Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Typical American is a novel about migration: across the globe, across four decades, and across an expansive moral and emotional landscape. Unlike many earlier European immigrants to the United States who came fleeing poverty or hunger, Chinese American immigrants such as Ralph come in search of educational opportunities in advanced scientific fields. Ralph would have been a member of the elite in China, and in the beginning of the novel, he and other such immigrants become small pawns in the ideological battles of the Cold War.

The first adaptation to life in America is the choice of a name, which comes in Ralph’s case rather haphazardly, and the mastery of the English language, the source of many comic moments. In a delightful twist of language, the Changs adopt a family nickname—the Chinese Yankees, or “Chang-Kees” for short. The term encapsulates their struggle: They are Americanized but are still inwardly Chinese. Ralph, Theresa, and Helen strive for assimilation, wearing American clothes, speaking American slang, and living in an American home. Jen writes, “In China, one lived in one’s family’s house. In America, one could always name whose house one was in; and to live in a house not one’s own was to be less than a man.”

Family is a theme that permeates the novel. It is the link that connects Ralph and Theresa and Helen, more even than romantic love. For Ralph and Helen, marrying is the right thing to do, a choice their Chinese parents would applaud. Similarly, Ralph’s later rejection of Theresa, her shamed exile from the home, and her return in time of duress, are all rooted in family cohesion. Yet the traditional Chinese dedication to family is pitted against, and eventually lost to, the classical American devotion to independence and individualism, and the confrontation results in contradictions: Ralph has no difficulty underreporting his income, a “typically” American practice embodied in the ringing of the cash register, but he nevertheless cannot adopt the equally Western and modern attitude that would tolerate his sister’s affair.

The structure of the family and the role of women are transformed as tradition...

(The entire section is 898 words.)