Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4467
SOURCE: Jen, Gish, and Yuko Matsukawa. “MELUS Interview: Gish Jen.” MELUS 18, no. 4 (winter 1993): 111-20.
[In the following interview, conducted in November 1991, Jen discusses her writing process, literary influences, development as a writer, and use of humor in her stories.]
With the publication of her first book, Typical American, in 1991 and articles such as “Challenging the Asian Illusion” (New York Times 11 August 1991), Gish Jen is fast becoming a visible and vocal part of the contemporary American literary landscape. Born in New York City in 1955, Jen, who is a second-generation Chinese-American, grew up in Yonkers and Scarsdale, New York. It was during high school that she acquired the nickname “Gish” (after the actress with whom she happened to share a first name, Lillian Gish), which she later adopted as her pen name. Educated at Harvard and Stanford Business School, Gish Jen embarked upon her writing career while attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop and has been writing and publishing her stories in literary magazines now for over a decade (see Selected Bibliography). She also has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants and has won awards for her short stories, many of which have been anthologized repeatedly.
Several of Gish Jen's short stories center on the Changs, an immigrant family from China. In captivating stories such as “The White Umbrella,” “The Water-Faucet Vision,” and “What Means Switch,” we witness how the daughters of the family, Callie and Mona, ingeniously and ingenuously attempt to navigate their way through the turbulent waters of childhood and adolescence, carefully mediating the overlapping relationships between cultures, between home and the outside world, and between their parents, their friends, and themselves. Through moments of revelation and their contemplative interpretations of events, Gish Jen charts the sisters's complicated, funny, and often heartbreaking process of growing up Chinese-American.
It is in the short story “In the American Society,” however, that we get a glimpse of the dynamics of the Chang family. Ralph, here the successful proprietor of a pancake house who prefers his own society to the American society, and his wife, Helen, who has broader social aspirations, come into their own as characters through their interactions with family, neighbors, and employees. The life stories of Ralph, Helen, and Ralph's sister Theresa are further expanded and elaborated in Gish Jen's first novel, Typical American, which has garnered deservedly excellent reviews. The New York Times Book Review declares, “No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness. … The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line. Even her incidental description seems new-minted—purely functional, bone clean yet lustrous.” The New York Review of Books calls the novel “poised and unsentimental,” and asserts that “Gish Jen sustains her complex pattern of duality even in her prose style, sophisticatedly choosing to tell her somber story wittily.” Gish Jen starts her book with the line “It's an American story”; by guiding us through one Chinese immigrant family's experiences, she perceptively and brilliantly challenges readers to reexamine their definitions of home, family, the American dream, and, of course, what it is to be a “typical American.”
This interview took place late in November 1991 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, David O'Connor, and baby son, Luke. Sitting by the fireplace—the archetypal site for listening to and telling stories—Gish Jen animatedly answered my questions about her life and her work; our conversation was delightfully punctuated by laughter.
[Matsukawa]: Has motherhood changed your writing schedule?
[Jen]: I have to...
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say that it's very slow now. I used to basically write fulltime. Now I'm a mother fulltime and try to work my writing around that. But I'm hoping to start my son on twenty-hour-a-week day care soon.
Do you work at home?
No, I work in an office. I really admire people who work at home; they have a lot more discipline than I do. I think everyone has something which they have to reject in order to become a writer. After I rejected legitimate professions—I thought about going to med school, to law school, and I actually went to business school—I had to reject being a housewife, which was for me the last great temptation. I'm the kind of person who, if I stay home, will clean the house, for one thing. And I love catalogs—gardening catalogs are a serious threat to my career (laugh)—which is why I have to go to another environment where I have no distractions. I don't even keep books in my office. I have three choices when I'm in there: I can sleep, I can eat, or I can work. Generally, I just go and sit there until I'm so bored that it is less painful to write than to continue sitting.
Did you think that you would be a writer when you were growing up?
If you had asked me at any point along the way, the answer would have been “no.” But looking back, I can see that one of the biggest experiences of my young life was when I was in fifth grade and we had a literary magazine. Everybody was supposed to contribute something to it and most people did. I was the only one, though, who contributed enough to fill up fifteen of these magazines myself. There were all these different categories and I brought things in for all of them. I also wrote my first story for that magazine, which was the longest thing included—five pages. You can imagine how in a class magazine for twenty-six kids, having five pages was a major thing. The story was about a maid who had stolen some gold. She had hidden it inside this hat but when she picked up the hat, the gold fell out! (laugh). And so she was caught.
I read a lot as a child. I was very influenced by Little Women back then, and I'm sure it made an impression on me that Jo became a writer. Originally, I went to school in Yonkers, New York, to a Catholic school which had almost no library. When my family moved to Scarsdale, though, I took out two books a day from the school library there. Of course, I read all these books quite indiscriminately. I read The Island Stallion Races but I also read The Stranger by Camus, which I particularly remember because I remember coming across the phrase “an execrable cry of pain” and thinking “What does this mean, ‘execrable’?”—I thought it had something to do with excrement, you know (laugh).
What other writers did you admire?
You mean growing up? I think the next writer to have a really big influence on me was Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice was one of the books that I read backwards and forwards. I really wanted to be Elizabeth Bennett. Of course today, there are people who would say “Oh, that's so Anglo”; they think I should have been more influenced by Chinese opera or something (laugh). But this is not what should have happened; this is what did happen. I do think that it's unfortunate that all the Austen novels end in marriage, but to me, they still show us what the power of the novel can be. I think that many people lived by those books.
They showed us how to live—they were moral books. Which is what fiction is for, it seems to me. I know this is probably not the most critically sophisticated view but I'm not so interested in experimental writing unless it speaks to the limits of human knowledge, say—unless its concern is more human than formal. And of course, included in the category of books that show us how to live are books that show us how we do live. Those are moral too: they contrast the human chaos with some notion of civilization, even if it's implied.
So, whom do you admire now?
I still tend to admire people who are very moral.
What do you mean by moral?
What I mean by moral is that they are concerned with values and the human condition. I'm not talking about upholding morals like the Moral Majority, I'm talking about morals in the sense of a concern with the manner in which life is lived, which is not necessarily according to the accepted rules of society: in fact, I'm most influenced by people who are naughty.
Naughty means not “nice.” You know, people who write things as they really are, without sentimentalizing everything. I'm talking about people like Alice Munro and Jamaica Kincaid, whom I admire very much.
You've been reviewed in many newspapers and magazines lately along with other Asian American writers—how do you feel about that?
There are a few people who keep on recurring in the same article over and over and over again. You know, we're like “the Gang of Four” (laugh). A friend of mine said—and I think there is a lot of truth in this—that either you're categorized or else you're ignored. I guess what I understand is that in modern society, people are bombarded with so much information that this categorizing is necessary. Still, it's irritating to have people rewrite and rewrite and rewrite the same article over and over and over again and have it based on race, especially since this has lead to distortions in the way my book has been read. Some people told me that they thought it was a book about preserving one's heritage; I felt like saying “That wasn't what I wanted to say at all!” You know it's this knee-jerk reaction on their part: you're an ethnic writer, so you must be writing about “people striving to preserve their heritage.” I'm not saying that on some level there isn't some kind of tug about what to retain and what to take on but that wasn't what the book was all about.
Why the title Typical American?
Well, I should say to begin with that the person who came up with this title was not me, it was my agent. My working title was originally “In the American Society,” which was the name of the short story from which this whole novel grew. I do understand why she didn't like the title because the story once got cited as nonfiction by accident. As for the present title, there's this irony within the book which has to do with the phrase “typical American.” “Typical American” is a phrase that the Changs use to describe people who are not them, and yet by the end of the book, of course, they become “typical Americans” themselves.
Also I liked it because it was a phrase that was used not only by my family but by other immigrants and their children. For instance, at one point before the book was published, I was talking to somebody who asked me what the title of my book was, and when I said, Typical American and explained, she said, “We say that in my family all the time!” And it turned out that she was Irish! Her family had just come over and that's what they said all the time and I thought, “Ha! This is true.”
And finally, of course, I wanted to challenge ideas of what a “typical American” looks like, to put forward the idea that the Changs are not any less American than anyone else. There are people who, when they choose to read ethnic writing, want comfortably exotic stuff that makes them feel like they're traveling in some foreign country. The Changs, though, are not a foreign country. They wonder about their identity: they ask themselves who they are, who they're becoming. And therefore, they are American.
So do you think you're writing against or responding to a stereotype or a tradition or other writers?
Was I talking back to people or books? It's hard for me to say. I think I wasn't so much writing against a certain person as against public demand. I was writing against the public's expectation as I understood it. I was damned if I was going to give them the exotic nonsense they thought they wanted; instead, I wanted my book to succeed on character. I followed my own interests. Even though I had written other stories unrelated to this family, I had come back to them again and again—this family, I knew, meant something to me. Of course, people will always say, “Oh it must be your family,” but in fact it's not my family I wrote about. The idea of writing about a family, though, was very appealing to me.
I understand that your pen name, Gish, comes from a nickname you acquired during high school. What interests me is that in your first two stories—“Bellying Up” and “The Small Concerns of Sparrows”—you use your legal name, Lillian. What precipitated the change from “Lillian” to “Gish”? From your publication chronology, it looks like you started using “Gish” with the stories about the Chang family—is there a relationship between the birth of this fictional family and the emergence of the writer Gish Jen?
I'm not aware of a connection between the two but I need to review this chronologically for myself. As I recall, those first two stories were accepted for publication before the summer between my first and second year at Iowa, the summer of 1982. At the time, being in print seemed so final and important that I used my legal name “Lillian Jen.” But then later I realized, “Well no, I can be whoever I want—I am Gish Jen!” I think my changing my name marks the point at which I discovered writing to be liberating; I discovered that just as I could create stories, I could create this self, Gish Jen. Besides, a friend of mine said to me, “Gish, that's what you call yourself!” My friends thought Gish Jen was a better name because it had more impact. It sounds strong because of the spondee: “Gish Jen,” like “bang bang.” I always associate “Lillian” with a shyer self, a received self. My family calls me “Lillian,” or rather, “Lil.” My parents still go around explaining to their friends, “Yes, Gish Jen's our daughter, she has this book out but that's not her name really, she just calls herself Gish, her real name's Lillian,” and so on.
It's a great name also because people can't tell whether you're male or female—you keep them guessing.
(Laugh.) That's another reason I like it.
I'm interested in how your short stories and Typical American intersect. You mentioned that though you wrote many other short stories, you kept coming back to the Changs. What is the relationship between the Chang family short stories and your novel? For instance, you incorporated the story “The Water-Faucet Vision” into Typical American.
Yes, I put it in the book. It was really, I think, a very transparent attempt to save that story; I thought that if I could work it into my novel it would really be much better. So I tried to work it in and I think I did manage. It was probably the only thing that I knew about my novel: that at a certain point I wanted to put the story in so I wouldn't have to throw it out. The funny thing is that it's bad enough when you have an incident like that in a story; when it also occurs in your novel, people think that this really happened to you in real life. I'm happy to say my father never threw my mother out the window. They had normal adult fights where they yelled at each other and maybe one of them walked out of the room.
How about “What Means Switch”? We encounter a Mona who seems older than the Mona in Typical American. Does the existence of this older Mona mean that there will be a sequel to Typical American?
It's a terrible thing—everybody wants you to write your last book over and over and over and do whatever you did again. But the nature of being a writer is always to want to forge on and do something else, so we're at odds.
Some people I know who have read your recent stories said to me, “Ask her if she's really Mona.”
(Laugh.) People always think that, you know. And the answer is, I think, that Mona is the person I would have liked to have been. When I was in junior high school, I was quiet and kind of traumatized by everything. Or at least that's how I felt, even as I was getting thrown out of class all the time for talking (laugh). But Mona's together in a way that I was not.
Before “What Means Switch,” by the way, everybody thought I was Callie. And people who only read the book often think I must be Theresa, though every now and then somebody thinks that I must be Ralph! Can you imagine?
Well, why did you choose a male protagonist? Since I read your short stories before Typical American came out, I was expecting that the novel would be written from the point of view of the daughters.
In fact, because of the way it evolved, for a long time I was thinking about writing it from the point of view of the children. But gradually it became clear to me that I had a lot of energy around the older generation and then the children's point of view became a problem because there was so much happening that they couldn't know. As for why Ralph became the protagonist, at the time it just seemed like the most natural thing and I don't really know why. Maybe because Ralph threw that shirt into the pool in the story “In the American Society”: from the beginning, he was a person who did a lot of things; he acted out, if you will.
It's interesting to hear you say that because a lot of novels by Asian American women writers do have female protagonists.
And they seem to make it go. I don't know what happened. I'm not against women or anything (laugh). I think the truth of the matter is that having never written a novel before, I wanted to make it as easy as possible, and that I realized that in that generation men were more likely to make things happen, and to range over large parts of society. And I wanted that, to write a book that included all kinds of things—an expandable book in which I could write whatever I liked.
Men had more latitude perhaps but the women of Ralph's generation—Janis, Helen, and Theresa—illustrate some of the options available for women, don't they?
Yes. Even though Ralph fueled the story, I wanted the women to be developed characters, not just secondary figures. And they do make things happen too—many more things than I could have predicted. Really the book is about all of them. I have this affection for Helen, you know, and I think Janis is a good egg. As for Theresa, she was a late addition to the formulation of the story but it's clear to me now that she could have been the one to carry the whole novel—that she could have borne the burden of my interests. She's adventuresome enough and not so bound by her gender. Though she's of that older generation, her experience could have been made almost as broad as my own.
What triggered your decision to become a fiction writer?
We didn't get past fifth grade, did we, when we started this before? (laugh). A couple of things. In college I was an English major, which is probably not too surprising given how much I read. And this will sound stupid, but I took a prosody course taught by Robert Fitzgerald because I really didn't get it about poetry. I felt like asking, “Why does it have to be written like that?” I couldn't see the point of all those little lines. And so I thought I'd take this nuts-and-bolts course. Which sounded easy enough until Fitzgerald said there was going to be a weekly assignment. And then it turned out that he meant an assignment in verse. It had never occurred to me to try to write poetry before. But because I liked this class so much, I thought, “Well, I'll give it a try,” so I wrote this thing in Catullan hendecasyllables which Fitzgerald xeroxed and handed out to the class—I still don't know if he did that because he liked it or because it had a mistake in every line. But anyway, I wrote these things and later he was very encouraging. He was the one who told me I should be doing something to do with literature and should give up being pre-med. And in fact he helped me get a job in publishing.
So there I was, at Doubleday, and working supposedly in non-fiction. But every week this colleague of mine and I would wait for The New Yorker and when it came we'd read it immediately and discuss the fiction all the next morning when we were supposed to be working, at our desks. It was then that I started to write some fiction too. But I thought, “What should I do?” I couldn't decide; I knew I didn't want to be in publishing but should I do something more practical or less? I decided that if I couldn't decide, I might as well try being more practical first. And so I went to business school but made sure I went somewhere where there was a good writing program, i.e. Stanford. And sure enough, what happened was that the moment I got to Stanford I knew I was in the wrong place. I mean I just knew immediately. I spent the whole year writing novels and taking writing courses at every opportunity. And the second year I dropped out.
Why fiction? Would you have become a poet?
I don't know if I could have been a poet. I don't think I have the sensitivity to be one. I remember I loved Robert Fitzgerald's class but I'm glad I'm not a poet, even today. It's hard enough being a fiction writer; being a poet is, you know (throws hands up). Maybe that's my immigrant parents still talking, I don't know. But if I had to write in a different genre, I think I'd move to drama.
Well because dialogue comes easily to me and also plot and structure.
Which playwrights did you read—Shakespeare, perhaps or … ?
I do love Shakespeare.
The tragedies more than comedies. King Lear, especially. Dramatic form and structure definitely influenced my writing. For instance, I think it is no coincidence that my book is in five parts. Not that I was modeling it on Lear, but you could say that Typical American was informed by it.
How does comedy function in your book? Is it a source of inspiration as tragedy is?
I think we are talking about two different things here: comedy as in comedic form and comedy as a sort of lightheartedness. Comedic form suggests that by the end of the play, against all odds, everything gets resolved happily, which is not the case in my novel. But I do think the tone is sometimes comic—maybe a better way to put it is that it's tragi-comic. I've been interested in complexity of tone, even though some people have found it “problematic.” It's made some people uncomfortable; they've been disturbed by the indeterminacy of it. Contrary to what they thought, though, I have always considered this complexity of tone one of my strengths. I think it has to do with the fact that I come from a culture where things can have opposite attributes at the same time, like in food, sweet and sour. The world is at once yin and yang.
How do you come up with subject matter?
I start with a feeling: in the short story “The White Umbrella,” I started with the feeling of waiting on the doorsteps for your mother to come pick you up. Then you start accumulating around that feeling and the story evolves. It's like deciding what you like to eat. It just so happens that you eat certain things more often than other things. You don't sit down and say, “Well, I think I like garlic.” Over the years you discover that you like garlic—it happens, you don't plan it.
Now that you have a son, would you write a children's book?
Maybe. Let me put it this way, there's only one person in the world for whom I would write and that would be my son. From what I hear, there are few books out there to help him with being biracial—he's Eurasian—so I would write for him if there were books he needed that had not been written. Also I can imagine doing some for fun.
What's your next project? I know you've been speaking at colleges this fall (1991) …
Yes, at Williams and at Yale but these things invariably take up a lot of my time; they do require preparation. Also these little articles for The New York Times and The Boston Globe have taken time. I like having things coming out in a sort of steady little flow. But I have got to get back to my own writing again which means there'll be a long silence while I try to write something more serious.
Selected Bibliography (Chronologically Arranged)
Jen, Lillian. “Bellying-Up.” The Iowa Review 12.4 (1981): 93-94.
Jen, Lillian C. “The Small Concerns of Sparrows.” Fiction International 14 (1982): 47-55.
Jen, Gish. “The White Umbrella.” The Yale Review 73 (1984): 401-9; rpt. in Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction. Ed. Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac (New York: Greenfield Review P, 1990) and in My Mother's Daughter: Stories by Women. Ed. Irene Zahava (Freedom, CA: Crossing P, 1991).
———. “Eating Crazy.” The Yale Review 74 (1985): 425-33.
———. “In the American Society.” The Southern Review 22 (1986): 606-19; rpt. in New Worlds of Literature. Ed. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter (New York: Norton, 1989); The New Generation: Fiction for Our Time from America's Writing Programs. Ed. Alan Kaufman (New York: Anchor P, 1987); and Imagining America: Stories from the Promise Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling (New York: Persea Books, 1991).
———. “The Water-Faucet Vision.” Nimrod 31.1 (1987): 25-33; rpt. in Best American Short Stories 1988. Eds. Mark Halperin and Shannon Ravenel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988).
———. “What Means Switch.” The Atlantic Monthly 265.5 (May 1990): 76-84.
———. “Grover at the Wheel.” The New Yorker 66.46 (Dec. 31, 1990): 32-37.
