In the American Society

by Gish Jen

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Last Updated on November 30, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Ralph Chang 

Mr. Chang is the patriarch of the Chang family. In an attempt to provide his daughters with a college education and his family with the lifestyle he feels they deserve, he took over a pancake house. The enterprise is immediately profitable, but his strange, authoritarian management style sends it careening into chaos. He is generous with his employees, helping them financially and offering them high-value gifts, but he also expects them to work hard and perform unconventional tasks. As Mrs. Chang points out, he has created “his own society,” blending a collection of values from his father’s style of conducting business in China and American ideas of wealth and leadership into his management of the pancake house.

Despite his odd style and often brusque manner, he cares deeply for his employees, seeing himself as responsible for their health and happiness. Mr. Chang is deeply affected by the resignation of his staff, particularly by the loss of Booker and Cedric; he cared intensely for “[his] boys,” and their absence wounded him greatly. Mr. Chang is a proud man who has earned all of his success. Even though Callie pokes fun at his idiosyncrasies and unwillingness to adapt to certain elements of American culture, it is clear that she respects her father’s dedication, generosity, and intelligence. 

Mrs. Chang 

Beyond her title and surname, Mrs. Chang goes unnamed, which is perhaps an homage to the patriarchal nature of the Chang household and Mr. Chang’s desire for filial piety. Before their family found success at the pancake house, Mrs. Chang worked at a local supermarket and eventually earned a managerial position. While working there, she learned much about American ideology and developed a collection of opinions on what it means to be an American. Although she chides her daughters for their interest in American culture—calling them “copycats”—she is equally guilty of assimilating, particularly in her interest in the local country club. Mrs. Chang is an amiable woman who strives to treat her husband with the respect he demands while tempering his often odd behaviors. Although she wishes to be a part of the country club, she also understands the implications of the club’s racist past—they are unwilling to allow a black couple to join—and is nervous about putting herself and her family in such an environment. 


Callie is the eldest Chang daughter, and it is through her eyes that “In the American Society” unfolds. Although she is young—still in junior high school—her keen gaze and sharp observational skills indicate that she understands the fraught nature of her heritage. When her sister pushes the country club issue, Callie remains silent, but readers realize that she understands her mother’s concerns too well. She seems mature for her age, having grown up quickly in response to her family’s circumstances as, first, poor and, then, wealthy Chinese Americans living in a prejudiced environment. 


The younger Chang daughter, Mona, is a chatty young girl with little regard for the consequences of her actions. She wishes to join the country club, so she can use its pool with her friend Annie Lardner but does not consider the consequences of her family’s entrance into a wealthy and traditionally white enclave. Her pushiness to join the club makes her mother anxious, but Mona proceeds anyway, unbothered by the prospect of those in the club judging her family for their Chinese-American heritage. 


Booker is a middle-aged undocumented immigrant from Taiwan. When he first begins to work at the pancake house, he is gaunt and beaten down. With a humorless chuckle, he explains that it is not “against the...

(This entire section contains 977 words.)

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law to hire me, only to be me,” a fact that defines how he lives his life. Mr. Chang hires him immediately, concerned by the man’s frail frame and dire circumstances. Grateful for the employment, Booker works hard; he picks up new skills with ease and is willing to do whatever task is set before him. Booker is an ideal employee, except for his propensity for falling ill. However, he feels guilty about his illness and relies on his friends to work his shifts in his place. 


One such friend is Cedric, another immigrant with dubious legal status. Similar to Booker, Cedric is grateful for the employment and immediately proves himself capable, so much so that when a position opens up, Mr. Chang offers him full-time employment. However, Cedric is a controversial addition to the pancake house, as his good-natured attitude, quick rise through the ranks, and propensity for cigarette theft lead relationships between him and another line cook Fernando, to sour.

Mrs. Lardner 

The mother of Annie Lardner, a friend of Mona’s, Mrs. Lardner is a well-intentioned but pushy woman whose emphatic speech patterns are an overt caricature of the wealthy, white suburban mother trope. With her sponsorship, the Changs apply for the country club and attend the party, so readers assume that despite her flighty demeanor and over-the-top nature, she is a true friend. However, at the party, she enlisted Callie as a serving girl and joins Jeremy in condescending to Mr. Chang, leaving readers to wonder at the quiet prejudice that lurks beneath her friendly demeanor.


Like Mrs. Lardner, Jeremy is a wealthy member of the predominantly white country club. Every year, he flies off to an exotic destination; this year it is Greece. Each year, Mrs. Lardner throws him a “bon voyage” party to send him off. However, she does not throw these parties out of affection but out of pity: Jeremy’s wife left him, his daughter does not speak to him, and he feels lonely and “unloved.” At the party, Jeremy appears to have a problem with alcohol; he is far drunker than everyone else, and his mood quickly turns from joy to rage.