The main characters in the short story “In the American Society” by Gish Jen are the four members of the Chang family. While the story is told from the first person point of view of the elder daughter, Callie, each has his or her concept of the “American Dream” to achieve. What this means to them, collectively, is to fit into society; hence the title of the story.
Ralph Chang does this by starting a business in the form of a pancake house. The restaurant is successful almost from the beginning, and it makes Ralph feel secure and happy in his role as boss. He takes this a bit far, however, and becomes a dictator to his waning staff members. This puts the success of his restaurant in significant jeopardy.
For Mrs. Chang and the daughters, Callie and Mona, social success is measured by membership in a local country club. When Mona mentions, without intent, to a friend that her mother would like to be part of the country club, the friend’s mother extends and invitation. Although the club responds that its membership for the year is full, Mrs. Lardner invites the family to a party.
In an attempt to fit in with what they perceive as the cream of society, Mrs. Chang encourages Ralph to buy a suit for the occasion. Ironically, the suit sets them apart as foreigners, as most party goers are dressed casually.
Due to a range of unfortunate events, Ralph throws his jacket into the swimming pool and storms away with his family in tow, perhaps to permanently set themselves apart as foreigners who would fit into “the American society” only with difficulty.