Gish Jen’s short story In the American Society is both humorous depiction of one immigrant family’s efforts at assimilating into American culture and a serious indictment of the racism that continues to sit at the core of the American fabric. While Jen injects elements of “slapstick” humor in her story, especially the sight of Ralph in the hastily-tailored suit that is destined to be revealed for the façade that it is, there is a bitterness at the scene’s core. The Chang family, especially Mrs. Chang, Ralph’s status-conscious wife, desperately want to assimilate into American society and grab their share of what they view as “American Dream.” Subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of their status as foreign immigrants, however, continue to manifest themselves, as when they are denied membership to the country club – the very symbol of American success and selectivity (read: racism). Country clubs have been notorious for much of the nation’s history as bastions of old-world exclusion with regards to non-whites. Mrs. Chang’s determination to gain acceptance into the world is both a sad indictment of the enduring racism that exists in society and an equally sad indictment of the equation of material wealth and social status with the American Dream.
In this context, one examines Ralph Chang’s attitude towards his employees, including Booker and, especially, Cedric, the latter a notorious petty thief who was regularly stealing cigarettes from coworkers despite his protestation that he never smoked. It is Fernando, however, who proves more inclined towards theft, as when Ralph catches him stealing a carton of steaks. It is Booker and Cedric, though, who end up in jail, prompting Ralph’s good-natured if also mercenary decision to bail the two men out. It is with great disappointment, then, that the Chang family discover to their consternation that the boys have skipped town. As Jen describes the atmosphere when Ralph returns from the court house, convinced of his good deed:
“My father returned jubilant. Booker and Cedric hailed him as their savior, their Buddha incarnate. He was like a father to them, they said; and laughing and clapping, they made him tell the story over and over, sorting over the details like jewels.”
The revelation that the two have fled the criminal justice system turns Ralph’s good deed on its head. The letter read as follows:
Dear Mr. Chang,
You are the grat boss. But, we do not like to trial, so will runing away now. Plese to excus us. People saying the law in America is fears like dragon. Here is only $140. We hope some day we can pay back the rest bale. You will getting intrest, as you diserving, so grat a boss you are. Thank you for every thing. In next life you will be burn in rich family, with no more pancakes
Booker + Cedric
Booker and Cedric’s letter, with its misspellings and primitive sentiments is both humorous and sad. It is humorous because of the opening and closing sentences: “You are the grat boss. . .In next life you will burn in rich family, with no more pancakes.” It is sad because it reflects the fear and mistrust among immigrants, many of whom are from countries with thoroughly corrupt justice systems, especially among illegal immigrants who know interaction with the justice system portends deportation. The misconceptions(?) regarding the American justice system are pervasive, evident earlier in the story when Mr. and Mrs. Chang discuss Booker and Cedric’s situation:
“I like to talking to the judge,” said my father.
“This is not China,” said my mother.
“I’m only talking to him. I’m not give him money unless he wants it.”
“You’re going to land up in jail.”
“So what else I should do?” My father threw up his hands. “Those are my boys.”
China is rife with corruption, and the Chang’s perceptions of justice is heavily influenced by their pre-emigration experiences. Booker and Cedric’s letter is both humorous and sad because it reflects the difficulties inherent in the immigrant experience, including the pervasive fear of capture and deportation.