In the American Society by Gish Jen

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In Gish Jen's story In the American Society, Booker and Cedric send Ralph Chang a letter apologizing for skipping bail. What is humorous about their letter? What is sad, adn what does it reveal about...

In Gish Jen's story In the American Society, Booker and Cedric send Ralph Chang a letter apologizing for skipping bail. What is humorous about their letter? What is sad, adn what does it reveal about the immigrant experience in America? 

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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...

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