Gish Jen’s Typical American recounts the story of Chinese immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream. It fictionalizes the assimilation process of one Chinese American family after World War II. The novel also is a probing, often comic look at larger issues in mid-twentieth century American society. What happens to the Changs is what happens to many Americans, to some degree—the dreams and the disillusionments, the successes and the failures—but the story illuminates the process from a fresh perspective. Jen’s 1996 sequel to this novel, Mona in the Promised Land, follows the Changs’ younger daughter as she navigates the difficult process of growing up in an upper-middle-class Westchester County community. The novel raises similar issues of ethnicity and assimilation with gentle humor.
Critics often cite Jen’s similarities to other well-known Chinese American writers, especially Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, who also have written assimilation stories of characters with conflicting loyalties to two countries and stories of clashes between generations. A sign of the depth of Jen’s fiction lies in her comparison to a broader cross-section of contemporary works and writers. Like these other writers, she clearly represents the strengths and weaknesses of American values and institutions.
The focus in Typical American is on the struggles of three Chinese immigrants to become fully American. Jen, though, also focuses on the lure and limitations of American society. All three characters literally think in Chinese—its language, folklore, and maxims—at the same time they are learning to speak English, to become fully American, and to think in English, or American, words. Theresa Chang is perhaps the most...
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