———. Typical American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
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Gish Jen 1955-
(Born Lillian Jen) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Jen's career through 2003.
Jen's works focus on the immigrant experience and the biculturalism of the children of immigrants. Her novels Typical American (1991) and Mona in the Promised Land (1996) recount the experiences of several generations in the fictional Chang family who emigrate from China to the United States, where they find themselves grappling with the dilemmas of their bicultural status as Asian-Americans. In an interview with Marilyn Berlin Snell, Jen observed, “Immigrants see America through different eyes: They see the potential, but they also see the shortcomings. They are the intimate outsider.” Jen further commented, “In a way, the immigrant—or the immigrant literature of which I am a part—is pushing the limits and expanding the notion of America's view of itself. … Somehow, we must found a new American myth that is more inclusive of diversity than any of the myths we have had so far. … We need to create a new notion of what it means to be American, one that acknowledges our diversity.”
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen was born in New York in 1955. She grew up in Yonkers and Scarsdale, where hers was one of a very small minority of Asian-American families. “In Yonkers, people threw things at us and called us names,” she told Scarlet Cheng. “We thought it was normal—it was only much later that I realized it had been hard.” Jen acquired the nickname “Gish,” which became the basis of her pen name, Gish Jen, while in high school, based on having the same first name as that of the silent film star Lillian Gish. Jen graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Harvard University in 1977 and obtained a job in the nonfiction department of Doubleday Publishing. She enrolled in Stanford University business school in 1979, but found herself drawn to fiction writing and dropped out in her second year. She then traveled to China, where she worked as an English-language instructor at a coal-mining institute. Upon returning to the United States, Jen enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1983 and was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1988. Her short stories, collected in Who's Irish? (1999), have been published in the New Yorker,Atlantic Monthly,Yale Review, and Iowa Review, and have been included in the anthology Best American Short Stories 1988. Her short story “Birthmates” was chosen by John Updike for the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century. Jen has expressed frustration with being pigeonholed as a writer of the Chinese-American experience, asserting that her narratives encompass a broader literary and thematic focus. “If you're an Asian American writer,” Jen observed, “the work is not valued as art; it's valued as what is called ‘social documentary.’” She asserted, “Although the subject of my book [Typical American] is Asian American, it's also American … it's a way of understanding what it means to be American.” Jen has taught creative writing at Tufts University (1986) and the University of Massachusetts (1990-91). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children.
Typical American opens with the line, “It's an American story,” and proceeds to recount the experiences of siblings Ralph and Theresa Chang, and Theresa's friend Helen, who eventually becomes Ralph's wife. While students during the World War II and post-war era, they emigrate from China to the United States. Yifeng (later Ralph) Chang travels from Shanghai to New York City, where he is enrolled in a doctoral program in engineering. Ralph opts not to become an American citizen and is consequently forced to leave the university. Downtrodden and left with only ＄3.16 to his name, Ralph is aided by his sister and manages to regain order in his life. He falls in love with Helen, returns to school, earns a Ph.D., and is hired as a professor. Ralph and Helen marry, and the three immigrants form a happy family unit in which they maintain their Chinese cultural identity while pursuing the American dream of middle-class success. An American-born con-man by the name of Grover Ding, however, disrupts the harmony of their lives and causes their relationships to unravel by encouraging them to adopt what they had formerly looked down upon as “typical American” values and behaviors—greedy materialism, marital infidelity, and personal dishonesty. Critic Scarlet Cheng observed that Grover Ding represents “the temptation of the New World incarnate,” under whose influence “the American Dream tailspins into chaos.” Ding convinces Ralph to quit teaching and launch a fast-food restaurant, called Chicken Palace, which ultimately fails. In the end, Ralph once again obtains a teaching position and the three immigrants reconcile with one another. Through the characters of Ralph, Theresa, and Helen, Jen represents the immigrant experience as a struggle between old-world and new-world values that each individual must negotiate on his or her own terms. Jen commented in an interview with Snell that immigrants to the United States are faced with questions of self-identity that are not part of their traditional culture: “Indeed, when one escapes the circumscribed life of the Old World, new questions surface: Who am I? What can I make of myself? In the U.S., where there is so much more freedom, the immigrant sees that he or she also has a responsibility to attain at least some degree of self-knowledge. That is very different from the Old World, where one is born into a preordained life, remains in that circumscribed role and never has to think about it very much.” In an interview with Martha Satz, Jen commented, “I hope Typical American will be viewed not only as an immigrant story but as a story for all Americans, to make us think about what our myths and realities are.” While addressing serious themes, Typical American includes a strong element of humor and has been described as a social satire or comedy of manners. Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, explores the nature of individual, ethnic, and hyphenated identities in America's multicultural land of opportunity. Mona in the Promised Land has been described as a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Set in a wealthy suburb of New York City in 1968, Mona in the Promised Land focuses on the experiences of Ralph's teenaged daughter Mona, who converts to Judaism and changes her last name to Changowitz. In the process of her struggle to formulate a sense of identity for herself, Mona gains a small multicultural group of friends—a young African-American man, a Japanese-American boy, and a Jewish girl—who find themselves living together for a summer. Through these experiences, Mona ultimately learns to negotiate her inherited Chinese-American identity with her newly adopted identity as a Jewish woman.
Jen has been compared to a number of prominent Asian-American writers of the late twentieth century, most notably Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Critics offered high praise for Jen's portrayal of the immigrant experience and her treatment of the complexities of pursuing the “American dream” in Typical American. Yuko Matsukawa commented, “By guiding us through one Chinese immigrant family's experiences, [Jen] perceptively and brilliantly challenges readers to reexamine their definitions of home, family, the American dream, and, of course, what it is to be a ‘typical American.’” Scarlet Cheng, calling Typical American a “satiric, cautionary tale,” noted, “Jen shows us that the road to cultural assimilation is often paved with misguided intentions.” Reviewers of Mona in the Promised Land discussed the complexities of Jen's treatment of issues of individual identity in multicultural America. Marina Heung described Jen's representation of identity in Mona in the Promised Land as one that “adopts a distinctively postmodern stance, exploding accepted notions of identity boundaries and insisting that the identities are willfully chosen, not made.” Richard Eder offered praise for Jen's treatment of issues of identity in Mona in the Promised Land, explaining, “It is a kind of joyful irony that, among other things, makes Mona a kind of shining example of a multicultural message delivered with the wit and bite of art.” Reviews of Jen's novels and short-story collection Who's Irish? have praised her for a well-crafted prose style. Some reviewers, however, have faulted Jen for underdeveloped characterization. In a review of Typical American, Cheng, for example, commented, “Unfortunately, Jen's characters tend to remain emotionally remote. They seem too much like figures in a morality play, and we never really get under their skin, feel their angst, or experience their joy.” Others have criticized Jen for overly optimistic endings that tend to be saccharine as well as unconvincing. Most critics, however, agreed that Jen's prose style is witty, ironic, satirical, and infused with a shrewd sense of humor. Sylvia Brownrigg commented, “Jen's spry comedy comes from being able to look at Chinese and American cultures with both an outsider's and an insider's eye.” Several critics noted that Jen's writing is at its best when she works in the tragic-comic mode, asserting that she treats serious subjects with an appropriate touch of irony.
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SOURCE: Jen, Gish, and Martha Satz. “Writing About the Things That Are Dangerous: A Conversation with Gish Jen.” Southwest Review 78, no. 1 (winter 1993): 132-40.
[In the following interview, conducted in November 1991, Jen discusses multiculturalism, the immigrant experience, and the nature of identity in America.]
Interviewer's note: In November 1991, I interviewed Gish Jen on the occasion of the publication of her first novel, Typical American. The novel deals with a young Chinese man, Ralph Chang, who comes to do graduate work in engineering and pursue the American Dream as he understands it in China. In this country, he is reunited with his sister Theresa and marries her friend Helen. Much of their lives is a series of misadventures and disasters. Their idea of America and the American Dream is continually changed and ultimately transformed.
[Satz]: I wanted to ask you about the choice of a male protagonist for your first novel, Typical American. Can you say why you chose to write about a male?
[Jen]: It was partly a technical choice. When I started out to write this book, I thought that in order to fill 350 pages or whatever (which seemed to me quite intimidating at the time) you would be better off with somebody active, somebody who does things. You and I might appreciate people who simply think, but they don't always make good fiction. And it occurred to me that in this generation and culture men had a greater latitude than women and that therefore a male protagonist might make for a broader book. Also, Ralph as a character came very easily to me, and I was interested in him.
How did he come to you?
He first arose in a story titled “In American Society,” which was the original title of this book. That story was from the point of view of Callie, the daughter.
You created the second generation first?
Yes and no. That story was about Callie, but the father figured very heavily too. Especially young novelists like myself (relatively young—I'm not as young as perhaps I look) often write books about their parents' generation. I think that's one of the big basic tasks a person is confronted with, to figure out what reality was like for her parents.
You have said you found yourself writing often with a self-consciously explicating voice. I think you do very well with this. You explain for me, or as I envision for my students, what it's like to try to find one's home in a new and different culture. That is, it seems to me that one of the issues in your novel is the nature of home. There are buildings that are torn down and transported. Is this an example of what you had in mind as issues you consciously explicate?
Well, those are the kinds of themes that are less conscious. Those are the kinds of things I notice myself when I get to the end of a draft. I say to myself, “God, there are a lot of roof problems.” And then I go back and heighten those motifs by having Ralph comment, for example, “Why do we have so many problems with roofs?” I do not start with ideas about the nature of home or whatever and then try to shoehorn them into the work.
There's a little story Theresa tells about the family that transports a house, tears it down, and builds it again.
Yes, that's right. In a different place.
It had a leak and the question was, why would they move the house if it were flawed. And the answer was—well, maybe they were used to it. Wasn't that a conscious explication of a cultural theme?
The concept was not initially conscious. In later drafts, I saw how Ralph and Theresa had attempted to reconstruct their family via a marriage—something many people do, by the way, not just immigrants—and then I used the story of the house-moving to reinforce it.
Well, how would you characterize your own novel? What is your conscious perception of it?
What I came to understand after I'd worked on it awhile is that this novel is about coming to America and what that means in reality. People think you set foot in America and you become American instantly. For the characters in my book, it takes a while to become American and it's not so much becoming a citizen that makes them feel American, it's something like buying a house.
And seeing the grass grow.
I think that's much more the truth. Also, I think the truth is also that America holds out this promise that a person can do anything. Right? “Be all that you can be.” And Ralph believes that for a time, but he comes to realize the limits here. I hope Typical American will be viewed not only as an immigrant story but as a story for all Americans, to make us think about what our myths and realities are. We are not a country that likes to think in terms of limits.
I can remember how much trouble there was during the gas shortages. We believe in endless expansion and endless expression of our will. The grandiose self.
By the end of the book Ralph comes to a point of reflection where he starts to ask himself questions.
Instead of do, do, do—
Exactly. It's do, do, do, do, but finally he has to stop and say—my God, what have I done?—and before I do more, don't I need to know something about who I am. Ralph is at a point much like the one we are at as a country. Our adolescence is over—I hope. We're sobered. People are starting to think about the environment, about war, about our place in the world.
And maybe this is one of the advantages of getting the perspective of the immigrant because those of us who have been here a long time can't see ourselves. That's the way your title works, doesn't it? It's an inversion. Typical American is a kind of put-down of America by those who are themselves being put down. The immigrant family in your book says disparagingly that something is “typical American.”
Right. But then in the end, of course, the irony is that they themselves become typically American.
So they have become American—
Despite themselves and so fall under the negative judgment of their own original critique.
I admire your book.
Can you talk about the role of the injection of Chinese language? You use Chinese phrases that employ concepts that can't be stated in English—listening but not hearing, for example. Do you think this is a means to induce readers to enter the Chinese culture just a little bit?
Yes, to begin to understand how fundamentally different other points of view can be. You have talked about what students have to be taught. They have to be taught for one thing that there are different realities. If you have grown up in a place where you have one reality and everyone else has the same reality, you begin to believe that is reality. You are unaware of the degree to which it is artifice. Whereas if you can see the terms in which other people think you begin to realize that your reality is not so absolute.
As a writer do you feel privileged to have these two perspectives that are in some ways consonant and in some ways dissonant?
Absolutely. I think all writers have to get to the point where they can stand outside of experience and behold it, and if you are an outsider by virtue of who you are or where you were born, half the work is done.
I've talked to Sandra Cisneros—do you know her work?
Yes. She's an exciting writer.
She told me a little bit about her experience at Iowa, which for her was quite a negative experience because she felt so much the outsider. Everyone was writing about suburban neighborhoods that looked the same, and everyone had the same voice. For a while, it silenced her because her voice and her experience were so different. What was it like for you?
The student population varies widely from year to year and in my year there were a lot of cowboys. So I did feel like an outsider, but interestingly it wasn't so much because I was an Asian-American. I felt like an outsider because I was from the east, and I had gone to Harvard and that was not cool the year I was there.
Was it sexist?
Yes, it was, and there I was East Coast, intellectual, female. That was really my problem much more than being an Asian-American.
I want to ask you about yourself. Your situation in terms of identity and culture is very different from that of your parents' generation. How do you perceive yourself in regard to these two cultures?
There is a certain amount of cultural conflict. For instance, when my son was born a lot of my friends said you really want to have two weeks to yourself, just you and your husband and baby. It's a very intense time and really you should get your parents to come after that. So I tried to explain this to my mother, but it was just out of the question. The problem has to do with different ideas about what constitutes the fundamental social unit. I mean to my friends I'm starting this new group, and I'm entitled to that. To my mother I am part of the family that already exists, and the new baby is too. Take the issue of Christmas. Dave and I are trying to lobby for having Christmas Day at our own house now, especially when our son Luke gets older. We want Santa Claus to come down our chimney. But my mom wants all the grandchildren to come to her house.
May I ask you about your Boston Globe piece? The grounds on which you criticize multi-culturalism as an artist?
What I said in effect was that multi-culturalism has made more boxes for people. It has added questions to the lists with which we approach literature and that has been an enormous contribution to our understanding. Unfortunately, the result has been that readers reading a minority writer now assume that these new concerns are the ones you must be addressing. So they say to me things like, “Oh, you must be trying to preserve their heritage in this book.” Meanwhile, there's a lot about business in my book. No one asks, “Oh, there seems to be a connection between religion and business.”
I wanted to ask you about your wonderful comic voice. Where do you think it comes from?
It's because I'm half-Jewish. Oy.
It's interesting—someone interviewed me from the Yale student paper who turned out to be a Chinese-American who had grown up in Scarsdale, and she commented on how articulate all the Jewish-American students seemed to be, and how she was forced to start talking just to survive.
So it was living in Scarsdale, basically, you think—
Basically. Don't get me wrong, my whole family also had a great sense of humor. But the humor is not so verbal. I think a lot of the verbal humor comes from growing up in Scarsdale. You know, a nice Catholic town.
MY children are adopted and they're bi-racial, so they're black and white and Jewish.
Which is very American.
Yes, it's very American. I also think they are in a privileged position because they can't succumb to easy answers and easy stereotypes. It's on many levels an outsider's position, which I think is advantageous.
Well, it is. From the beginning, you are forced to confront the complexity of life with all its difficulties. Other people have an easier time but they never see anything.
I wanted to ask you about something else. You seem to know so much about so many things. There is the terrible realism of your portrayal of university politics. And I don't know anything about animal slaughterhouses, but your description sounded terribly authentic to me.
I only saw one chicken get killed, but it left a big impression on me.
So what would you say about yourself? That you're an especially acute and curious observer?
I'm curious about everything and it really is true that when I was trying to decide whether to become a writer, I thought I would enjoy it partly because I would get to do everything and call it work.
It's my research. It's my job.
No corner of the world is too obscure for you to be over there sniffing around. But you also have to understand that I don't know as much as it seems I may know. I don't really know about the academic world, for example. I'm just guessing.
May I say it's a very astute guess!
Oh dear, I'm so sorry.
About your earlier comment on the link between business and religion, Ralph, your protagonist, hears all these slogans and believes them, and they basically alter his life. Do you think this is American, I mean typical American?
I do think so. Norman Vincent Peale pretty much sums up the connection. Historically we've always felt that we had this special connection with God, right?
And through Norman Vincent Peale, we have a special connection with God through which we can get rich. You know what I mean? This has always been part of American culture. Religion and self-aggrandizement go hand-in-hand.
Were you also consciously working out relations between males and females? You have Ralph and his sister and his wife in very painful relations. Is that something that concerns you about American and Asian households?
I didn't consciously address that. As soon as you have men and women of that generation, though, that's what you get. I couldn't help but bring it out. What I was thinking more about when I was writing was sibling rivalry, I thought a lot about how what happens to Ralph is shaped by his experience with Theresa and his father. I was thinking too about how much what becomes of you in America is shaped at least as much by family dynamics as by America. Helen and Ralph and Theresa all find some version of the American Dream and yet it's very different for each of them. There is no one story. There are many stories.
And that's another thing that we do. We say there is a Chinese view and basically Chinese people come—
Exactly. Meanwhile, birth order was as important as anything else in this book.
This was not an issue for you as an Asian woman, that is you weren't in any way discouraged from writing, from achieving, from going—
I have to say that I was. This is not a story of all Asian-American females because many are pushed in a big way. And probably if I had started to fail I would have been pushed too but as it was for most of my life I did well in school without too much effort and I was not encouraged to work any harder. My mother did say to me as the mother in “What Means Switch?” says to Mona, “It's no good for a girl to be too smart anyway.”
Pricing yourself out of the market, so to speak.
She thought I would have trouble getting married and that I should not work at being any smarter. So that while growing up a lot more attention was paid to my brother's education than to that of me and my sister. And speaking of the next generation, here he is—
[Luke, Jen's infant son, arrives in a stroller with his father and is admired by all.]
Does Luke bring up new questions about identity for you?
I realize he is very different from me. And that as much trouble as I've had with categorization, he is going to have more. Already it's starting. People will say things like, “Oh and he's half Chinese and half American.” I say, no, no, no, no, he's one hundred percent American. What do they mean he's half Chinese, half American—give me a break. Or they'll say, well he looks like you. I think what they mean is that he looks more Asian than he does Caucasian but actually he doesn't look like me at all.
I wouldn't think so. They are struggling to say something.
Exactly. But they're very stuck on this race thing. He presents a challenge to them, even at this age. People will say his eyes are blue. They're trying to make some new category for him—they're working on it even though—
They're working on it, and they're trying to be nice.
It's a matter of education, there's no ill will. People need educating, and he will be the educator.
How much Chinese do you know?
I actually don't know that much. I don't speak very well and I don't understand that well anymore these days. I've never been very good at it. I put in the book what I know.
Is it important for you that Luke know some Chinese?
I would like him to know some. In fact I would like him to know more than I know. My mom talks to him in Chinese, and I'll send him to Chinese school, but who knows what he'll learn. And in a general kind of way I think that it's more important for him to understand what it means to be Asian-American than it is for him to speak Chinese, that being Asian-American often means not speaking Chinese or Japanese or whatever, the same way being German-American often means not speaking German. I think it's a very American thing not to speak the language of your ancestors.
