In the American Society

by Gish Jen

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Last Updated on November 30, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490


After the Changs achieve financial success with their pancake house, Mona decides that she wants their family to join the local country club. Her mother, though she also wishes to join the club, realizes that there are many barriers to achieving this aspiration. Callie, the eldest Chang daughter, explains:

My mother enumerated the problems as she sliced up a quarter round of watermelon: there was the cost. There was the waiting list. There was the fact that no one in our family played either tennis or golf.

One of the requirements of the country club is twice-monthly dinners, to which the men must wear nice suit jackets. Ralph's family is amused at the idea of him doing such a thing:

We all laughed: my father had no use for nice clothes, and would wear only ten-year-old shirts, with grease-spotted pants, to show how little he cared what anyone thought.


"Your father doesn’t believe in joining the American society," said my mother. "He wants to have his own society."


"So go to dinner without him." Mona shot her seeds out in long arcs over the lawn. "Who cares what he thinks?"


But of course we all did care, and knew my mother could not simply up and do as she pleased. For in my father’s mind, a family owed its head a degree of loyalty that left no room for dissent. To embrace what he embraced was to love; and to embrace something else was to betray him.

This attitude of respect and solidarity leads to the climax of the story, when Ralph is bullied into trying on a partygoer's shirt and his family leaves the party with him in protest. Despite the fact that his reaction—and insistence on wearing a suit that isn't fitted and still has the price tag on it—is embarrassing for them and was a bad decision, the family sticks by him:

My father flung the polo shirt into the water with such force that part of it bounced back up into the air like a fluorescent fountain. Then it settled into a soft heap on top of the water. My mother hurried up.


"You’re a sport!" said Jeremy, suddenly breaking into a smile and slapping

my father on the back. "You’re a sport! I like that. A man with spirit, that’s what you are. A man with panache. Allow me to return to you your jacket." He handed it back to my father. "Good value you got on that, good value."


My father hurled the coat into the pool too. "We’re leaving," he said grimly. "Leaving!"

His family goes with him, and they realize that his car keys and wallet are in the jacket he left in the pool. Ultimately, they decide to wait together at the pancake house until after the party, when they'll return and dive into the pool to get the jacket and its contents.

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