Gish Jen Long Fiction Analysis
Gish Jen’s novels, while introducing many readers to the details of a Chinese family adjusting to life in the United States in the last decades of the twentieth century, present not only portraits of an ancient culture both in collision and in coordination with mainstream American culture; her novels present as well portraits of individual characters of considerable depth whose lives are part of an expansion and revision of what it means to be a U.S. citizen. As Jen has said, “I think that something about the complexities of our times makes me want to hear every voice I can hear” as a part of a new American family.
Jen’s long fiction traces the developing arc of involvement in American life for Chinese Americans. Her novels are wide-ranging and explore the earliest arrivals of a family trying to understand a new environment, a second generation with concerns and interests that could not be anticipated, and the problems faced by a multigenerational family whose members have moved from a relatively single-minded focus on specific issues to a full range of difficulties common to an American family near the start of the twenty-first century. When she began to work on Typical American, Jen recalls, “matters of ethnicity as a great theme of literature were not on anybody’s list.” She has said that the act of naming oneself Asian American was “not something that comes down to us straight from our heritage.” She set her first novel at a “time when ethnicity as we know it was suddenly being invented.” The transition from the popular designation “Oriental” to the preferred term “Asian American” takes place in the novel during the years that Chang family members seek success in the United States without completely compromising their sense of themselves as Chinese.
In the years following the end of World War II, the rise to power in China by the Communist government of Mao Zedong prevented many Chinese citizens involved with the United States in the war effort from returning to their homeland. Typical American follows Yfeng Chang from his boyhood in China to his arrival in the United States with his sister Theresa. They struggle to adjust to life in America while Ralph studies for a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and Theresa enters medical school. They are joined by Theresa’s friend Helen (named Hailan, “sea blue,” at birth), whom Yfeng (now Ralph) eventually marries.
Initially skeptical about almost everything Americans take seriously—a skepticism that turned “typically American” into a slur—and contemptuous of various enthusiasms of postwar popular culture, the Changs become less alienated and steadily more comfortable with their life as U.S. citizens. Jen handles the transition with insight and comic verve, sympathetically evoking the real pain that the Changs feel while gently casting their predicaments in a humorous fashion. That Yfeng accepts the name Ralph from a girlfriend is one example of Jen’s wit: Jen took the assumption that Chinese speakers have problems pronouncing “r” and “l,” named a character Ralph (which contains both letters), and thus faced the assumption with mild mockery and defiant pride.
The Changs’ expectation that they can succeed in America with substantial credentials enabling Ralph to find suitable work, a comfortable if modest home, and a sense of independence for Theresa as a modern woman in the 1960’s is a typically American expectation. Also typically American is the expansion of the family’s...
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