But a negative thing, don't you think? Or not?
I don't think it's necessarily negative. I think it would be nice if all Chinese-Americans spoke Chinese, and at the same time I also think that all change involves loss. I don't mean to minimize the loss. But if you stand against change, you stand against life.
You have said that you wanted to be wicked.
What does that mean for you?
It Means writing about the things we're not supposed to write about. For example in “What Means Switch?” I'm pretty close to the edge. People are uncomfortable when one starts writing about the Jews and the Japanese. Everyone's a little bit—
Everyone's poised, right? Where's this going to go?
It's dangerous but as a writer you have to get up the nerve to write about the things that are dangerous. And it is a minefield. I don't know. I don't think anything actually explodes in my story but—
It's poised, it's poised. That was the feeling that I had.
It makes people nervous.
Which is a good thing, it seems to me. The tension of being on the edge. Are there particular topics you think are bad?
Sex in general is of course a bad topic, for a nice girl. Racism. Power. Things you wouldn't talk about in company you're not supposed to write about either. But a writer is dedicated to truth—a writer's job is to write about these things. So the naughtier you are the better. The not-nicer you are the better a writer you are.
Do you have a new novel in the works now?
I sure hope so. But you know how it is—you really can't tell what's going on for a couple hundred pages. I hope I'm not going to have to throw it all out, but—
Do you feel courageous? You have spoken about writing in the dark, just going ahead without plot, without structure. Are you doing that now?
Yes. I'm doing it again. You would think I'd have learned better by now.
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Typical American (novel) 1991
Mona in the Promised Land (novel) 1996
Who's Irish?: Stories (short stories) 1999
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Eleanor N. “Where the East Is Read.” Far Eastern Economic Review 154, no. 46 (14 November 1991): 56, 58.
[In the following review, Schwartz evaluates Jen's Typical American, along with two other novels by Chinese-American authors writing about the Chinese-American experience. Lee concludes that Jen, Amy Tan, and Gus Lee are all master storytellers.]
It has taken a long time for Americans to acknowledge the presence of the Chinese in their midst. Arriving with the California gold-rush in 1849, hired to lay railroad track in the Rocky Mountains, the Chinese were overworked, underpaid and the easy victims of persecution, both legal and illegal. Barred by the 1882 Exclusion Act from further immigration, they fanned out gradually from the West to other parts of the country, clustering within their own tightly structured and largely self-sufficient communities. Despite the growth of a merchant class and a scattering of scholars in the universities, the Chinese came to be viewed in 20th-century America chiefly as laundrymen, purveyors of chop suey and as a movie detective named Charlie Chan.
Only now, as the 21st century looms, have their fellow Americans become aware that there are some prodigiously bright and productive people in the nation's Chinatowns, and only now have the Chinese-Americans themselves produced the writers who can interpret their unique experience and culture to the rest of the world.
The first of these writers to emerge was Maxine Hong Kingston, whose astonishing first novel, The Woman Warrior, published in 1976, won her the National Book Critics' Circle Award. The most prominent of the newer writers is Amy Tan, whose 1989 bestseller, The Joy Luck Club (Review, 27 July '89), was followed straight to the top of the lists by this year's The Kitchen God's Wife. Among those making promising debuts in 1991 were Gus Lee, whose China Boy is a fictionalised account of his own early years, and Gish Jen, author of Typical American, the only Easterner in this group of Californians.
Much has already been made in the American press of US publishers' new enthusiasm for novels by Chinese-American authors (Publishers Weekly called it “fictional encounters of the Chinese American kind”), but not all interested observers are enthusiastic about the attention. For instance, when Elaine Kim of the University of California at Berkeley's department of Asian American studies was asked about this publishing development, she replied: “This is the first time that books by Chinese-Americans are being published by mainstream publishers. A lot of people have been doing a lot of good writing before this.”
Be that as it may, recognition is now coming from other sources as well. For a three-day symposium, “The Asian American Experience: Looking Ahead,” recently held in Los Angeles, the Asia Society devoted two sessions to the “burgeoning presence of Asian Americans in the arts,” inviting such participants as playwright David Henry Hwang, actor B. D. Wong, Amy Tan, and Prof. Kim herself.
In New York City, the China Institute is planning a conference for next fall that will deal only with Chinese-American writers, exploring among other things the diversity of their heritage, their experiences as Chinese and as Americans, and the wide range of perceptions about China and the Chinese that have taken hold in the minds of other Americans.
What has happened? Why, all of a sudden, did this interest in Chinese-American writing spring forth? Diane Wong of the Asian American Journalists Association in San Francisco believes it to be a “market-driven” phenomenon. Echoing Elaine Kim, she says: “Publishers and editors now realise that the population growth has produced a cultural mass, a pool of people who are writing stories of Asian- and Chinese-American interest and that the stories are good enough for others to want to read them.”
In The Woman Warrior Maxine Hong Kingston explained the emergence of a Chinese-American identity in yet another way: “Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fit in solid America.”
The need to recognise and come to terms with this world certainly appears critical to the work of Kingston, Tan and Lee, though less so to Jen. In Kingston's case, according to one interviewer, “She was determined to make a living as a scientist or mathematician or writer. She was not going to be a slave or a wife.” Tan has said that she set out to write her stories for her immigrant mother, to explain all the disagreements and turbulent moments of their lives together, while Gus Lee began China Boy as a memoir for his children for whom, he once said, “We must provide safe harbour, communication and disclosure.”
Jen's difference may be that she was born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, was educated in New England and still lives in the Boston area. Seeing herself as an American rather than as a Chinese-American writer, Jen points out that Typical American is not only about the immigrant experience but about business and the way people function in American society, no matter what their country of origin.
Where the others have drawn from the fount of ancestral myth and tradition, Jen has been influenced by the Jewish-American writers, notably Bernard Malamud and the early Philip Roth. A product of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, Jen says, “I've been writing for 10 years and if you could see my earlier work, which has not been collected, you would see that it does not have Chinese themes at all. What I hoped to establish in Typical American was to show that if you write a book about business, the characters don't necessarily have to be white.”
But Jen is not alone when it comes to maintaining a distance between herself and the recent events in China. Although she shared the universal dismay over Tiananmen Square, “It was not a racial reaction, but simply the reaction of any American with ties to or an interest in China.” Similarly, Tan has spoken publicly of China only with reluctance, when persuaded that her celebrity could help to keep awareness of the situation there alive.
While Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife and Lee's China Boy share a great deal, including their San Francisco setting, the cultural patterns they represent are quite different. The Kitchen God's Wife tells the story of a woman who suffers at the hands of an abusive, psychotic husband. In China Boy, it is a woman who holds the upper hand: a stepmother so evil as to make Cinderella's look positively kind-hearted. Of the two, Tan's is the more satisfying book. This may be because it never loses sight of its Chinese frame of reference. Lee's, while good-humoured, is at once Chinese and American, and when Lee follows trails that have no particular bearing on Chinese life, the book sags in interest.
In the first 73 pages of The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan introduces us to Pearl Brandt, a first-generation Chinese woman, married to an American and maintaining an uneasy peace with her elderly widowed mother, the China-born Winnie Louie. Each woman is keeping a secret from the other and Pearl's is revealed to us early on. Not until Tan begins to unravel Winnie's secret, recounting her years as a docile Chinese wife, does the book take on momentum. But when it does, the reader is quickly drawn into a compelling and splendidly written narrative.
Lee's China Boy is told through the eyes of a youngster named Kai Ting, whose early years were dominated by three misfortunes: the bullies that populated his neighbourhood, the death of his mother when he was six years old, and his father's choice of a second wife, a blond American who came into the Ting household determined to eradicate from it every vestige of things Chinese, food included.
Kai's salvation is the YMCA, where he enrols in boxing lessons that enable him to develop the muscles and confidence not only to demolish the meanest of the bullies, but to stand up to the evil stepmother as well. For all its good spirits and upbeat ending, China Boy contains too much detail about boxing lessons and the life stories of occidental bullies and boxing instructors. One wishes for more episodes like the one in which Kai goes into a Chinese restaurant for a barbecued pork dumpling and cannot make himself understood to the hostess because he is speaking a Chinese language she does not know.
Travelling across the continent, and back to the late 1940s, we meet Jen's Typical American, a young man named Yifeng Chang, newly arrived from China to obtain his doctorate in engineering from a university in New York City and soon to change his first name to Ralph. Ralph's behaviour is so bizarre one wonders how he managed to learn English and get himself into an American doctoral program in the first place. Disdaining the opportunity to give up his Chinese passport and become a US citizen, he is forced to leave the university and is down to his last ＄3.16 when he is miraculously rescued by his sister, who has just escaped from Shanghai.
Achieving his PhD at last, and even obtaining a tenured professorship, Ralph blows it all away again when he falls prey to a conman named Grover Ding, who alienates Ralph's sister, seduces his wife, and talks Ralph into giving up his professorship and investing in a fast-food restaurant. This venture, of course, ends in disaster but Ralph bounces back into another teaching job and once more the American Dream is his to grasp.
Except for the slow patches in China Boy, all three books are written by master story-tellers and move at the speed of light. That they do not have the weight and power of The Woman Warrior, and Kingston's second book, China Men, is of no consequence. What does matter is that while Chinese-American high-school students are walking away with a disproportionate share of academic honours, and while the Pacific Rim seeps into America's consciousness, a new generation of writers is finally bringing Chinese-Americans into the mainstream of American literature where they belong.
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SOURCE: Jen, Gish, and Scarlet Cheng. “Gish Jen Talks with Scarlet Cheng.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 2 (winter 1991-92): 20-1.
[In the following interview, Jen discusses her use of humor in Typical American, and the frustrations of being pigeonholed as an Asian-American writer.]
Gish Jen is fuming. She is in Washington, D.C., on a book tour for her first novel, Typical American, and reporters keep asking her the same tiresome questions about being an Asian American writer. Her work keeps getting lumped together with the other Asian American books that came out last year—particularly, Frank Chin's Donald Duk and Gus Lee's China Boy—she simply does not feel they are comparable in intention or level of writing.
But last February, Publishers Weekly ran a feature piece entitled “Spring's Five Fictional Encounters of the Chinese American Kind,” and several other publications took their lead and reviewed the books as a group.
Perhaps that is natural, since her book, like Donald Duk and China Boy, is about the Chinese American immigrant experience.
“Yes, but there are other things,” she retorts. “I'm writing about an immigrant experience, but it's very much about America.”
She uses an analogy to explain herself. “When people look at a picture by Cezanne, no one's really interested in the apples. They're interested in the way in which he has transformed those apples. But if you're an Asian American writer, people are not interested in the quality of artistic transformation; they're interested in your material. There's a sense in which we're all writing immigrant autobiographies. The work is not valued as art; it's valued as what is called ‘social documentary.’ I find that very frustrating.”
Instead, she wants to be seen in a larger context. “Although the subject of my book is Asian American, it's also American,” she says. “I mean, it's a way of understanding what it means to be American. There's not a sense that Saul Bellow's characters are less American than John Updike's. But there is a perception that my characters are less American than Updike's. And that's the kind of thing I'm questioning. How is it that Bellow is writing about America, and I'm writing about the Asian American experience?”
Another reason for this grouping by the media I suggest to Jen, is that these Chinese American books have come out within a few months of each other.
“Don't get me wrong,” she says. “I think that it's a valid thing to talk about as long as we also get to talk about other things. There may be times when you go to dinner with your husband, and you're your husband's wife, and that's fine. But that's not all you are. And I am an Asian American writer. That's obviously an important aspect of my work. But that's not all my work is!”
We turn to the subject of her book, and the remarkable way she weaves Chinese dialogue—written in italics and translated into standard English—with the English dialogue, which is expressed brokenly by the immigrants. Jen speaks almost no Chinese herself, she says. “I think a lot of things in Chinese grammar reflect a world view. And certain assumptions are so radically different than Western ideas. An idea built into Chinese grammar is that you can distinguish between desire and ability to do something. The whole idea of limit is so fundamentally different than the American idea. In America we think people have no limits. We're surprised there aren't endless resources.”
Another distinguishing aspect of Typical American is its humor, though I question whether some of her characters are too broadly, even ridiculously, drawn.
Jen clearly recognizes that pitfall. “One of the dangers is that immigrants will be laughed at for the wrong reasons. It makes it almost impossible to write comedy.” However, she believes, “You just have to ensure that the readers laugh for the right reasons.”
“Although the laughter is sometimes wrong-spirited, it is a fact that all dislocation is funny. The way we deal with disruption and dislocation is funny; anything that is incongruous is funny. And although it's true we laugh at Ralph [her protagonist] and Ralph's dislocation, it's not at his expense. I don't think you're ever asked to see him as less than human.” To Jen, this is the key. “I think it's important to distinguish between that kind of humor and the kind of humor you find in comic books and so forth, where the Chinaman is the fall guy for all kinds of pranks and horrible things. You laugh at him, and you don't ever feel for him because he's not worth feeling about, like a dog or something. That's not the case here.”
But humor is important to her work, and she recognizes a basic “comic sensibility” in herself. “We cannot ask that we never laugh at ourselves, then. If we do that, we deny ourselves a full human range.”
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Gish Jen was born in 1955 in New York and raised in Queens, Yonkers, and Scarsdale, isolated from the Chinese community. “The conscious impulse of my family was to assimilate,” she has said elsewhere. “We were almost the only Asian American family in town. In Yonkers, people threw things at us and called us names. We thought it was normal—it was only much later that I realized it had been hard.
A Harvard graduate and holder of an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Jen began writing Typical American five years ago. Her shorter works have appeared in various anthologies and several magazines, including The Best American Short Stories 1988, The Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker. She currently teaches part-time at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and lives in Cambridge with her husband.
Despite her struggles, the novelist has found her literary reception quite gratifying. “I am complaining,” she says, “but I've gotten nothing but rave reviews from all over the country. It's been very nice. It's going very well.”
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Bhatia, Manjit. Review of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. Quadrant (November 1998): 78.
Asserts that Mona in the Promised Land is an inspiring and hopeful comic novel.
Herold, Kathryn. Review of Typical American, by Gish Jen. Ploughshares 17, nos. 2-3 (fall 1991): 280-1.
Asserts that Typical American is a wise, funny, and warm novel.
Jen, Gish, and Marilyn Berlin Snell. “The Intimate Outsider.” New Perspectives Quarterly 8, no. 3 (summer 1991): 56-60.
Jen discusses issues of middle-class American values, the immigrant experience, and racial prejudice.
Additional coverage of Jen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; Asian American Literature; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 135; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 89, 130; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 70; and Literature Resource Center.
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SOURCE: Cheng, Scarlet. “The Typical American Comes to Town.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 2 (winter 1991-92): 21, 23.
[In the following review, Cheng describes Typical American as a funny and well-crafted novel. However, Cheng observes that the characters are not fully developed and tend to remain emotionally remote from the reader.]
The last year brought a bloom of books from Chinese American writers, including the long-awaited second novel from Amy Tan, whose beautifully written bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, triggered the current fascination with Chinese American Literature.
Several distinctive first novels are among the offerings. All treat the Chinese American experience with a certain comic sensibility, but Typical American is by far the most adeptly crafted.
Jen signals that this is going to be a story about the immigrant experience from her first line: “It's an American story: Before he was a thinker, or a doer, or an engineer, much less an imagineer like his self-made-millionaire friend Grover Ding, Ralph Chang was just a small boy in China, struggling to grow up his father's son.” The story begins in 1947 when Yifeng, the only son of the Chang family in Jiangsu province, is dispatched by his father to study engineering in the United States. Dutifully Yifeng goes, “his stomach burbling with fool hope.”
Upon arrival he changes his name to Ralph, falls in love with the school secretary, who has “Orange hair, pink face, blue eyes.” With the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Ralph can't go home again. Because this new country is so strange and incomprehensible, he bumbles his way through the days.
Fortunately his sister Theresa, also unmoored from the motherland, finds him one day in a public park. She introduces Ralph to her friend Helen, a fellow Chinese expatriate, the two are drawn to one another, “And she [Helen] married Ralph, officially accepting what seemed already true—that she had indeed crossed a violent, black ocean; and that it was time to make herself as home in her exile as she could.” Eventually, Ralph finishes his university degree and gets a tenure-track teaching job. “They celebrated Christmas in addition to Chinese New Year,” writes Jen, “and were regulars at Radio City Music Hall. Ralph owned a Davy Crockett hat. Helen knew most of the words to most of the songs in The King and I and South Pacific.” With a house in the suburbs and two daughters, Ralph and Helen Chang seem cozily settled into the American middle-class way of life.
But into their lives walks Grover Ding, a clever assimilated Chinese American in starched shirts and expensive suits. He is the temptation of the New World incarnate. He charms them all with his self-confidence, his savoir faire, and his pie-in-the-sky talk of bigger and better things. He explains his “break” in life to Ralph like this: “We happened to get to talking, just like we're talking now, and the next thing—bang—I'm a millionaire. A self-made man. What do you think of that?. … In America, anything is possible.”
Ralph adores Grover, lends him money that he never gets back, then goes into partnership with him to run a fast-food joint that begins to fall apart at the foundations. Helen is falling for Grover in a different way. Meanwhile, Theresa is having an affair with a married Chinese man, Old Chao. The American Dream tailspins into chaos.
Unfortunately, Jen's characters tend to remain emotionally remote. They seem too much like figures in a morality play, and we never really get under their skin, feel their angst, or experience their joy. The narrative style has an edgy self-consciousness that noticeably strains as it reaches for comic effect.
Still, Jen writes well and wryly, and her subject is serious. As she said to me in an interview, “Every single group that has come here from the time of the Pilgrims has tried to hold onto their Old World identity, and they've inevitably been changed by being here.” Through this satiric, cautionary tale, Jen shows us that the road to cultural assimilation is often paved with misguided intentions.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5036
SOURCE: Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus 17, no. 1 (1992): 88-101.
[In the following essay, Samarth compares Jen's Typical American with Donald Duk by Frank Chin and Pangs of Love by David Wong Louie. Samarth asserts that Jen's novel presents a more complete picture of the Asian woman's experience than do the works of Chin and Louie.]
A memory: a rush of summer air flirting the leaves into consternation; sunlight boiling off the tarmac; a comma-row of crows deepening telephone wires—black punctuation, visual speech; the roadside littoral of gnarled tree roots in frozen spasms; open manholes breathing fevered stench; traffic snarled in crazy geometry; peeling houses like yellowed postcards, imprints of a better time. On the tatters of this city, heat falls like brocade.
I turn left into a suddenly bicycle-busy street. Coolie hats and black-cloth shoes ease the glare of circulating metal spokes. A sign greets me: “Happy Heaven Chinese Restaurant. Mr. Wong, proprietor.” For a moment I am dazzled as light and color scattershot around me; pink and magenta lanterns swing from poles; shop windows pirouette in silk screens and bright confections; firecrackers explode into giant flowerpods of smoke. I turn the latch to the restaurant door and walk into a darkened room so still that my voice plays back to me as I call for Mr. Wong. Now I see that I am dreaming.
