Below my navel stetches a long tattoo that says "Fuck...U...S..." The skin above those dots has shriveled as though scarred by burns. Like a talisman, the tattoo has protected me in China for almost five decades. Before coming to the States, I wondered whether I should have it removed. I decided not to, not because I cherished it or was nervous about the surgery, but because if I had done that, word would have spread and the authorities, suspecting I wouldn't return, might have revoked my passport. In addition, I was planning to bring with me all the material I had collected for this memoir, and couldn't afford to attract the attention of the police, who might have confiscated my notes and files. Now I am here, and my tattoo has lost its charm; instead it has become a constant concern.
This is the opening paragraph for Ha Jin's novel War Trash. I've always got my eye out for really good openings in novels and short stories, because they are so hard to pull off. The writer needs to grab the reader, but ideally through a way that connects well to the work as a whole.
A lot of writers, particularly in recent years, opt for the violent or shocking opening. Carl Hiassen, for example, always opens his comic-crime novels with a wacky yet graphic murder. It's a good way to go for the right book, and it certainly get the reader involved in the story right away.
Jin certainly could have done that. The narrator Yuan is a captured Chinese soldier trying to survive in a U.S. POW camp during the Korean War, and he's subjected to and witnesses some pretty gruesome stuff. People around him are beaten, shot, stoned, and torn apart by hunger and disease. But instead Jin chose the image of this tattoo. It's a strong image, and one that Jin comes back to throughout the book in a variety of ways. Actually, what's shown in this paragraph is a defaced version of the original tattoo, but I won't give away its original form. In many ways it becomes symbolic of Yuan's constant struggle balancing his love for home and family with precepts of Chinese Communism and Nationalism that he doesn't fully agree with.
When I first read the above paragraph, it brought me nothing but questions. Why would this character get this tattoo? What does it mean for him? Why would someone with a tatoo like this end up in the U.S.? And finding the answers to these questions is part of why I kept reading. And that, I would think, is the whole point.