“Who’s Irish?” by Gish Jen speaks to the cultural differences in generations particularly in immigrant families. The story displays the differences in perception and understanding between an elderly mother and her more modern, ambitious daughter.
The setting is a large urban city in the 1990s. Most of the story takes place in the park or the home of the daughter.
The narration is first person point of view with the elderly mother as the narrator. Speaking in chopped English, the mother is eager to communicate the events surrounding her daughter, her granddaughter, Sophie, and her son-in-law.
The crux of the story is the elderly mother [68 years old] who baby sits her granddaughter Sophie. Her daughter is an executive in a bank, and her husband is between jobs, as usual. He does get a job as an insurance salesman which does not last long. The husband refuses to babysit his daughter since he is a man.
The mother is none too happy to have to face the day-in-day-out responsibility for the child. But as she says: “I try.” She does not understand anyone in her family nor does she agree with most of what they do.
The raising of her granddaughter causes the most frustration. The parents do not discipline their daughter. They talk to her. This brings conflict between the grandmother and her daughter. The mother struggles while the two women argue and eventually have little involvement in each other’s lives.
The grandmother is typical of first generation Chinese women who have difficulty understanding their children who have born in America. As the story progresses, the mother becomes more open-minded. She is witty and clever, and can be very fierce.
The narrator does not to compromise herself or her principles of child-rearing. She does not understand why her daughter does not make Sophie mind. What was fine for her should be fine for her daughter.
Even though she has been told not to spank the granddaughter, she eventually does. Then Sophie begins to mind. Before she begins to spank her, the granddaughter absolutely refuses to mind her.
My daughter is fierce like me, but she and John think it is better to explain to Sophie that clothes are a good idea. This is not so hard in the cold weather. In the warm weather it is very hard. Still Sophie takes off her clothes until one day I spank her. Not too hard, but I tell her to put on her clothes, and she does.
Events come to a crisis when the willful Sophie defies her grandmother, hiding from her in a playground foxhole. The child's parents are horrified by what looks to them like child abuse when the mother pokes a stick in the hole trying to get the little girl to come out of the hole. The mother must move out. Says the daughter, "I have a young daughter and a depressed husband and no one to turn to.”
As the story closes, the mother is living with John’s mother Bess, a woman whom she admires. Bess designates the narrator as “honorary Irish.” By accepting the designation, the narrator demonstrates a newly discovered comfort level with others and a contentment that eluded her while she lived with her daughter.
Previously, the mother would have found the designation insulting. Now she delights in it, which reflects her acceptance of that which is different, including not just the Sheas, but her granddaughter with whom her relationship begins to prosper.