insecurity. But for them, there's an extra layer of anxiety that includes language barriers, legal problems, and complicated ties to the old country.

Jin's immigrants are a bit like reluctant tightrope walkers who know they can't go back, but move tenuously and fitfully toward whatever their new life in the United States is to be.

Every one of the stories is a jewel. One of the most endearing is "A Composer and His Parakeets," in which Fanlin's actress girlfriend entrusts him with the care of her bird, Bori, while she is filming in Thailand. As he works on the music for an opera, Fanlin and Bori bond. Yes, it sounds absurd. Suffice it to say that a reader will care a lot.

Jin's clean, spare writing style has a lot to do with it. His focus is on his characters and their relationships, but his prose is so clear, it makes you feel the air and see the sky. Quietly beautiful images pop up in unexpected places. As Fanlin lay in bed thinking of his girlfriend, Supriya, "the drizzle swayed in the wind like endless tangled threads."

The constant tension of family and cultural conflict is the landscape of "In the Crossfire." Tian Chu, a naturalized U.S. citizen and an accountant, is caught between his wife, Connie, who is attending nursing school, and his mother, Meifen, who is hypercritical of her daughter-in-law, old-school, and on a very long visit with the couple.

Meifen "used to teach him that a man could divorce his wife and marry another woman anytime, whereas he could never disown his mother."

With his mother's visit, Tian and Connie now sleep apart. A collision on an icy street sets in motion Tian's dramatic, even extravagant plan to save his marriage.

An extravagant, disproportionate response is at the center of "An English Professor." Rusheng Tang discovers to his horror that amid the files he had turned in for his tenure evaluation was a typo: "It was a glaring solecism that indicated his incompetence in English. . . . or an English professor, this was unforgivable. . . . " Rusheng doesn't merely stew about it, he becomes consumed by it. He dredges up every clumsy thing he ever said to a colleague, and casts about for other jobs. He attends a daylong meeting at a Ramada Inn for potential publishing-company sales reps. One of the great qualities of "An English Professor" is the way it fashions a character who feels, to an abnormal degree, that one mistake will doom him, and yet it hints at the cultural underpinnings of his feelings. As Rusheng has drinks with a senior editor of a Chinese-language newspaper - actually, he's asking Eujin about a job - the editor tells him, "Unlike you, I'm trapped in Chinese. . . . I feel I'm still in the yuan system, even though I've lived and worked in the United States for more than two decades. Rusheng, you're already in the dollar system."

Ha Jin left China in 1985. His works, such as the novels Waiting and A Free Life, have chronicled the lives of Chinese in their native country and as immigrants.

Jin taps a rich vein with the immigrant experience: It intensifies everything. Fear, relief, disbelief are heightened when so much of life is unfamiliar territory.

For Ganchin, the main character of the title story, misfortunes pile up. The young monk and kung fu instructor is turned out of his post; his former boss withholds the money Ganchin is owed and keeps his passport; he develops a bad cough.

A friend and former student tells him not to worry.

"You can always change. This is America, where it's never too late to turn over a new page," Cindy says.

And just as Ganchin's life appears hopeless, modern American life intervenes. Without giving away too much, it's a delight to discover how literal the story's title is.

So often, the characters in A Good Fall muddle through their troubles with so much pain and mess that no one is more stunned than they are when, at long last, they emerge better off, and with more possibilities.