Gish Jen’s Typical American illustrates the best possible outcome of that multicultural frame of mind represented by the “hyphenated American”—that is, Italian- American, Jewish-American, Japanese-American, and so on. This brilliant first novel is an American story, exploring the joys and tribulations of one family’s pursuit of the American Dream.
The title of the novel works on one level to expand the meaning of “typical American” to include all cultural groups, but it is also used by the three main characters as an expression of contempt: “typical American don’t-know-how-to-get-along”; “typical American just-want-to-be-the-center-of-things”; “typical American use-brute-force”; “typical American just-dumb.”
The irony of the phrase lies in the discrepancy between the myths about the United States and the many private and individual realities lived out daily in it. In its brief history, America has beckoned as a safe, prosperous haven in the minds of people caught up in devastating situations around the world, and the harshest disillusionments can await those who expect the most of it. This gradual reckoning with the reality of typical American life dawns upon Ralph and Helen Chang late in the novel, when they are confronted with the possible death of a family member. Even though they have already experienced several setbacks, they wonder, “Was death possible in this bright country?”
That such a thought comes in the fourth of the five sections of the novel suggests what a multilayered narrative Typical American is. The first section, in a deftly wry tone, follows what may be deemed a typical immigrant’s story. Yifeng—the Chinese name translates to “Intent on the Peak”—grows up in a small town in Jiangsu province, outside Shanghai. In 1947, his father, a scholar and former government official, rails against the demoralized society left after World War II and decides to send his son to the West to bring back a degree. On his way to America, Yifeng sets out his goals: to be first in his class and to get a doctorate to present to his father. Evoking another flawed American hero with big dreams, he also, Gatsby-like, writes a list of secondary goals. His sixth resolution, to have nothing to do with girls, does not fall apart immediately but eventually leads to some of his problems as a foreign student.
The skill and humor Gish Jen devotes to the description of Yifeng’s infatuation for Cammy, the secretary in the Foreign Student Office of his university, illustrates some of the themes in the novel. He walks into the office, a short man dressed in a new, double-breasted suit, longish hair slicked back with grease, large-faced, dimpled, and carrying a Panama hat. Newly arrived from a population of dark-haired, dark-eyed people, he sees this Caucasian woman only as an impersonal explosion of color: “Orange hair, pink face, blue eyes. Red nails. Green dress.” Her breasts remind him of burial mounds in the Chinese countryside. She gives him his Western name, Ralph, which he discovers to his amazement means “wolf,” which is defined as “a kind of dog” in a Chinese-English dictionary. Isolated among the other Chinese male students, he develops an infatuation for her. His view of Cammy changes, so that she reminds him of Yang Guifei—a T’ang Dynasty courtesan—incarnate, and she seems no longer big and barbarian: “Her features had shrunk, her nose especially; and the hair on her arms had vanished, his eyes having laid in a supply of their own loving depilatory.” He showers her with such presents as he can afford—a scarf, a jar of cold cream, pins, belts, and booties—that she appreciates but never seems to use.
Cammy disappears from his life early, leaving him with a trunkful of little gifts, but this small experience reverberates throughout the novel. First, Ralph’s changed perception of Cammy, from an impersonal judgment to unrestrained infatuation, encapsulates the changes in perception that Ralph, his sister, and his wife undergo as they struggle with their new life. With a Dickensian miracle of a coincidence, Ralph’s older sister, last seen in China, finds Ralph slumped on a park bench, his life in disarray. Theresa, who has been through her own series of troubles, introduces him to Helen, the woman with whom she has come to America. In one of the small instances of the circularity of life in the novel, Ralph presents Helen with the gifts he had accumulated for Cammy. Unlike Cammy, Helen uses all of them, everyday, because, as Ralph realizes, “he spoke her dialect.” After a brief courtship, Helen and Ralph are married, Ralph and Theresa get back on their respective career paths as mechanical engineering professor and physician, and with quiet efficiency, and three work out a living arrangement, maintaining as much as possible of their old life. Struggling to survive in a broken- down, neglected apartment building, they mock their manager, Pete, who fulfills their notion of a “typical American.” Pete is fond of saying that a man is what he makes up his mind to be.
The Changs know better: Chinese culture is built on the understanding that there are limits everywhere. Helen reflects that her world in China was like a “skating rink, a finite space, walled,” but in the United States, the world is enormous, “all endless horizon.” The three are content...
(The entire section is 2210 words.)