Days later, while researching the Great Wall of China for a school project, I finally meet Mr. Wong. I imagine him and tell him what to say. He is tubby and disappointingly businesslike in a shiny brown rayon suit, not at all the blazing Fu Manchu I had anticipated. He sniffs pointedly and refuses to be so imagined, so I give up. While we share a cup of tea in the dark restaurant, and speak of our hopes and dreams—the Indian girl in Chinatown, the Chinese man in Calcutta—Mr. Wong abruptly puts his hands together and says, “You, me—same. Same.” He says it first with a Chinese accent, then in an Indian lilt, finally with a British frog-in-the-mouth seriousness. Before I can register a response on his views regarding our kinship (in all three accents), we suddenly turn fluid and disappear, puff, into smoky flowerpods.
These days in America I remember Mr. Wong not as an uncooperative figment but with affection, as if he were an old friend. I better understand the unlighted restaurant in a sea of heat and color. I grew up and crossed the ocean to decipher the dream, a long journey to resolve an unreal visit.
Here in a Midwestern town, I look for Mr. Wong in minor events and things, hoping that a turn of leaves, a latch on the door, a cup of tea, will unlock the past and open the future for me. I am given to signs and meanings, Providence in the fall of a sparrow, money in the itching palm of a hand. My greatest trials as a new immigrant in the U.S. are in my smallest gestures—when I attempt to weave significance into daily rituals to create meaning. These trivial acts, I think, are codified struggles to define a sense of self, beginning as we immigrants do, without a transportable culture and family. Identity by accumulation, perhaps. My sense of self is further challenged by my learned idea of an Indian woman, by now absorbed into my skin like permanent lotion. Obedience, deference, attention: These are the masks. Silence, cunning, and exile: These are the strategies for survival.
How appropriate then that I gravitate to books for meaning, those rich and constant promises of meaning. In these, I see my life uncurl and expand, my strategies refine into prose. For those of us dispossessed of the past, dreams and words become our white-tipped canes, tapping us to light and life.
Little wonder that Frank Chin's Donald Duk became for me an emblem of my buried self: In the pointedly named 12-year-old Donald Duk I see the color and vibrancy of a Calcutta street; in his father King, the dark room of a restaurant. Light and dark, space and enclosure—these are the contradictory dual realms the immigrant inhabits. On the one hand, he lives in an open and lighted world where he makes conscious, active attempts to assimilate; on the other, he contemplates a return through memory to a darker and narrower time. V. S. Naipaul (In a Free State, 1971) calls this the “pure time” of myth, “when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and had seen it as complete.”
Chin personifies this duality in the oppositions of father and son. The father, immured in his dark world of myth, derives his sense of identity from a legendary “pure time,” glorying in the exploits of the 108 outlaws led by Lee Kuey.1 In honor of the outlaws, King builds 108 model airplanes which he plans to launch on the most auspicious day of the New Year. The fiery symbolism of this act invokes the mythic Chinese do-or-die machismo, while contrasting with the self-serving Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Chinese character:
[The Chinese] were made passive and non assertive by centuries of Confucian thought and Zen mysticism. They were totally unprepared for the violently individualistic and democratic Americans … the timid and introverted Chinese have been helpless against the relentless victimization by aggressive, highly competitive Americans.
King Duk also plays Kwan Kung, the god of fighters, and the most powerful character in the Cantonese opera. To play Kwan Kung demands an ascetic intensity, a paring away of all that is inessential to the role, a recognition of and reverence for the “pure time.” King Duk explains to Donald that “you gotta keep the history or lose it forever. That's the mandate of Heaven” (p. 123). The mandate of Heaven is defined by the will of the people, which in turn evolves from their successful remembrance and celebration of a glorious past. King Duk attempts to reconnect himself to the “pure time” through role playing Kwan Kung and building model airplanes, attempts that allow his invisible life to triumph. In myth, he becomes one with the old Chinese heroes and assumes his proud selfhood; in reality, however, he remains merely a good-natured Chinese chef, pleasantly detached from white society.
In contrast, Donald Duk, resentful of his father's refusal to change his embarrassingly ethnic ways, identifies entirely with mainstream America. An “engineer of hate for everything Chinese,” he does all he can to will himself as white as Fred Astaire, his hero, or Arnold Azalea, his friend. Lacking any real understanding of his history and culture, Donald Duk even avoids the other Chinese at school, so intent is he on assimilation. The past is nothing more to him than a series of unrelated curiosities, a sideshow for his curious Anglo-Saxon friends in Mr. Meanwright's history class. Myth itself intervenes to guide Donald Duk to a coherent understanding of selfhood. In dreams he returns to the year 1869, to relive the triumphs of the record track-laying Chinese laborers who worked their way through the Sierra Nevada to construct the Central Pacific Railroad. Donald Duk sees that the Chinese were slighted, their glory stolen by their white masters, their memory all but erased from history books. In a perhaps overly neat resolution intended to dramatize the novelist's didactic purpose, Donald Duk and Arnold Azalea burst into history class with documentary evidence of the true heroism of the laborers, followed closely by King Duk, the dancing Kwan Kung. Kwan Kung's clashing cymbals celebrate the end of the father-son conflicts now stridently and triumphantly brought into harmony: King sees the need for Donald to reach out to his friends, to the Anglo-Saxon majority; Donald understands the value of his heritage. The restoration of the father-son relationship also unifies the inner/outer and myth/action polarities that the two characters personify. These unities are voiced at the closure when Donald discovers “You don't have to give up being Chinese to be American.”
Though Chin deftly reconciles plot and character, he uses language more obliquely to probe his Chinese-American identity. His choice of a cartoon character name for the protagonist is scarcely arbitrary. In naming Donald Duck, Chin defines the tension between perception and reality; how the Anglo-Saxons see the Chinese and what the Chinese perceive themselves to be are at odds. We know that epithets flung in derision can become symbols of rebellion and strength. When the outsider wears his label as a lapel, he parodies himself in an act of confident aggression, telling the powerful dispensers of value that he cares little for their interpretations of worth. So, as advised by his father, when Donald Duk waddles down the street in an imitation of his cartoon namesake to keep off the neighborhood bullies, he controls the means of his selfhood; he transforms mockery and powerlessness into self-creation. Absorbing the degrading Anglo-Saxon gaze through self-parody, Donald Duk refashions and defuses their contempt into shared humor. In this way, naming itself becomes a means of re-appropriating identity, a technique echoing Chin's thematic reconciliations of opposites: Just as Donald Duk revises the Anglo-Saxon version of Chinese American history by revealing new truths in the dismissive railroad story, he remakes himself by finding proud resonances in a derogatory name.
Unfortunately, no such self-affirming transformations occur with Donald's mother, Daisy Duk. Also named after a cartoon character, she remains a peripheral figure, an amiable caricature who never confronts or transcends the comical implications of her name. The contrast between Donald's active indignation and Daisy's passive acceptance underscores Chin's problematic attitude toward his women characters. In fact, the weakness in Chin's otherwise admirable effort to unify plot, character, and language is that he excludes the contributions of Chinese women altogether. Donald Duk is essentially a novel about the evolving male Chinese-American self. Women play little part in the action and contribute even less to the dialogue. When Donald's mother, his sisters Venus and Penelope, and the Frog twins speak, they fall into sitcom patter, removed from the challenges of life and cocooned in two-dimensional inanity.
“[Nothing is] more disgusting than that toy collie getting run over by a Pontiac GTO when we were trying to cross Broadway …” Venus says.
“You would have to remember that!”
“You're the one who said disgusting, Mom.”
“That car's tires were so fat and that dog was so little!”
“That's exactly what I said just before the Pontiac stopped on it,” Penny says.
“Do you remember it crunched?”
“Please, ladies,” Mom says, “Your mother is eating.”
“Pardonay moowah, poor fah-vor, Chef Boyardee.”
“How very continental of you.”
Language, for the women, is lighthearted evasion—a means of side-stepping lives unlived except in the froth and bubble of repartée. Bystanders and witnesses, they juggle and tumble words, providing the kind of cute sideshow Donald Duk had himself rebelled against in the skewed Anglo-Saxon descriptions of Chinese culture. Worse, we are feted to a gratuitous diatribe against T.V. newscaster Connie Chung and freewheeling editorials on bumbling female physiology:
The twins have most of their waffles in their mouths and swallow, making all the noises in their mouths and throats they can, and smack their lips, then daintily wipe their lips and fingers with their napkins dipped in their water glasses.
“I think that's the most disgusting thing I have ever seen,” Mom says.
Women attack women; the sisters flail Chung and the mother demolishes the twins, forming a subculture of gender-determined jealousy and spite. This dated inheritance from the era before the Women's Movement exposed its sexist bias is the way Chin's male characters believe women describe other women. That Chin subscribes, however humorously, to such a short-sighted attitude is even more disconcerting because it jars against his otherwise meticulous attempts at piecing the novel into a whole.
A more complete picture of the Asian woman's experience and a subtler exploration of the immigrant's two polar realms of existence—his lighted, open world of assimilation and his darker, narrower world of myth—emerge in Gish Jen's elegant, funny, and probing Typical American. This novel weaves together the lives of the Chang family—Ralph, engineer and imagineer, from Shanghai; his sister, Theresa (“homely as a pighead three”); and his delicate wife, Helen. Alarmed by a seemingly unfathomable culture, Ralph sees at once that he needs strategies to survive. “Xiang banfa. An essential Chinese idea—he had to think of a way. In a world full of obstacles, a person needed to know how to get around.” Their way of “getting around” is to translate their anxieties at being perceived as “other” into a self-preserving attitude of superiority. With the bravado of the underdog, they establish a superior “otherness” in dismissive phrases:
And, pretty soon, no one quite knew how, “Typical Pete” turned “Typical American” turned Typical American this, Typical American that. ‘Typical American no-good,’ Ralph would say; Theresa, “Typical American don't-know-how-to-get-along”; and Helen, wistfully, “Typical American just-want-to-be-the-center-of-things.”
Such spirited Podsnappery serves as a divider between their private lives and values and their assimilation into the public and professional world outside. In this odd way, the cabalistic repetition of the phrase guards their purity, their unsullied Chineseness.
Having identified their separateness, they must now establish the value of that separateness. Myths, which enrich their inner lives, provide the means—not those of the heroic male variety in Donald Duk, but everyday cultural myths: women must have small feet; food should be served in successive courses; scholarly men must avoid women, or else they'll get syphilis. Trivial though these may seem, the myths are integral to the Changs' existence. While providing order and significance, they also consolidate the boundaries and wall the “dark room” of the Chinese self against invasions from the perpetual Disneyland of America.
Jen's use of spatial imagery further explores the private, mythic Chinese self. Although the Changs' dream of property ownership is less than heroic, the significance of their house-hunting forays into suburbia becomes resonant. As all three characters dream of their picket-fenced paradise guarded from the corrupting influences of the Typical Americans beyond, the house becomes a symbol for the private self and the cherished “pure time.” To be at home for the Chang family is to be protected, to be not-dual, to celebrate the completeness of belonging to one country, China, the inner self. Symbolic action reinforces spatial imagery in the Changs' decision to sell the house, and later, in their discovery of cracks on the walls and ceiling of Ralph's Chicken Palace. The impending loss and threatened disintegration of the house and business echo the family's own faltering stability, as the characters leave home to experiment with American life.
Rising from failure and despair, the novel then moves toward an open-ended possibility of renewal, as the Changs recognize freedom's responsibilities. Ralph frees himself of the machinations of the con-man Grover Ding, and even considers giving up his fast-food business to return to teaching. Theresa, after a painful but liberating affair with Old Chao, the Acting Head of Ralph's department, decides to move into an apartment, stepping literally into the world. Even Helen, the most traditionally Chinese of the three, and not surprisingly, the one most ardently yearning for a house, controls her unexpected affair with Ding, going so far as to maim him temporarily in a delicate region of his anatomy. The Changs' search for renewal is reinforced by the contrasting imagery of space in Helen's musings:
In China, Helen had been taught enormous circumspection; the world there was like a skating rink, a finite space, walled. … Here the world was enormous, all endless horizon; …
Choosing the open “enormous” world over the finite walled room, the present over the past, the Changs leave the “pure time” behind—a choice best expressed in their later contrition over the “Typical American” phrases. Now aware that they too are typical Americans, the Changs make themselves available to vulnerable change.
The contrasting imagery of space is repeated at the closure when Ralph lifts his hand in the snow to flag down a cab, his gesture both protest and greeting. His “finite” and “walled” house behind him, the “endless horizon” of snow ahead, Ralph anticipates getting Theresa out of the hospital, restoring his failing marriage, recovering his morality. In this frozen moment, the novel ends without resolution, but with hope.
Though the novel seems overtly about Ralph, beginning and ending with his fortunes, Typical American reads as a sign of affirmation for Asian women who do what I do, invest meaning in little gestures, substitute superstition for myth, live by and then reject strategies of deference and silence. Unmasking themselves of the learned idea of the good woman, both Theresa and Helen create their identity in freedom.2
One of the reasons these women seem so authentic is that we are allowed access to their inner lives, unlike Donald Duk where Chin's cardboard cut-out women posture lightly on the fringes of male experience. The interior narratives of all the main characters in Typical American are controlled by the author's voice which guides their evolution from dialect into confident idiomatic assertions. Jen's use of dialect emphasizes the context of the narrators—all outsiders, strangers, speakers of another tongue. The newly arrived Changs see the world in English constructions squeezed through the press of Chinese grammar: “What you laughing?” demands Ralph of his first crush, Cammy; or, “I like finish my Ph.D” he informs his professor, Pinkus. Further clouding their verbal haze, the Changs cheerfully refract experience through the dubious wisdom of awkwardly translated Chinese proverbs. “No door like back door,” Ralph announces; or “Opposites begin in each other,” he recalls his father saying. The Changs make America familiar through these set metaphors, filtering a gaudy and alien culture through Confucian nets of caution and attention. In an almost osmotic process, through transferred grammar and proverbial wisdom, they absorb America into the inner room of myth and selfhood, seeing the new world only as it exists within the confines of the old.
Yet as they move through years of diverse experiences in the new country, the Changs become as flexible and evolving as the language they learn to use. No longer a scale of prescriptive conventions, language becomes an open space in which the Changs constantly create themselves. As their gradually acquired idiomatic English probes the nuances of experience, experience itself deepens, constantly re-shaped by the words that describe it. Language, like life, suggests infinite possibility, a rising of wings into a changing sky. And like the Changs' immigrant souls, it evolves from the safety of limitations into the freedom of experimentation and risk. Words become their mode of perpetual transition, doors into landscapes yet to be drawn.
In contrast, language doesn't grow in tandem with evolving consciousness in Donald Duk. Chin's protagonist speaks an adolescent jargon in set rhythms of repartée and wisecracks, punctuated with “yeah” and “wow” and “whew.” Though this easy idiom aligns Donald Duk with mainstream society, it also limits him from a more creative exploration of his psyche. If language and consciousness work as reflecting mirrors, each shaping the other, Donald Duk's consciousness faces bare walls. Language is oddly static. The voice we hear at the beginning of the novel is the same one at the end: we are only told by the controlling author that the dancing Kwan Kung and Donald Duk are in harmony; we never quite see why through their verbalizations of experience. Even the final lyrical reflections on the last day of the New Year celebrations seem to be the writer's commentary rather than self-revelation by the characters, as if a puppeteer were moving the strings faster to raise swirls of color and movement. Chin marches purposefully toward a thesis, and such stories focus perhaps too singlemindedly on the moral. Since Jen's novel expounds no overt message, language is allowed the freedom to create the book's reality; so we see a symbiotic relationship between the self and speech as they nourish and sustain each other. It may not be too much of a stretch to speculate that Chin's static use of language and Jen's freer one express differing modes of perception. Chin emphasizes action, plot, banter; Jen explores motivations, implications, imagery. One perceives the world as a linear progression; the other, as fluid potential. We hear the voices of a playwright and a poet, respectively, play on the form of the novel.
Their differences in perception also mark their demarcation by gender. If male Chinese-American identity is the subject of Donald Duk, then Chin's style echoes the subject, making up in alignment for what it lacks in insight. Manly men act, or so the logic of stereotypes assures us (Wasn't Hamlet “feminine” because he puttered around dispiritedly?). Womanly women feel (“… an incontestable fact,” Ashley Montagu confidently asserts).3 If Chin, however unconsciously, embraced these dubious generalizations and neglected the resources of language to better suit his thematic intentions, his choice was unwise. Since the novel itself is a paean to the male ego, the style had little need to provide an accompanying chorus. Chin might have extended the same ingenuity he displayed in naming Donald Duk after a cartoon figure to the exploration of nuances in character development. Employing the false myth of “male” discourse—the easy, witty, logical, and unembellished neo-classical prose Mr. Montagu so admires—to cheerlead a “male” book into its victorious message is a limitation, not a strength. Jen's use of language, on the other hand, is influenced but not constrained by gender stereotypes. An intuitive writer who “feels” through imagery and suggestions, she nevertheless allows herself a creative distance from her protagonists; she gives them their freedom to become who they choose to be (Mr. Wong might applaud), while still confining them within the world of the book.
Like Jen's final image of Ralph suspended in time, short stories are a collection of frozen moments, their concentrated structure demanding both the linear imagination of a playwright and the shaping powers of a poet. Even Mr. Wong, if he allowed me some leeway, could have been a character in a short story, but he was too unyielding to the charms of such enriching transformations. I had planned to develop the Chinese restaurant into an extended metaphor and Mr. Wong into an Immigrant Everyman, but he thwarted my attempts. I tried to beam him encouragement through radio waves of memory and remind him of all the places he might have been—The New Yorker, National Geographic—but he simply isn't there. “Calling Mr. Wong,” cries memory, chasing footsteps running down a fading street.
David Wong Louie is luckier. His characters aren't recalcitrant, his plots swirl into place, his vibrant settings blaze with life. And Louie's prose pirouettes, spinning metaphors most elegantly around a quiet wisdom. (I wish I could point these stories out to Mr. Wong as the felicitous results of democratic character-writer collaborations, but he would probably sniff pointedly, his rayon suit ashimmer with controlled indignation.) Like Chin and Jen, Louie examines the manifold yearnings of men and women seeking to reach out across the cultural divide. As the heart is vulnerable, buffeted by rejection and parody, his characters devise schemes of retaliation and survival. Mrs. Chow in “Displacement,” the most moving story of the collection, develops obedience and silence as a means to patiently endure her American experiences, certain that her hardships must one day somehow fade. Even small everyday gestures heighten Mrs. Chow's sense of being tested before her reprieve:
Mrs. Chow had finished her morning chores. She was in the bathroom rinsing the smell of bacon from her hands. She couldn't wash deep enough, however, to rid her fingertips of perfumes from the widow's lotions and creams, which, over the course of months, had seeped indelibly into the whorls. But today her failure was less maddening. Today she was confident the odors would eventually fade. She could afford to be patient.
