In the American Society by Gish Jen

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Themes

One of the themes In the American Society by Gish Jen is the American dream. In this story, a Chinese immigrant family in the United States tries to improve its living standards by investing in businesses. Mrs. Chang and her daughters want to be part of the elite society. Their longing to be part of the upper class is evident, as they desperately want to be members of the country club.

Another theme that is revealed in the novel is racism. When Mr. Chang and his family attend a party courtesy of Mrs. Lardner, Mr. Chang is treated harshly because of his race. For instance, Jeremy, the party’s host, assumes that Ralph is a gatecrasher. The only reason why Jeremy would make such an assumption is that Ralph and his family look different from everyone else at the party.

Immigration is also a central theme in the story. The author focuses on an immigrant family that is trying to live the American dream. The theme of immigration is also revealed when Ralph hires undocumented immigrants in his business. His employees report him to the authorities; however, he is released based on the premise that it is not unlawful to employ undocumented immigrants.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“In the American Society” is about finding one’s place in society and trying to fit in. It also hints strongly at racism. Ralph and his wife are immigrants who have found some measure of success in life. They own a thriving business, they live in the suburbs in their own house, they own a car—outwardly they have all the trappings of being comfortably ensconced in their adopted society. Being accepted for who they are in the society is another thing.

The story is cleverly separated by the subheadings, “His Own Society” and “In the American Society.” The first half shows Ralph in his own restaurant, the milieu in which he is comfortable. In the setting of his thriving business, Ralph feels he has come into his own in the United States. His daughter Callie, the narrator, notes that now that he is a success, he is finally able to talk about his past in China. Because Ralph has taken care of the necessities, he is able to allow himself extravagance. In his restaurant and with his employees, he even likens himself to “that Godfather in the movie.”

The test of whether the Changs are fully accepted in their adopted society, however, comes when they leave the milieus of home and family business for environments that are beyond their control, environments that seem to have different sets of rules. At Mrs. Lardner’s, the Changs are strange, exotic specimens, present through the generosity of their patron-hostess. Callie is shanghaied into waitressing, and her mother alternates as the center of attention between a group of women and a male guest. The former titter over her complexion while the latter tries to impress her with his knowledge of “the Orient,” from which he has picked up a few Chinese words. Both the women and the...

(The entire section is 765 words.)