Devising a less self-reliant strategy of survival, Mrs. Pang in the title story looks across cultures for companionship with someone who won't judge or wound her—Johnny Carson on television. Even when confused by Johnny Carson's jokes, Mrs. Pang creates her illusion of assimilation and acceptance, allowing her uncomprehending mirth to align her with the laughing studio audience “as if invisible wires run between her and the set.” Yet the divide cannot be patiently ignored or evaded through illusion. It must be bridged in ways more real, the dark room of the Chinese self opened to experience, the sameness of people explored. In a new world, the nostalgia for the “pure time” is self-defeating, as Mrs. Chow and Mrs. Pang discover in their unbroken loneliness; the dilemma is how to merge one's memories of a perfect past with an alien present. Louie's answer echoes E. M. Forster's dictum “Only connect!” (Howard's End) as he sets up polarities—past and present, light and darkness, Chinese and American—which can be bridged through love: The narrator in “Pangs of Love” yearns for his girlfriend, Amanda; the Sashimi bar worker for Luna/Peg in “Bottle of Beaujolais;” the new houseowner for Suzy in “The Movers.” Though distanced, they remain connected through memory and hope, which are, in fact, the immigrant's own gossamer skeins of identity, thrown like comforting nets over his floating life, the very ones Stephen Dedalus tries to escape.
The need for union is closely associated with specific movements. Each story seems a gesture toward or a relinquishing of a relationship, with many of them ending in a state of suspended flight. In “Bottle of Beaujolais,” for example, the worker and his (possible) lover flee in a cab, while Buddy Lam in “Love on the Rocks” hurtles deep into the night, away from the tragedy of his bathtub-obsessed wife. The devious protagonist of “Social Science” speeds down the street in an aspiring homebuyer's car; and “Displacement” concludes with Mrs. Chow tumbling through the air in a carnival ride. The other form of action at the end of these stories is paradoxically one of non-action—sleep, and its variant, stasis. The father in “Inheritance” and the Chinese laborers in “Disturbing the Universe” drift into sleep; in “Pangs of Love,” the protagonist's family and friends are caught by the narrator in a paralytic frieze the minute before they begin dinner. Flight and sleep are modes of escape; they are also forms of renewal. Louie's characters constantly escape and renew themselves in relationships, an ebb-and-flow tide of being that washes them toward a firmer shore. In “Displacement,” Mrs. Chow, well-born, but now reduced to menial housekeeping for the lotion-collecting widow, revives in the brief escape of a roller coaster ride. Next to her sits a stranger, a child who unwittingly connects her to the past and blends the moment with political history, while securing her for a few desperate seconds in an awkward relationship:
As she was whipped skyward once more, her arms were wrapped around the little girl. Not in flight, not soaring, but anchored by another's being, as her parents stood against the liberators to protect their land.
Connection, escape, renewal—Louie makes these abstractions the space his characters inhabit. In their emotional, sometimes literal, rag-and-bone existence, each is heroic, given his frozen moment in a sashimi bar or a Chinatown high-rise.
In my own high-rise (in a small town, four floors constitute a high-rise), surrounded by potted plants and a bemused dog, I ponder my own vicissitudes as if they were stories seeking closure. Unlike Chin's Central Pacific Railway heroes, we Asian Indians have no history of building the new world. But like Jen's consumer-dreamers, we hunger for the same convertibles and ownership of property; we come armed with professional degrees and a spirited belief in our invincibility. Once here, we seek for ways to constantly renew ourselves, moving braille-fingered over our everyday experiences, hoping a coherent language will surface. We emulate Louie's men and women, experimenting with connections across cultures and looking like children among toys for the redeeming grace of love. As America becomes more and more real to us, we fear becoming more and more insubstantial, not knowing what myths sustain us or what flags call us home.
Mr. Wong is gone. I doubt he will come back to sit across the table from me in his burnished splendor, sipping tea with precise elegance. He will not practice accents as a prelude to our smoky disappearance. But here I am in his place, probing though my own darkness, discovering my own story as I write, meeting myself in a word-soothed country. I create the fictions that create me now. Mr. Wong was right. We are the same.
Donald Duk's uncle describes Lee Kuey as one of the mythic 108 “Chinese Robin Hoods” who built a stronghold on Mount Leongshan against the “bad guys” in the government of the Water Margin. Lee Kuey, or “the Black Tornado,” more than lives up to his name; bloodied and dripping, he “runs into a fight with a thirty-pound battle axe in each hand. He loves to fight and kill people.” A symbol of Chinese manhood, Lee Huey is King's inspiration and alter ego. That Donald Duk destroys one of King's cherished model airplanes named after Lee Kuey is significant because his gesture underscores the father-son conflict. Donald Duk aims to destroy the Chinese part of his identity, while King assumes his selfhood in his cultural past.
A short story collection, Home to Stay, Asian American Women's Fiction Ed. Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac (New York: The Greenfield Review Press, 1990), offers additional ethnic and gender modified perspectives on assimilation and the redefinitions of identity. Carol Bruchac tells us that these writers, not unlike Theresa and Helen, have “something uniquely their own to share, something that might teach us what it is like to live in a country which always views one as an ‘outsider,’ oftentimes an ‘exotic’ outsider. At the same time, I believed that those writers were women who shared so many issues with their sisters of all colors that common threads would be found that would weave us together.”
Ashley Montagu is quoted in Mary Ellman, Thinking About Women (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 83.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181
SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Some of Her Best Friends.” Washington Post Book World (12 May 1996): 3.
[In the following review, Yardley observes that Mona in the Promised Land includes likable characters and interesting stories, but asserts that the novel as a whole is disappointing because of inconsistencies in the narrative voice.]
Gish Jen's first novel, Typical American, published five years ago, is by any reasonable standard a rare accomplishment: mature, subtle, knowing, compassionate and, by no means least, funny. It tells the story of two Chinese immigrants to America, a brother and sister, whose determination to become “typical American” leads them into any number of difficulties and adventures, in the process of which a good deal is revealed not merely about them but also about us.
Typical American was reviewed with the enthusiasm it deserved and sold moderately well, but was swamped—along with a number of other good books all dealing, in their different ways, with much the same subject—by the stupendous success of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Since then even more books about the Chinese-American (or Chinese-Canadian) experience have been published, to the extent that a substantial literary sub-genre has emerged, one to rival the fiction from the 1950s and 1960s by Bellow, Malamud, Roth et al. about Jewish-American life.
To what if any extent Typical American is autobiographical is not clear, though probably it is so more in point of view than in specific detail. By contrast Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, fairly trumpets its origins in the author's own experience. This is not bad in and of itself—the impulse to tell one's own story, however transmogrified, is at the heart of the novelist's art—but it is limiting, especially when it results in coming-of-age fiction.
It is a matter of no small interest, remarked upon in this space with regard to a number of earlier books, that the coming-of-age novel is no longer strictly men's stuff—that women have staked their claim to the territory and that this is, for reasons too obvious to require elaboration, on the whole a good thing. But all such books published by women in recent years have also made the point, however unwittingly, that women are liable to make the same mistakes and fall into the same temptations as men, that adolescence is adolescence regardless of which sex undergoes it and that fictional accounts of the experience tend to suffer from the same artlessness and self-absorption.
All of which is an admittedly circumlocutory way of getting around to the unhappy truth that Mona in the Promised Land is, to put it charitably, disappointing. Opening the novel with genuine anticipation and enthusiasm, I found myself within only a few pages lamenting some essential choices Jen had made and regretting that 300 pages of the result lay ahead. The redeeming quality of Mona in the Promised Land is that it is populated by a great many likable people whose stories become of considerable, if not compelling, interest. But the manner in which those stories are told is uninviting; the narrative is in the present tense—one of the riskiest of all fictive devices—and the prose seeks to emulate, albeit not literally, the jangly chatter of teenagers. Perhaps this will appeal to readers younger than I, but more likely they too sooner or later will tire of the ceaseless talk, too much of it uninteresting and too much of it leading nowhere.
The eponymous Mona Chang is a teenager who in 1968 moves with her parents and sister into a comfortable New York suburb called Scarshill, “a liberal place” with a substantial Jewish population into which these Chinese immigrant parents and their highly Americanized children expect to be—and are—welcomed. The parents run a popular pancake house with half an eye on the cash register and the other half looking back across the Pacific to China:
Make sure, more sure—the endless refrain of her parents' lives. Sometimes Mona wants to say to them. You know, the Chinese revolution was a long time ago; you can get over it now. Okay, you had to hide in the garden and listen to bombs fall out of the sky, also you lost everything you had. And it's true you don't even know what happened to your sisters and brothers and parents, and only wish you could send them some money. But didn't you make it? Aren't you here in America, watching the sale ads, collecting your rain checks. You know what you are now? she wants to say. Now you're smart shoppers. You can forget about make sure. But in another way she understands it's like asking the Jews to get over the Holocaust, or like asking the blacks to get over slavery. Once you've lost your house and your family and your country, your devil-may-care is pretty much gone too.
What we have here is a quintessentially American theme, the dislocation and discontent that linger in the hearts of those who have fled oppression elsewhere and now find themselves uneasy pilgrims in the promised land. In the case of the Chang family this is more true of the parents than of the daughters, but for Mona and Callie the tensions between China and America are no less real, if more subtle and elusive.
Mona gets a sense of this when she visits an exhibition of Chinese portraiture in which what seems to matter is “not these people's inner selves, but their place in society.” Thinking about this, Mona understands—or so at least she thinks—“what mattered most to the people in the pictures as if it still mattered most to her: not that the world would know them for themselves—they would never dream of such a thing—but only that they might know they belonged, and where.”
The search for such knowledge is what Mona conducts in these pages, as have countless others in countless books before this one. It is an ancient and honorable American theme that has lost none of its pertinence, in large measure because as one group of immigrants finds where it belongs, another comes along to ask the same questions. It is no accident that Mona, in the course of her search, converts to Judaism; this has much to do with joining the society of her closest friends in Scarshill, but it also is a way of identifying her own search with theirs.
This is interesting and serious business, and clearly Gish Jen has thought about it with some care; the best parts of this novel are those in which the teenagers' chatter fades away and a more mature narrative voice emerges. But the abrupt contrast between these two voices is jarring, leaving one to wonder which is the novel's true expression. My own hunch is that the chatter is something Jen needed to get out of her system and that the adult voice is the real her; this certainly is what Typical American indicated, and there seems little reason not to hope that it will be the dominant voice the next time around.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A WASP-Free America.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 May 1996): 2.
[In the following review, Eder describes Mona in the Promised Land as a witty, thoughtful, and beautifully narrated story.]
Gish Jen's Typical American was a brilliantly witty and affecting novel of a Chinese family eroding like an island in the sucking tides of American culture.
Mona in the Promised Land is a sequel in a way. It focuses on what the tides restore: a 16-year-old whose stubborn sensibility obliges her to invent a way to be American that takes account of her cultural traditions even while rebelling against them.
The novel, as witty as Typical American and more thoughtful—though much more discursive and in some ways less affecting—relates Mona's quirky, gallant and oddly persuasive effort at appropriation. Not only is her America also Chinese American, it is America insofar as it is also Chinese American.
Slight, polite, irrepressible and terribly funny, Mona naturalizes herself into Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Beatles, the civil rights movement, shopping malls, and sexual and personal liberations. She alters them slightly as she does so. She is a cultural Luther Burbank; her hybrid apples are an improvement.
The setting is Scarshill, a not-at-all disguised version of Scarsdale, N.Y. There, having worked brutally hard in their restaurant business and suffered all kinds of ups and downs, Mona's parents, Ralph and Helen Chang, have made it to the promised land of the title. It is 1968 and a liberal ethos is in the air, even in this haven of wealthy Wasps and Jews.
The Changs are the first of what Mona calls “the new Jews,” a minority seeking what the previous minority had sought: verdant escape from the city and excellent schools. The reader may get halfway through before noticing Jen's deliberate scheme: There are no WASPs in the book.
In a kind of joyful irony that, among other things, makes Mona a shining example of a multicultural message delivered with the wit and bite of art, it is Scarshill's Jewish families that represent for the Chinese girl the American Dream. At the same time, they are her model of how a minority can assimilate yet keep its particular flavor and, indeed, impart something of that flavor to the national mix.
Mona is a year or two of variations and forays through America's ethnic paths and detours. The protagonist and narrator, mounted upon her own frisky and restless adolescence, is a zany innocent whose gift is for discovery by going too far.
Where do I fit in? is her question, universal to adolescence and particular to her situation. She is the first Asian girl in her high school and she is torn between the strict Chinese familial order at home and the freedoms of her friends.
She washes her jeans repeatedly for a de rigueur bleached look; her mother complains of the electric bill, Mona offers to pay, her mother is insulted. With Mona's best friend, Barbara Gugelstein, it is just the other way: She gets money for chores and is expected to pay an extra hour's wages to the day-maid because of the mess created by her pet birds.
“Barbara is her own separate accounting unit,” Mona tells us. As for her and her sister, Callie, their chores contribute to the great family enterprise, the one that has got Helen and Ralph out of China and set them on a course of long hours, hard work and insecure prosperity. Callie is at Harvard, Mona works flawlessly at school and will eventually get there—this is their further contribution to the enterprise. Unity inside the Chang house, diversity in the world outside: two connecting chambers of such vastly differing pressures that something has to give.
Mona gives. She strikes out for America—in this case, the youth program at the local temple. She is determined to convert and persuades the skeptical but amiable young rabbi to agree. “I like it here at the temple. I like it that you tell everyone to ask, ask, instead of just obey, obey,” is her fix on Judaism, so different from the Confucian pieties at home. “I like it that you tell people to make a pain in the neck of themselves.”
Her tour of the promised land as a Chinese Jew leads to a series of ventures that take her further and further away from the family constraints. She falls bumpily in love with Seth Mandel, a '60s dropout who has dropped no farther than a tepee in his wealthy parents' garden where, supplied with food and parental laundry service, he argues politics and books and experiments with pot and girls. Mona is aroused but cautious—she is her upbringing as well as her rebellion—and they become boon companions and fellow-adventurers long before they become lovers.
Their main adventure is harboring Alfred, the black cook in the Chang restaurant, whose wife has thrown him out. Together with Barbara, they secrete him in Barbara's house, her parents being away for the summer. It is a foray into civil-rights idealism, and the author paints, touchingly and amusingly, its decay. There is too much condescension in the benevolence and Alfred is too sensitive and redoubtable not to feel it. The climax is catastrophic and splendidly intelligent; eventually it leads to the book's own conditional climax, Mona's rupture with her mother.
It is a beautifully narrated quarrel, thunderous but interrupted by peaceable domestic asides—for example, whether chopsticks can go in the dishwasher. At one point Helen says she would kill herself if Mona ever got involved with Alfred. “That's so racial,” Mona storms in full American righteousness. “Only an American girl,” Helen storms back in the righteousness of a very distant culture, “would think about her mother killing herself and say oh, that's so racial. A Chinese girl would think whether she should kill herself too.”
The rupture is painful and prolonged but, of course, not final. The ending of Mona, taking place years later, ties everything together far too neatly and amiably: It is all colored bows. The novel is purposefully nondramatic, in fact, and this produces a certain blandness in Mona's adventures, a tendency to reflect more than excite, a high wit at low temperature, as well as discursive passages that are static despite their ingenuity.
But this is also the point. Mona is telling an American story imbued with a Chinese sensibility, one for which the new what-should-be never quite eclipses the old what-is. And—her greatest achievement—Jen has devised a diction for Mona to tell it in. Hemingway invented his rhythms to create his particular American world. Jen invents a percussive tempo, a series of brusquely energetic leaps and breaks that, without being anything but idiomatic, create an extended particular world where dim sum is as American as apple pie.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1295
SOURCE: Miner, Valerie. “Asian-American Pancake.” Nation 262, no. 24 (17 June 1996): 35-6.
[In the following review, Miner describes Mona in the Promised Land as a witty but ultimately uneventful novel.]
What may distinguish our immigrant parents from the general mass of fretting fathers and mothers is that their decision to “create a new life in a new place” instills a profound conviction in will. Hence the children inherit responsibility as much as opportunity. “One generation is supposed to build on the last, ascending and ascending like the steps of a baby bamboo shoot.”
In Gish Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, Ralph and Helen Chang want the best for their children, and they know what best is. Their exercise of control as protection engraves deep generational rifts. In this late-twentieth-century American Bildungsroman, Jen deftly investigates sexuality, class, religion, politics and race through the curious eyes of charming Mona Chang. From adolescence to early motherhood, Mona explores identity variously as imprinted, mutable and chosen.
The audacious Jen opens this hilarious, episodic novel in 1968 as the Chang family, familiar to readers of Jen's popular Typical American, are upwardly mobilizing themselves to “Scarshill,” New York. “There they are, nice Chinese family—father, mother, two born-here girls. … they're the New Jews, after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.”
The Changs are as happy as a restless, displaced family can be. Ralph and Helen are managing their new pancake restaurant with a dubious recipe of American optimism and Chinese clannishness. Older daughter Callie is speeding toward worldly success at Harvard-Radcliffe. Eighth grader Mona, a supporting actor in Typical American, stars in this new novel, embracing her Jewish classmates and also making friends with the black and Asian pancake-house workers. Soon she is preparing for conversion under the tutelage of the nice hippie Rabbi Horowitz, volunteering at the temple's suicide hot line, falling in and out of love with Seth Mandel and driving her parents crazy with her social conscience.
An incredulous Mona asks her parents,
“Do you mean you can only trust other Chinese?”
“Not only Chinese. But other Chinese, you talk to them, you get a kind of feeling. More sure.”
Make sure, more sure—the endless refrain of her parents' lives. Sometimes Mona wants to say to them, You know, the Chinese Revolution was a long time ago; you can get over it. … didn't you make it? Aren't you here in America, watching the sale ads, collecting your rain checks? You know what you are now? she wants to say. Now you're smart shoppers. You can forget about make sure.
Endlessly inquisitive, the adventuresome Mona is also a wild wit, spilling forth puns, parody, sharp, sarcastic repartee. Gradually Mona learns that her humor is two-sided, her own version of “make sure,” an expression of cleverness, but also a device to prevent people from getting too close. With equal parts good will and naïveté, Mona navigates the heavy seas of racial identity. There's a comparative analysis of nose jobs, eye jobs and hair frizzing. She and her friends earnestly discourse on relative oppression by revisiting family legacies from the Holocaust, American slavery and the Chinese Revolution.
Mona is shocked when her mother expresses fear about her daughter sleeping with a black man.
“You do that, I would kill myself.”
“But Mom, that's so racist.”
“Only an American girl would think about her mother killing herself and say oh, that's so racist. A Chinese girl would think whether she should kill herself too.”
Meanwhile, Mona's multicultural gang of friends doesn't know how to place her.
“White is white, man. Everything else is black. Half and half is black.”
“Are you telling me I'm black?” Mona says.
He looks at her, puzzled, then grins. “Are you pulling poor Alfred's chain again?”
Of all Jen's emotional borders (child/parent, immigrant/first generation, Catholic/Jewish, white/Asian/black, worker/employer), the most closely watched frontier here is between Callie, the dutiful older daughter, and Mona, the rebellious, favored child.
Of course, of the two of them, Mona has always been the mouth. That's because Helen used to laugh at Mona where she would have frowned at Callie and said, You don't know how to talk. So that Callie turned long-suffering, as has been described—so well-behaved that people used to remark on the extraordinary way with which she did things like ride her bicycle. … Even her faults were model faults, such as reading in bed with a flashlight, and secretly wanting to be normal instead of perfect. … and all this because she was never her mother's favorite. Some people might think the exemplary behavior would make her the favorite eventually, and indeed it might. … But the Changs understand the basic structure in life to be hierarchy. Better and worse, number one and number two, more loved and less.
At first, Callie's rebellions—pierced ears and contact lenses—are more discreet than Mona's. Later, Callie's African-American roommate Naomi raises her race consciousness and even teaches her to eat shee-veh with assorted condiments. Eventually, at her parents' coaxing, Callie becomes a respectable doctor like Aunt Theresa. But Ralph and Helen are never happy. They worry she's gone overboard.
She says she's proud to be Asian American, that's why she's using her Chinese name. (Her original name, she calls it.) But what in the world is an Asian American? That's what Ralph and Helen want to know. And how can she lump herself together with the Japanese? The Japanese Americans, insists Callie/Kailan. After what they did during the war! complain Ralph and Helen. And what, friends with the Koreans too? And the Indians? The parents shake their heads. Better to turn Jewish than Asian American, that's their opinion these days. At least Jews don't walk around with their midriffs showing.
Jen's impulse to maintain an upbeat romp limits her emotional range and vocabulary. While Jen is enthusiastically and unsanctimoniously polyethnic, Mona in the Promised Land doesn't compare to the intricate, distilled intercultural work of Anna Deavere Smith, Wakako Yamauchi and Grace Paley. Mona is a younger, upscale, East Coast version of American Graffiti. If a tape is made of this book, with its episodic leaps and energetic humor, it could be marketed as a form of literary aerobics.
Jen's imagination unfolds in incidents, casting the story in operatic melodrama. The number of coincidences is extreme. Seth Mandel's mother just happens to bump into running-away Mona in Grand Central Station and sustain her with a hundred-dollar bill. Rabbi Horowitz gets fired in traditional Scarshill, only to find himself a civilian counselor in Cambridge, working as Callie's campus adviser. Later he finds another congregation and marries a woman named—what else—Rabbi Horowitz. A little of this broad humor goes a long way in a busy but ultimately fairly uneventful book. I miss the characters' complex choices in Typical American.
The strength and grace of Jen's novel is in her rueful wisdom about being an immigrant family's daughter. Those of us who, like Mona and Callie, are first generation are brought up with a bifurcated identity and a weighty sense of privileged duty. These pressures often manifest themselves in striving to be the parents' model child, like Callie, incorporating Old World values and New World ambition; or the nightmare child, like Mona, refigured by freedoms her parents never imagined. The Chang family is lucky enough to discover mutual forgiveness and appreciation.
Mona in the Promised Land might be a fairy tale if it were not that in the epilogue Mona, now a mother herself, faces the next dangling question. How will Mona Changowitz, authentic Chinese-Jewish-American-progressive-feminist, cope ten years from now when her daughter Io begins to take charge of shaping her own quite separate, yet inseparable, identity?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
SOURCE: Foster, Catherine. “A Wacky Mosaic of Teenage Self-Discovery.” Christian Science Monitor 88, no. 149 (27 June 1996): B2.
[In the following review, Foster describes Mona in the Promised Land as a funny and satisfying novel.]
The bare-bones plot of Gish Jen's novel Mona in the Promised Land, could have been written by a Benetton copywriter. Chinese girl in New York works in the family's pancake house; gets mad crush on a Japanese boy; becomes Jewish; volunteers on a suicide hot line; hangs out with her boyfriend in a tepee; and falls in with a low-life black crowd.
Are any groups left out?
Oh, yes—WASPs. Mona makes friends with one whose father pulls a fast one that gets the father of another friend of Mona's fired.
It's complicated, but funny.
Mona, Jen's narrator and perhaps alter ego, is a smart girl with a smart mouth, out of which comes an interesting montage of Chinese, Jewish, black, and Anglo phrases.
What Mona is trying to do is make some sense of this odd American world she lives in and her role in it.
Listen to her take on how Americans view color: “If [her friend Naomi] were a cabinet door or a shade of hair dye, people would have a name for her exact shade. But as she is only a person, she is called black, just as Mona … [is] called yellow.”
But Mona is far from being a serious tract on race relations or immigrants' adjustment. Jen will also do a riff on, say, iceberg lettuce: “Mona finds that she too is having trouble taking iceberg lettuce seriously as a food item. More and more it looks to her like someone's failed agricultural experiment, or like the inside of something else, the zip-out lining of a raincoat trying to pass on its own.”
Or when Bea, her boyfriend's stepmother, says of him: “You watch, he'll end up on the straight and narrow yet. It's the talented ones you have to worry about. Especially the ones who can sing, or play something—with them you have to worry about rock bands. Seth, luckily, has no talents. That leaves law school.”
It seems as if most of the people in Mona in the Promised Land are trying to find themselves, except Mona's parents. Mona tries a lot of things before settling on a comfortable sense of identity that embraces the many disparate elements in her life.
Though in the end she doesn't turn out to be the good Chinese girl her parents want her to be, neither does she convert to Judaism. She is her own melting pot, her own mosaic, and someone whose life it is satisfying to join for a bit.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437
SOURCE: Heung, Marina. “Authentically Inauthentic.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 12 (September 1996): 25.
[In the following review of Mona in the Promised Land, Heung asserts that the characters are not well developed and that Jen fails to adequately resolve the questions of multicultural identity raised in the novel.]
As Mona in the Promised Land opens, Ralph Chang, his wife and two daughters are moving to an affluent suburb of New York City called Scarshill—a move that signals the immigrant family's progressive assimilation into middle-class America. Gish Jen continues the saga of the Chang family that she began in her first novel, Typical American, framing their exploits in the terms of America's founding narratives. The earlier novel was a classic immigrant narrative, detailing the development of new identities and criticizing the American myth of success. This sequel, although set in the late 1960s, adopts a distinctively postmodern stance, exploding accepted notions of identity boundaries and insisting that identities are wilfully chosen, not made.
“It's an American story …” The opening sentence of Typical American encapsulates that novel's central concern with redefining the meaning of being American. The book traces Ralph's emigration from China, his struggles to get a degree and a job, his marriage and fatherhood. It is no accident that Ralph becomes an engineer: the novel turns on the metaphorical meaning of foundations and buildings. Above all, Ralph and his family fear rootlessness and “instability, divergence, distortion”; as Ralph's wife Helen expresses it, she dreads living like “astronauts, floating in space.”
In her second novel about the Chang family, Jen's focus shifts to Ralph's adolescent daughter, Mona. Whereas the first novel was about her parents' desire for roots and stability, Mona's preoccupation in the sequel is with losing her Chinese identity and “turning Jewish.” Entering the Jewish milieu of Scarshill, Mona becomes “sick of being Chinese.” Convinced of the possibility of “switching” identities (“You only have to learn some rules and speeches”), this “sixteen-year-old choosing her own faith” starts lessons with a rabbi and eventually has her optional mikvah, so that she “becomes Mona-also-known-as Ruth, a more or less genuine Catholic Chinese Jew.”
For Mona, her conversion makes sense because identities are hopelessly hard to pin down anyway. She remarks at one point that “if she ever had to say what means Chinese, it would have to include a predilection for peeling grapes in your mouth without moving your jaw—also for emitting the peels without opening your lips.” Another character insists that “an Eskimo who prefers hamburgers to walrus meat is American.” Jen seems to be telling us that identity is a slippery concept because the social rituals by which we define ourselves are constantly changing and adapting to circumstances. Mona notices that even her parents “now prefer raisin bran” and “the big deal at home is when they have turkey pot pie.”
But there's a more serious side to Mona's project of switching identities. Reacting against the traditional Chinese dislike of outspokenness and political involvement, Mona has latched onto her own definition of Jewishness: “The whole key to Judaism is to ask, ask, instead of obey, obey.”
Being Jewish also represents being politically engaged in a manner foreign to her pragmatic and cautious parents. So while they are preoccupied with building a wall to protect their property from errant drivers, Mona and her friends volunteer at a crisis intervention hotline and later participate in an experiment in integrated living. Mona's best friend, the upper-middle-class Jewish Barbara Gugelstein, invites Alfred, an African American restaurant worker, to live secretly in her parents' house while they are away. When Mona, along with assorted other friends of Alfred and Barbara, moves in as well, the household temporarily creates the semblance of “a house with no walls between the rooms” in which these young people of mixed ethnic and class backgrounds can live and interact with a degree of provisional equality. Reversing the trajectory of her parents' lives, Mona's story tells of stepping outside rigidly defined boundaries of family, class and ethnicity. Breaking the mold of traditional Chinese femininity and polite behavior, she is the “self-made mouth” who intends to “express [herself] right out of [her] household.”
Mona is not the only character capable of “switching.” Riffing on the notion that identity is a matter of choice, the novel is full of characters who practice being who they are not by birth: Mona's boyfriend Seth, the “authentic inauthentic Jew”; Naomi, the college roommate of Mona's sister, an African American who speaks Mandarin better than Mona's parents and can prepare a more authentic tea-smoked duck than the “Peking duck, Westchester style” that Mona's mother makes; Sherman Matsumoto, Mona's grade-school crush, who returns to Japan and later mysteriously reappears, only to reveal his true identity at the very end.
With its Recognition that roles are assigned and its ironic reversals of socially prescribed behavior, Mona in the Promised Land can be read as a contemporary American comedy of manners. We both applaud and chuckle at Mona's experiment in identity-switching, seeing it as an act of social pretension as well as a challenge to narrow notions of identity. True to her satiric mode, Jen takes delight in the incongruities brewed when different races and classes are mixing to create unexpected affinities and tensions.
Yet because her characters often speak and act as emblems of particular perspectives or social positions, she has difficulty rendering all of her characters from the inside out. Jen is at her best in capturing with a finely tuned ear those encounters in which people tacitly declare themselves and test each other's limits through the most opaque interactions. On one occasion, Mona tentatively queries her mother about the possibilities of racial blending, beginning with the question, “Ma … Have you ever seen a mixed baby?”
Helen says that she has, yes, two, and that one was beautiful, but the other looked completely Caucasian. That baby had blue eyes and brown hair, and when she grew up she was as big as a horse.
“And what about her legs?”
“Why do you want to know about her legs?” asks Helen, chopping scallions. But then she answers that the girl's legs looked as though there was something the matter with them. “She was still a nice girl. Very smart, and never gives her parents any trouble.”
“Like me, you mean.”
… “What if I had a mixed baby?” Mona says. “What if I had a mixed baby, and it looked completely Caucasian?”
“Are you having a baby?”
“No. But what if I did, and it looked completely Caucasian? With a big nose and blue eyes and everything?”
“Oh, then I would throw it in the garbage,” says Helen, turning the heat down.
Jen is most successful when she is most indirect and, indeed, when her characters are most indirect with each other.
Equally subtle and effective is Jen's use of metaphors of space and habitat to reflect shifts in psychological orientation, social positioning and relationships. When Mona runs away from home, she sleeps on a bench in Grand Central Station, camps out in a teepee, and takes an “underground railroad” to enter a friend's house where she hides out. It is as if, to experience the dissolution of her identity, she must break her primary bonds with family and home. In the novel's closing scene we find her, several years later, looking out through the doorway of her own house, watching her estranged mother approaching the threshold.
Yet, although that final image is moving and symbolically apt, it strikes me that Jen leaves unresolved the conundrums of identity that she has unearthed in this book. She is working with a broader canvas than in her first book, and her probing of the basic assumptions about identity is timely and original. But perhaps because she has chosen to set her story in an era before the emergence of identity politics, and because the theme of identity switching is cast in terms of adolescent playfulness and acting out, her treatment of the subject seems to be rehearsed rather than really tested. And the story's upper-middle-class setting leaves the suspicion that risky behavior like Mona's might be, after all, a privilege enjoyed by those who can afford it.
But surely Jen herself is conscious of these ambiguities. A clue to her narrative intention may surface in the novel's final scene, when a new character—Mona's toddler daughter—steps into the picture. As this glimpse into the future suggests, perhaps her point is that some questions evade easy answers, and we can only look to the new generation—or story—to see how they are played out.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
SOURCE: Mong, Adrienne. “The Chosen Person.” Far Eastern Economic Review 159, no. 44 (31 October 1996): 47.
[In the following review of Mona in the Promised Land, Mong criticizes Jen's storytelling skills.]
In the same irreverent vein as her first novel, Typical American, Gish Jen [in Mona in the Promised Land], continues to chart the life of a Chinese-American family, the Changs—this time through the eyes of teenager Mona. Moving to a posh New York suburb called Scarshill, the Changs unwittingly arrive at a cultural crossroads, where only Mona appreciates the issue of assimilation or rejection. It seems inevitable then that, floating in the experimental froth of the late 1960s, she and her peers would stumble upon a game of racial mix-and-match.
Precipitated by her classmates' discovery of their Jewish roots, Mona's foray into the multi-cultural arena ends up in Judaism. Before she can say goy (Yiddish for gentile), she's participated in enough synagogue car washes and food drives to be named official mascot of the Temple Youth Group. A series of conversations with Rabbi Horowitz follow, and Mona embarks on becoming Jewish.
Though Horowitz says there's more to Judaism than memory, to Mona being Jewish “mostly seems to be about remembering that you are.” The centrality of memory in Judaism strikes her as a crucial distinction between the Jews and the Chinese. The Chinese haven't “always been the oppressed. They used to be the oppressors … The Changs don't have their friends' instincts, or reflexes. They don't have their ready alert. They don't have their friends' institutions, or their ways of reminding themselves who they are, that they might not be lulled by a day in the sun.”
But along the way, Mona learns precisely the opposite: that Chinese do, in fact, have ways of preserving memory and therefore identity—most evident in the way Mona's mother, Helen, demands respect and allegiance from her daughter. Unfortunately, Mona doesn't understand the Chinese way of doing things until she alienates her mother through an attempt to reform race relations, specifically with Alfred, the black cook who works at the Changs' restaurant. This interlude ends with Alfred filing a lawsuit against the Changs, claiming racial discrimination.
The novel focuses on similarities between Chinese and Jews. The author even suggests that the Chinese are, in fact, Jews. At least, the Changs are believed to be “the New Jews … a model minority and Great American success. They know they belong in the promised land.” But Jen doesn't fully develop the Chinese-Jewish parallel. In fact, Mona's conversion to Judaism and her association with Alfred reveal an intriguing subtext that being American involves choice. As Mona tells her mother, “American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish.”
While Jen's attempt to redefine the Asian-American identity is admirable, her storytelling ability can't keep up with her insight. Sometimes, too, Jen appears to be rummaging through a catalogue of 1960s trends, randomly tossing them out to the reader without sufficient elaboration. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to read an Asian-American novel that addresses broader issues of culture and race.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328
SOURCE: Kachuba, John. Review of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. Antioch Review 55, no. 1 (winter 1997): 114.
[In the following review, Kachuba describes Mona in the Promised Land as an insightful and witty novel.]
The '90s could be called the decade of multicultural literature, as Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian writers make their unique voices heard and clamor for inclusion in the American literary canon. Jen is one such writer. In her latest novel [Mona in the Promised Land], she employs her considerable wit and humor to skewer her experiences growing up as a “hyphenated-American,” in this case Chinese-American.
It is the late sixties and Mona Chang, teenaged daughter of upwardly mobile Chinese immigrants Ralph and Helen, leads anything but an impoverished immigrant existence in posh Scarshill, New York. The grim realities of China are faded but ever-present memories for Mona's parents, who practice Chinese calligraphy so they do not forget how to write in their native language. But Mona has never been to China, speaks only a smattering of Chinese—“Stop acting crazy. Rice gruel. Soy sauce” are among her favorite phrases—and wants to be, like her Scarshill friends, Jewish.
Mona sets out to remake herself as a Chinese Jew, a path that inevitably leads to conflict with her more traditional parents, especially Helen. Along the way, she and best friend Barbara Gugelstein are caught up in racial reform as they shelter Alfred, the black cook at Mona's family's pancake house, evicted by his lover. Soon they are hosting a Mod Squad of interracial, interfaith friends in Barbara's house while her parents are away on vacation. Jen's insights into growing up in the tumultuous, iconoclastic '60s are warm, affectionate, and humorous. She has great fun lampooning familiar conceptions of assimilation, cultural diversity, and what it means to be American. No one is spared by her literary scalpel: Chinese, Japanese, Blacks, Hispanics, WASPS, Jews, and Catholics—all equally undergo her intelligent and witty probing.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3576
SOURCE: Krist, Gary. “Schemers and Schemas.” Hudson Review 49, no. 4 (winter 1997): 687-94.
[In the following essay, Krist evaluates several works of recent fiction, including Jen's Mona in the Promised Land, about the working poor. Krist asserts that Mona's prose style is one of its greatest strengths, but comments that the narrative tends to be annoyingly cute in some passages.]
There was a time when the working classes were an endlessly fertile subject for writers in this country. Honorable lives played out in dreary, poverty-straitened circumstances seemed to contain enough color and passion to fill any number of novels, short stories, and plays. Writers like John Steinbeck, Henry Roth, John Dos Passos, and Clifford Odets even based a movement on this conviction—the “proletarian literature” movement—characterized by an earnest belief in the dramatic potential of the common man. Nowadays, though, we seem a little more cynical about the possibility of tragic dimensions among the working poor. Jane Smiley aside, we don't have too many grass- or oil-stained Lears in current fiction (I note this with a certain amount of relief). American writers today seem far more interested in the rich, and when they do turn their attentions to the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, they tend to focus either on the quieter, smaller-souled tribulations of normal Joes and Janes or else on the sensationalistic doings of drug addicts, crooks, serial killers, and other extreme types.
The situation has always seemed different in Britain, where novelists have shown a more consistent preoccupation with unglamorous but self-respecting lives. Pat Barker (particularly in her early books) and many others have taken up the argument advanced by Thomas Hardy a hundred years ago—namely, that full-sized emotions can thrive in the most unheroic of settings. And now, with the publication of Last Orders, Graham Swift does his part to extend that argument, focusing on the class of tradesmen and shopkeepers.1 This remarkable novel, the author's sixth, traces the day-long journey of a group of male friends to dispose of their dead companion's ashes. In the process, it evokes a full range of hopes, jealousies, resentments, disappointments, and yes, tragic passions, all within the scope of a half-dozen severely circumscribed lives.
The book is structured loosely but cleverly. The skeleton of the story consists of a series of present-tense chapters recounting the day's drive from Bermondsey in the London suburbs to the seaside at Margate, where Jack Dodds, a butcher from a family of butchers, has asked that his ashes be scattered. Four men from the neighborhood have agreed to fulfill this last wish—Ray, Lenny, Vic, and Vince—and each one contributes to the evolving picture with reflective first-person monologues of his own, interwoven into the current action. This mosaic-technique, while certainly not unique in contemporary fiction, is unusually effective here, mainly because Swift is able to distinguish each perspective from the rest with an amazing subtlety of voice and perception. And while the transitions of thought and memory, like the detours in the physical journey, occasionally seem a little forced and self-conscious—motivated more by the will of the author than by the natural development of the story—the richness of the voices carries us through:
It ain't like your regular sort of day.
Bernie pulls me a pint and puts it in front of me. He looks at me, puzzled, with his loose, doggy face but he can tell I don't want no chit-chat. That's why I'm here, five minutes after opening, for a little silent pow-wow with a pint glass. He can see the black tie, though it's four days since the funeral.
The story unfolds indirectly, by the accretion of this kind of casually-conveyed detail. As the four men proceed from London to Rochester, to Chatham, to Canterbury (a significant way station, given the resemblance of this book to a latter-day Canterbury Tales), they gradually reveal more and more about how their lives intersected, for better or worse. Each stop on the journey becomes a station of the cross, accompanied by ritualized bouts of contemplation from each character. And by the time this carload of mourners reaches the Pier in Margate, they've summoned up a surprisingly profound and textured world—a world limited in variety of experience, maybe, but not in variety of emotion. Like the old proletarian novelists, Swift elevates some humble doings to a high emotional plane. He turns the story of “four blokes on a special delivery” into something as moving and grand in scale as a classical tragedy.
In his fifth novel, The Last of the Savages, Jay McInerney also reaches for tragic scale, though he's a lot less successful in the attempt than Swift is.2 This highly schematic book tells the story of a friendship between two tidily-contrasted young men. As the action begins, Patrick Keane, the narrator, is a scholarship boy at a tony New England prep school. As deeply conventional as he is socially insecure, Patrick is eager to forget his common mill-town upbringing and launch himself into a preppie world of lacrosse tournaments, loose-moraled debutantes, and summer vacations at the family estates of his better-heeled classmates. He quickly falls under the spell of his roommate, Will Savage, who—though the scion of an old Southern family—has nonetheless rejected the very upper-class trappings that Patrick aches for. Having grown up in privilege, Will directs his romantic yearnings down the social register rather than up. He's obsessed by blues culture, and wants to spend his life discovering and promoting black Southern singers and musicians.
The book follows these two boys—one a self-styled rebel, the other an admitted “slave to convention”—as their friendship develops over decades. Patrick maintains his even keel, sailing straight from prep school to Yale to Harvard Law to a partnership in a New York law firm; Will, meanwhile, bounces more dramatically from triumph to disaster, getting into trouble with the law, alienating his family, and doing a pretty good imitation of a counterculture prince, with enough money behind him to keep a whole entourage in drugs, extravagant living quarters, and redneck weaponry. Meanwhile, the opposing characteristics of the two young men continue to divide neatly into McInerney's grand schema, with concepts like danger, vision, wildness, freedom, and defiance falling under the Will category, and safety, expedience, steadiness, bondage, and obedience lining up under the Patrick column. It begins to seem like writing-by-the-numbers.
Compounding this overarching problem of artificiality is the fact that everything in the book has a slightly generic quality. The story seems to draw less from real life than from other fiction—The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, the stories of Richard Yates. Every element in it carries the scent of a literary source, from the classic Tennessee Williams-style Savage family (two sons tragically killed, an ethereal, distant mother, etc.) to the prep school episode in which one roommate takes the rap for his weaker friend's violation of dorm rules (reminiscent of an early Tobias Wolff story). Even Patrick's sudden epiphanies seem borrowed:
I was tired of being alone again on New Year's Eve, that most melancholy of holidays. I had a terrible premonition of a solitary life, of dinners on TV trays and odd-smelling, transient rooms. Something was wrong with me; I was afflicted with a terrible self-consciousness which seemed to set me apart, doomed forever to be a spectator at the ball, watching the dancers from the sidelines.
Despite all this secondhand prose, however, I have to admit that The Last of the Savages is a surprisingly enjoyable read. Though Patrick's voice is often too stilted for comfort, his observations are always cleverly and deftly expressed. And one has to respect the fact that this narrator makes no attempt to deceive himself about his naked academic and social aspirations (during the campus unrest after Kent State, Patrick's main concern is that grading modifications at Yale might affect his applications to law school). He's ruthlessly honest with himself about most things—I won't reveal the one exception—and is eventually clear-sighted enough to recognize that his friendship with Will is his only saving grace, “the single daring and unpredictable choice I allowed myself along the way.” This final realization, moreover, makes for a fairly effective ending, even with the appearance on the last page of some overreaching water imagery lifted from The Great Gatsby's “boats against the current” conclusion. Although Savages is a disappointment after McInerney's very strong fourth novel, Brightness Falls, it's the work of a writer who at least has read a lot of great books.
We're presented with more overly-schematic plotting in Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.3 In this atmospheric novel, Millhauser puts his own idiosyncratic spin on a classic Horatio Alger story, filling the outlines of a rags-to-riches potboiler with a parable about the steep price of imagination. The book tracks the rising fortunes of its title character, a bright young lad in the 1890s who advances from hotel bellboy to cigar stand proprietor, restauranteur, hotelier, and finally real estate developer of a very special kind. Even as a teenager, Martin is a boy with plans: “[H]is passion was for working things out, bring things together, arranging the unarrangeable, making combinations.” He possesses that distinctly American mixture of grand vision and entrepreneurial energy, along with a permanent sense of dissatisfaction that pushes him on to greater and greater feats of capitalistic fervor. As each of Martin's dreams becomes a reality, a new and wilder dream is born, which he proceeds to pursue with a single-mindedness that borders on megalomania.
Anyone familiar with Millhauser's recent work can guess what form these dreams take. As in his story collection The Barnum Museum, Millhauser is obsessed here with elaborate, fantasy-like structures—independent clockwork worlds furnished with elaborate museum-like displays, all of which can be described, at great length, in exact, fussily-detailed prose. For instance, we hear much about the attractions in one of Martin's early hotels:
Thus there was a circular theater in which a panorama of the entire Manhattan shoreline continually unwound; a room containing a wigwam, a wax squaw gathering sticks, a young brave hacking a rock with a sharpened stone tool, and a seated chief smoking a long pipe, set against a painted background depicting a riverbank; and a hall called the Pageant of Industry and Invention, which contained working scale models of an Otis elevator, a steam train on an Elevated track, a Broadway cable car. …
And so on and so on. These buildings—“environments” might be a better word—are clearly intended by Millhauser as metaphors, and as Martin conceives of and subsequently builds his ever more elaborate “fever-dreams of stone,” he surrenders himself more completely to the dream-world of imagination they represent, distancing himself from the real world around him. Each new successful restaurant, hotel, or residence gives him the impetus (and capital) he needs to dream deeper, bigger, more outlandish dreams. Finally, he risks everything to build his magnum opus—the Grand Cosmo. More than a place in the city, the Cosmo is a replacement for the city, complete with artificial parks and ponds and gardens, a proto-Disney World where one could live for months without venturing out into the world of sunshine and air. In fact, that is exactly what Martin does. He moves into the Grand Cosmo and, like an artist unhealthily possessed by his vision, doesn't come out for a very long time.
Paralleling the trajectory of Martin's professional achievements is that of his erotic conquests. Here, too, the dichotomy of dream and reality is deeply rooted. In his relationships with the opposite sex, Martin finds himself attracted alternately to the earthy and the ethereal: a matronly hotel guest many years his senior, a ghostly ten-year-old girl, a broad and buxom chambermaid, and finally, the pair of sisters from whom he must choose a wife. Caroline is the dream-sister: remote, distracted, cold, and otherworldly; Emmeline is practical, smart, witty, and warm. Martin chooses the dream-sister as a wife (no surprise here), and lives to regret it. The marriage proves to be a failure, as does the Grand Cosmo, leaving Martin stranded with the rest of us on the prosaic shores of ordinary life.
Ultimately, then, the book can be read as a meditation on the ravages of uncompromising vision, and as such it's a fairly revealing portrait of the artist. Millhauser, too, has his odd and impractical vision that he's been realizing in book after book. But in this novel, as in his recent short stories, I find that vision disconcertingly limited. Millhauser's dreamworld, like Martin's, is closed, claustrophobic, and artificial—a diorama of life rather than the thing itself. So while Martin Dressler may be an interesting novel, it's never a powerful one.
After the slightly pretentious tone of both the McInerney and the Millhauser books, it was a relief to pick up Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land.4 This second novel has few high and noble aspirations; it's just a good old coming-of-age story, distinguished by the fact that it's a Chinese-American girl who's coming of age. And although the protagonist's ethnicity doesn't lend it all that much novelty in these days of Asian literary renaissance, it does give Jen some interesting specifics to work with, especially since Mona Chang, the Chinese-American in question, converts to Judaism halfway through the book. “Changowitz” is the name she wants to be known by, and it's a measure of the novel's loopiness that some people actually oblige her in this.
Mona is a first-generation kid, the daughter of Chinese-born parents who naturally approach life with very different attitudes than she does. To the extent that this book is about anything serious, it is about this generational clash. Mona's parents have worked hard in their adopted country to achieve a certain lifestyle—a nice house in the mostly Jewish Westchester suburb of Scarshill (read Scarsdale, wink, wink)—which Mona takes for granted. Whereas the goal of Mr. and Mrs. Chang is to attain the proper socioeconomic station in life, Mona's is to attain a more fuzzily-conceived state of self-realization. Thus the classic parent-child conflict develops: child believes parents are rigid, shallow, and intolerant, thinking only of money and getting ahead; parents believe child is spoiled, ungrateful, rebellious, thinking only of … well, God knows what that girl is thinking of. All the Changs can say for sure is that Mona is not the pliant and respectful Chinese girl they want her to be.
One of the book's greatest strengths is its prose, which nicely duplicates the eye-rolling sardonicism of a typical smart adolescent who pays attention in school:
[Naomi] is tall, and loose-limbed, almost hipless, and of completely average shelf size. Her facial addenda have a kind of mythic circularity—round glasses, hoop earrings, basketball Afro; if she were an archaeological ruin, you would surmise circles to be of central significance to her culture.
But this same prose can often veer toward the precious, as it does in the following excerpt, when Mona and her best friend Barbara Gugelstein celebrate the arrival of Barbara's period (and the end of their worried speculation that she might be pregnant):
Hooray! She and Mona celebrate with a ritual egg smash. O ovum, dear ovum, they intone. Be thou ever chary!
“Chary, or wary?” says Barbara. Mona isn't sure. Still they spend their hot line shift composing an ode with the rhyme scheme chary/scary/marry. They are finagling a way to work in hari-kari, when, lo and behold, guess who calls?
This cuteness becomes especially trying toward the end of the book, when telephones start “ding-ling”-ing instead of just ringing.
But the novel displays a good bit of verbal ingenuity even when it's going over the edge like this, and it captures better than anything else I've read the cultural hodgepodge that now exists in many suburban areas in this country, where all the waiters in the kosher deli are Chinese and the owner of the Italian restaurant hails from Bombay. This may represent another kind of adolescence—one that we're going through as a country, and in which the major question is “What does it mean to be an American?” rather than “What does it mean to be an adult?” Gish Jen provides no profound answers to either of these questions, but she clearly has some great fun posing them.
Another book that plays with the uneasy cultural juxtapositions of life in contemporary America is Cheaters, a first collection of stories by Dean Albarelli.5 As regular readers of The Hudson Review know (three of the stories in the collection originally appeared in these pages), Albarelli is something of a rarity—a Generation X-er who has managed to sidestep his contemporaries' overly ironic view of the world. In other words, he's not afraid to write about things that matter. I've been waiting for this book ever since I read my first Albarelli story back in the 1980s, and now that it has arrived I can happily report that I'm not disappointed.
One of the most heartening aspects of Albarelli's work is the fact that his characters, though almost exclusively white, don't all belong to some bland, undifferentiated category of middle-class Americans. He's grasped the fact that many people in this country are still shaped by their religious and ethnic backgrounds, even when that influence is submerged under several generations of homogenized modern life. His work, therefore, is populated by recognizable Catholics (both the Irish and Italian kind), Jews, and Protestants, all of whom carry the legacy of their heritage with them, without being narrowly defined by it. Maybe that's why these stories, though not always as pointed or dramatic as I'd like, nonetheless leave me with an impression of weight.
A recurring element in the collection is the young male protagonist involved with more than one woman (the “cheaters” of the title, I suppose). In “Passengers,” a married ferry captain starts an affair with his orthopedic nurse; a visiting professor in “Infatuated” takes up with one of his students while his longtime partner remains at home; the protagonist of the title story, a private investigator, is hired to tail a client's wife who is having an affair with his own former mistress; there's even a priest in “Flames” who's cheating on God, so to speak, by succumbing to the temptations of an old girlfriend.
The basic predicament of these characters, however, turns out to involve more significant emotions than a simple guilt over their duplicity and uncontrolled libidos. Albarelli finds in their situation a more universal expression of the confused, half-committed, morally-compromised state of being that seems to be a basic condition of life in the amorphous 1990s. And many of the best stories end with a hope of redemption—a hope that ties in with the persistent but unobtrusive presence of religion in Albarelli's fiction. The last story, appropriately titled “Grace,” makes this connection explicit. As the story closes, a straying husband (who was sleeping with another woman on the night that his wife Bitsy was brutally raped) finds himself yearning to confess:
I used to pray a lot when I was in Nam, more out of loneliness than being afraid most times, but this was the thing: … my prayers would always be spoken to Bitsy. Never to God, not dear Jesus or any of that crap, though I know it's not just crap for some. You can laugh, but it was like Bitsy, she was my God. Like everything was in her hands, or she could sort of oversee it all, anyway. Not everyone has someone like that, but like I said, Bitsy and I have been together since tenth grade, and I think maybe if you've got that kind of person, they can do for you what the nuns used to call Grace. There's just this one person who can tell you what you've done is okay, or whose forgiveness is the only thing that matters if it wasn't.
But for me the most accomplished piece in the collection is “The Orthodox Brother.” This beautifully modulated story opens with Laura Miller, a young unmarried woman who isn't particularly proud or demonstrative of her Jewish heritage, starting a new job and temporarily moving in with her older brother Adam. Having married an Orthodox woman, Adam now presides over a strictly traditional household, right down to the separate dishware for meat and dairy. In fact, the complexity of religious observance in the house is such that Laura finds herself constantly transgressing rules—taking the train and receiving phone calls on the Sabbath, for instance, or admitting in front of Adam's child that she had a BLT for lunch. But the central conflict in “The Orthodox Brother,” unlike that in some of the other fiction covered here, doesn't reduce down to an obvious schema, with Adam as the proud, religious Jew and Laura as the practical, self-denying one (Laura, for example, surprises herself at a party by vigorously defending the character of the Jews in an argument with a Holocaust revisionist). Instead, Albarelli treats us to a more sophisticated kind of storytelling—one that is fair to everyone but easy on no one, and that leaves us with a richer, more ambiguous sense of the issues and allegiances involved. Here and elsewhere in this adept collection, he writes with a mature appreciation for emotional subtleties, never tying his fictional world into a straitjacket of simplistic categories and contrasts.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533
SOURCE: Ambrose, Mary. “In the Melting Pot.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4903 (21 March 1997): 24.
[In the following review, Ambrose unfavorably assesses Mona in the Promised Land, asserting that it is unfocused, frivolous, lacks emotional weight, its characters are not well developed, and its narrative voice is awkward.]
Gish Jen is a writer of Chinese descent whose popular novels tackle one of the central issues of American life, the new nature of cultural identity, without being ponderous or claiming victimhood. Mona in the Promised Land is modern, politically aware and has some interesting ideas handled with self-deprecating humour and a light touch. This does not mean that it is a good novel, however. It isn't.
Jen's thesis—that being American means reinventing oneself continually, either by creating a new life or reclaiming an old one—has long been part of the American literary tradition. Henry James, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis wrote about the rewards of fitting in, finding comfort in assimilation. But Jen's novel is set in 1968, the moment when ethnicity is beginning to have political implications; soon Americans will start calling themselves African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. In 1968, they are still relishing rather than relinquishing their ancestral cultural identity, and, as usual, they are experimenting, borrowing and rejecting the heritage of their neighbours.
Mona in the Promised Land follows the upwardly mobile Changs, a couple Jen introduced in her first novel, Typical American (1990). Here, they are the first Asians to move into a rich white suburb, where they have opened a pancake house. Mona, one of their two daughters, has decided that she will enter the promised land by becoming Jewish. As she explains to her mother, “American means being whatever you want, and I happen to pick being Jewish.” The Chinese-Jewish combination is very funny; for instance, it's easy to see how Chinese mothers are like Jewish mothers. At one point, Helen Chang swears she would kill herself if she thought Mona had slept with their cook, Alfred, who is black. Mona denounces her mother as a racist. Helen shouts back: “Only an American girl would think about her mother killing herself and say, oh, that's so racist. A Chinese girl would think whether she should kill herself too.”
The novel proceeds in small amusing sections, and, while predictable confusions and mistaken identities keep up the pace, it soon becomes a bit tiresome. Could a daughter successfully imitate her sister and fool their mother? Would a very protective mother not talk to her favourite daughter for years? The narrative voice is full of awkward distracting transitions. Paragraphs open with sentences like this: “With the car, several more incidents of the aforementioned ilk.” It is a choppy ride. Mona's revelation about the nature of belonging, a “true story”, comes at the end of a chapter.
Most importantly, the story isn't character-driven, so Mona's few poignant moments are quickly lost in a cacophony of jokes and voices, as though Gish Jen is unwilling to let us feel the discomforts of being a teenager, or is afraid we will be bored, so she hustles us through with more word-play. The jokes and ideas swing along, but the lack of emotional weight gives the novel an unfocused, frivolous feel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6741
SOURCE: Huang, Betsy. “The Redefinition of the ‘Typical Chinese’ in Gish Jen's Typical American.” Hitting Critical Mass 4, no. 2 (summer 1997): 61-77.
[In the following essay, Huang argues that Jen's Typical American complicates the stereotypical representation of Chinese vs. American culture portrayed in many other works by Chinese-American authors.]
The title of Gish Jen's book, Typical American, is particularly provocative in that it engages readers to review the stereotypical notions of Americans and Chinese they may harbor. In spite of the growing number of contemporary Chinese American literature emerging onto the mainstream literary scene and seeking to shed new light on the Chinese immigrant experience,1 stereotypes of Americans and Chinese long before formulated, disseminated, and perpetuated through literary works, sociological studies, and mass media are still accepted and employed by writers and readers alike. The conventional opposition between American and Chinese cultures is usually played out through generational conflicts, in which the older, immigrant generation's insistent preservation of Chinese traditions are pitted against their first-generation offspring's desire to cast off those manacles. In such a formula, the mutual exclusivity of the two cultures dramatized through an “East versus West” contest where, as A. Robert Lee puts it, “Confucius vies with Franklin” (272). Assimilation into the American mainstream demanded the forsaking of Chinese customs; conversely, preservation of Chinese traditions required the rejection of any possibilities of assimilation. The dramatization of such generational/cultural conflicts has become somewhat formulaic, and Chinese-American writers seem locked in this conventional depiction of the Chinese immigrant experience. Sau-ling Wong warns that such formulas restrict these narratives to what Werner Sollors identifies as the universal American “descent-consent script” in which conflict is always “between the immigrant and American-born generations—the enlightened, freedom-loving son or daughter struggling to escape the clutches of backward, tyrannical parents” (Reading 41). Attempts to subvert this script have usually taken the course of simply reversing the power and privilege from one side to the other, as demonstrated by the works of Frank Chin and Amy Tan2—a method which only reinforces those same stereotypes. In Typical American, however, Gish Jen rewrites the script that has long dominated Chinese-American immigrant fiction, and complicates firm notions of Chinese and American identities that have been staple elements of the script.
Numerous sociological studies of Chinese in America have sought to identify the distinctive traits that constitute an authentic Chinese identity, from as early as 1898 when Louis Beck wrote an account of his visit to New York's Chinatown to contemporary sociological and ethnological studies compiled by Peter Kwong and Gwen Kinkead, published within the last few decades. Chinese may appear easy to define since the homogeneity of Chinatowns prior to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (which subsequently led to an unprecedented growth and diversification of Chinatown populations) provides a convenient source for such attempts. Chinatowns are where most studies of Chinese are conducted, a fact that reveals the superficiality of these sociological investigations and their propensity to stereotype. These studies regard Chinese as a collective, examine and judge them by their operations as a community and not as individuals, and heighten the sense of an alien collective to the white population at large. Louis Beck's 1898 publication of Chinatown reflects such stereotypical descriptions: “In giving this volume to the public the author lays no claim to literary excellence, and merely assumes to portray the habits, manners and customs of the Chinese race in the queer quarter they inhabit and as he has there found them. … The language of the people is incomprehensible. Their dress excites curiosity. Their religion is a mystery. Their morals are questionable, viewed by our code. Their pursuits are various; their amusements novel. … Who they are talking to, or who is doing the talking, is alike a mystery to you. They do not move along as do Americans or Europeans, in couples, side by side, but string along one after another. … It is all a riddle to the uninitiated observer, suggestive of what must have been the experience when the confusion of tongues occurred at the tower of Babel.” (26)
Beck's construction of the Chinatown residents as utterly incomprehensible aliens—a reaction that is symptomatic of the early stages of an encounter with a foreign culture—is disguised by his supposed objective ethnographic voice. Such an egregious interpretation of foreigners, however, is rather transparent to present-day critics and impress upon us the severely prejudiced vision of Beck more than the apparent “inscrutable” qualities of his subjects.
The idea of Chinatowns as homogeneous and insular communities has remained in recent decades in spite of the rapid influx and diversification of its populations after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 redefined the quota system and increased the number of entering immigrants. Though such ostensibly generalized analyses as Beck's are not so easily detected in contemporary sociological studies, these studies continue to draw conclusions about Chinese as a community, and in doing so reinforce the stereotypes rather than interrogate the factors that contribute to the formation of stereotypes. The back cover blurb on Gwen Kinkead's Chinatown reads: “Her rich and eye-opening account of the extended-family obligations, work ethic, attitude toward money, tongs and gangs, traditions of concubinage, and the importance of food—to name just a few of the aspects of life she explores—is also a provocative reflection on assimilation and racism in this country.” The list only affirms what is already commonly believed about Chinese, and departures from these “typical Chinese” traits and concerns are hardly explored by Kinkead. Kinkead's examination, along with another recent account of New York's Chinatown, Peter Kwong's The New Chinatown, reach similar conclusions about Chinese in their collective aspirations, crimes and societal codes. Kinkead notes that, for Chinese, the family has been regarded as the “sacrosanct center of the culture,” and family members are expected to consider the welfare of the family as a whole over their own individual concerns (9, 139). Chinese abide by strict societal codes and unwritten laws imposed upon them by their own parents, Confucian ideals, and Chinatown family associations (Kinkead 58-69; Kwong 6, 88-90). Chinese bear the dubious distinction of being extremely frugal and practical (Kinkead 11-12, 27). Women are barred from positions of power in social clubs such as tongs (Kinkead 71; Kwong 152). Most Chinatown immigrants, especially the bachelors, for the most part have no intention of assimilating into mainstream America, partly due to their English illiteracy, and mainly due to their original goals of preserving culture and tradition within the boundaries of Chinatown (Kinkead 26-27; Kwong 23). Those who do assimilate are believed to have relinquished their Chinese identities, and are no longer considered a part of the Chinese community (Kinkead 143; Kwong 23). However, these conclusions neglect the multiplicity and complexity of the factors underlying the superficiality of these ethnic traits, such as the variety of dialects spoken, the complex politics between people of different provincial origins, as well as a century's worth of mainstream America's racist constructions of Chinese customs and culture. While Kwong acknowledges in his introduction to The New Chinatown that the work of social scientists has generally resulted in “a lack of serious research on ethnic and racial communities, especially their internal dynamics” (9), Kinkead seems unaware of the stereotypical nature of her generalizations. At times Kinkead stresses Chinese's insularity and insistence upon remaining within the boundaries of Chinatown (12), but at other times she tells of their intense desire to leave it (11). Such a contradiction provides an opportunity for Kinkead to explore the individualized agencies at work within the Chinatown collective, but she passes it up because her ethnographic voice allows no such ambiguities. And to observe frugality as a Chinese “trait” is equivalent to suggesting that extravagance is an American trait; neither are traits essential to a particular category of people, but such conclusions eventually normalize and essentialize the traits to such an extent that every person identified with the category is associated with the attribute.
The problem of stereotype versus culture has long been a subject of contention among Chinese American writers. A fiery exchange in a taped interview between Virginia Lee and Frank Chin demonstrates this:
So in other words, you want the white population to start thinking of Chinese other than being quiet, unassuming, passive, et cetera, right? That's what you want, huh?
I don't want to be measured against the stereotype anymore.
But you've got to admit that what you call the stereotype does make up for the larger majority of Chinese Americans, now I've seen that in school. I think it behooves all minorities, Blacks, Chinese, what not, not to feel so insulted so fast. It's almost a reflex action.
(qtd. in Chin 12-13)
This dialogue dramatizes the dissention among Chinese Americans with regard to how the conflict between authenticity and subversion of essentialistic identities should be broached, but it also illustrates the fact that their concerns are deeply entrenched in the cultural conflict paradigm. Amidst the current debates over national, ethnic, and racial authenticity, is it possible for representations to break from stereotypes and still retain a sense of cultural foundation? In her essay entitled “The Ambivalent American,” Shirley Geok-Lin Lim feels that she writes with an “ambivalent mind,” keenly aware that she is “resisting the aura of tokenism and the unspoken assumption that [she] should write for a minority group, yet acknowledging the implication that [she] will claim access on behalf of a muted social group to a public conversation” (14). It is precisely this ambivalence, however, that has enabled critical and literary works to confront and complicate what S. Wong calls the master narrative of cultural conflicts, where the “dualistic terms may no longer suffice to capture the entire ever-evolving historical process” (“Ethnic Subject” 253); the ambivalence also enables the authors to seek new ways out of the oppositional dramatizations of Chineseness and Americanness, and to represent the multidimensional aspects of Chinese immigrant identities.
To work outside of these prescriptive formulas is no easy task, and as S. Wong points out, “the solution seems to lie in not even recognizing the problem as central to Chinese American literature, for the moment the problem is foregrounded as such in the literary work, the ethnic subject cedes power to the Otherer, thereby undermining the very thing it purports to put forth” (“Ethnic Subject” 259). It is, however, highly unlikely that any active Chinese American writer would or can be completely ignorant of these conflicts. Jen certainly isn't, and we can easily locate many of the usual motifs throughout the world of Ralph, Helen and Theresa Chang. But what we also encounter is Jen's unconventional depiction of the Chinese immigrant experience, in which she both employs and subverts Chinese and American stereotypes by deconstructively complicating the reductive dichotomies at work.
Jen installs the familiar ingredients for the well-known Chinese-versus-American formula throughout Typical American, with Chinese ideals of scholarly pursuits and responsibilities toward the family situated against American ideals of suburban house, car, and entrepreneurship. Yet, Jen does not draw a distinct line between what is American and what is Chinese and place her characters on either side of the line; rather, she disrupts stereotypes through a combination of parody and role reversal. The “typical American” characteristics as the Changs knew them are ultimately embodied by a Chinese, Grover Ding; even the “real” Americans in the book don't fit the American caricature as aptly as Grover does. Ralph, Helen and Theresa all seem to possess a naiveté that prevents them from recognizing the “foreign devilry” of Americans or the relentless influences of Confucian codes that operate below the surface of their daily lives. Though Jen is fully aware of the operative stereotypes, Ralph and Helen for the most part remain unconscious of the roles they seem to fulfill or resist. “Typical Chinese” as well as “typical American” traits that underpin Ralph and Helen's personalities and actions seem idiosyncratically motivated rather than culturally prescribed, which invalidates the prescriptive powers of both the “consent-descent script” and accepted ethnic traits.
Perhaps it is impossible to work fully outside the consent-descent paradigm, especially at a time when issues of race, ethnicity and nationality are currently dominating the American political consciousness; one can, however, subvert the formula by rendering parts of it non-existent or insignificant. Jen does not situate her protagonists in Chinatown, signaling a departure from conventional immigrant narratives. S. Wong notes that “how Chinatown is represented in a writer's work is often regarded as a touchstone of his/her artistic credibility” (“Ethnic Subject” 252). Eschewing this “typical” setting for her narrative, Jen breaks from the paradigmatic use of Chinatown that has been a staple of Chinese immigrant narratives. This also removes the Changs from the clutches of parental demands or strict Chinatown societal codes. Rather than settling in an established Chinese community for moral and financial support (another expected element in the “script”), Ralph, Helen and Theresa remain very isolated in their new life in America. Their social life is kept to a minimum; although the university's Engineering department to which Ralph belongs has a fair number of Chinese students, the Changs consort only with Old Chao and his wife, Janice. Their poverty-stricken life in Uptown New York (near Harlem) fits neither Kwong's definition of the ‘Uptown Chinese’ who “have more education and higher incomes than the national average,” nor his definition of the ‘Downtown Chinese’ who “are likely to live in Chinatowns, speak little English, and work at low wages in dead-end jobs” (5).
Kwong further expounds on the notion of the ‘Uptown Chinese’: “The [5,000＋ scholars stranded in the U.S. after the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek] were economically well off and resourceful. … They were the cream of the Chinese educational establishment. In staying [in America], they had to downgrade their aspirations. … The distinguished nature of these stranded scholars should not be underestimated. … Well-educated and skilled in the English language, they had little trouble in the American job market. Their upbringing enabled them to be at ease in the American middle class” (59). Ralph may seem to fit this description at first glance, but in reality he dispels almost every aspect of it. Ralph is certainly a stranded scholar, but he is far from being well-off while living in uptown Manhattan; his resourcefulness, or lack thereof, serves as the constant disruptive force in his family. There is no evidence of Ralph feeling as though he had to “downgrade his aspirations” by remaining in America; having moved into his brand new suburban house, he muses with Helen and Theresa on the progress they've made toward “typical” American dreams: “… this New World—now this was a continent. A paradise, they agreed. An ocean liner compared to a rowboat with leaks. A Cadillac compared to an aisle seat on the bus. Every dream come dreamily true” (158). And at the end, Ralph, stripped of car, house, and almost losing his sister, has not at all become “at ease in the American middle class.”
Seemingly oblivious to the benefits of community ties, Ralph exhibits early on what Bonnie Melchior identifies as Western culture's “[preoccupation] with the idea of self-making” as opposed to the Chinese preoccupation with fulfilling familial and communal obligations (Melchior 281). He is naively individualistic, and abandons all of his “Chinese common sense” upon arrival in the U.S. He rashly lets an American choose the name “Ralph” for him, only to realize he had neglected to elicit the help of the “wise” Chinese community: “And sure enough, when he asked around later he found that the other Chinese students had all stuck with their initials, or picked names for themselves, carefully, or else had wise people help them” (11). He becomes infatuated with Cammie, whose physical traits of “big barbarian frame and long nose and hairy forearms” (12) constitute the very antithesis of an ideal Chinese female as embodied by Helen. Forgetting to renew his visa, he is forced to move “in a spiral away from his Chinese friends” (32) as he relocates from apartment to apartment dodging INS officials. He receives no help from the meager uptown Chinese community; looking for a job, he fails to communicate with them due to difference in dialects: “Talking wrong, he might as well have been a barbarian invader; the town gates were closed” (34). The job he eventually procures is from an American-born Chinese (a “gum chewer”), which proves to be not a deliverance but rather a banishment to a dark, hellish basement, killing livestock. Later, joined by Helen and Theresa, the three reject all invitations to Chinese student affairs. Their hermetic family life is perpetuated by the move to suburbia; they move without much regret, feeling no strong ties to the uptown community they left behind.
In addition to the lack of community supervision and support, the Changs are also left to their own devices without the dominion of patriarchy. Unlike “classic” Chinese immigrant narratives such as Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea (which Ruth Hsiao regards as “a trailblazer … of emotionally damaged sons and daughters locked in battles of independence with their fathers or with the tradition that gives the fathers power,” p. 154), or even those of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, Jen's protagonists are spared from direct parental control; more significantly, they are completely absolved of the traditional obligation of caring for and heeding the advice of their parents. However, as Hsiao asserts, “Chinese American writers have all had to reckon with patriarchal tradition” (151), and Jen does not prove to be an exception. Patriarchal ideology manifests itself from time to time in the Changs' daily lives, but to no avail. Missing or presumed dead in China, Ralph and Theresa's parents' exhortations against the evils of America may be impressed on the keen ears of the readers but fall on the Changs' deaf ears. Jen introduces the parents briefly at the beginning of the book, where Jen parodies the conventional roles of parents through their comically hyperbolic invectives against the evils of America. “Degeneracy! Stupidity! Corruption!” rails Ralph's father, to which his mother replies, “America” (5).
However, these warnings against the vices of America from people and a place so far away do nothing to detract Ralph from his foolish “imagineering” enterprises. The only words that resonate with impact are Ralph's father's sarcastic but prophetic remark regarding his son's impending adventure in America: “No door like a back door” (5). Sure enough, every one of Ralph's successes is achieved through the “back door:” he was granted U.S. residency solely on the account of the INS's loss of his immigration records; his tenure is earned through Theresa's influence over Old Chao; his business is bought “under the table” from Grover; he becomes wealthy through tax evasion. Thus, in an ironic turn of events, not only has Ralph failed to heed his parents' words (for he simply did not hear them), he becomes precisely the “corrupt” American defined by his parents. Thus, while Jen acknowledges the significance of patriarchal influence as part of the immigrant fiction formula, she dismisses its conventional centrality by rendering Ralph's parents absent and their exhortations insignificant.
Without parental or societal constraints, Ralph and Helen's innate egoisms are free to flourish. Ralph and Helen each possesses an egocentricity that is much maligned by traditional Chinese culture. Ralph is extremely self-centered, his sense of worth deriving solely from the failure of other family members. His money-making obsessions blind him; while he is busily evading taxes in his basement, Grover and Helen cuckold him upstairs in the same house. His cowardice prevents him from confronting the unattractive truth of their illicit affair, as he is “afraid to find out the truth—first from his wife, and now from his partner too” (240). For him, “… anger drew him together; his doubts, on the other hand, dispersed him” (23). He falls victim to “dispersement” during his periods of depressed inactivity, and his misdirected anger towards Helen and Theresa is his way of drawing himself back together. Ralph's selfishness and lack of consideration for the rest of the family appears to affirm the deep-rooted rule of patriarchy in Chinese households; he is, after all, the man of the house, the only one with the privilege to be selfish. However, Jen problematizes the characterization of Ralph as a typical Chinese patriarch. While Ralph demands unconditional loyalty and constant attention from his family—a privilege of the patriarch, the fact that he has to demand such attention so explicitly betrays his realization that he is not at all in control of his family; his histrionic declarations of his esteemed patriarchal position in the family expose a keen inferiority complex on his part.
Ralph's egocentricity has a counterpart in Helen, who needs to feel “in the center of things.” Physically, Helen embodies the traits of the ideal Chinese woman, having “delicate feet,” “slight figure,” “contained way of moving,” a “small mouth,” and is, in all appearance, submissive to her husband. However, her outward fulfillment of the traditional role is merely a manifestation of a vanity that neither seeks to resist nor conform to the role. Her submissiveness is nothing more than an attempt to place herself at the center of family melodrama; imagining a confrontation with Ralph over her infidelity, she dreams: “nothing would placate him, except for her to beg his forgiveness, hugging his knees—finally sharing a place with him, at the center of things” (215). Ralph's egocentricity projects itself by way of domination, and Helen's is manifested by way of submission. The barrier which results from their individual self-centeredness is also at once bridged by the domination-submission relationship, and therefore the barrier is “… a barrier between them that was at the same time a kind of bond” (116). What ties them together is not a strong sense of family loyalty that they hold dear, but a paradoxical bond based on the compatibility of each other's self-centeredness. Helen does not wish to displace Ralph as the “father of the house,” she knows that her importance to the household is ensured by her reinforcement of Ralph's patriarchal position. By elevating Ralph (and she influences Theresa to do this as well), she feels that she can reform the dispersing family and regain her central place in it at the same time. Since she is equally submissive with Grover as with Ralph, her outward submissiveness is clearly a disguise for her narcissism: “… the considering of him (Grover) was almost her deepest pleasure. A man with monogrammed shirts, a maid, a mansion, and all he wanted was to finger her belly button” (214). Her submission to Grover's gropings is a way for her to feed her vanity; during their rendezvous, she “felt herself to be someone else, someone much prettier. A commanding presence. What power in pliancy!” (214) But a bond based upon a barrier is ultimately doomed; Ralph's egocentricity and Helen's disingenuous sacrifices ultimately fail to keep the family together. The centers Ralph and Helen create for themselves fail to coexist successfully, and this schism eventually destroys the family's cohesion.
The barrier that comes to separate Ralph and Helen has, in a sense, always existed between Helen and Theresa. The two women never do achieve a mutual understanding; their relationship “had always depended on silence. Restraint” (79). Pulling Theresa into the closet so that they can “throw up their hands together” (79) at Ralph's despondency, Helen's attempt at “a convivial solidarity” fails miserably with a confused Theresa, who wonders, “What are we doing here among the hangers?” (79) There is no true camaraderie between these two women; even Callie, Helen's daughter, observes that they are “so formal with each other” (53).
Although they both break the “cardinal female virtues” of “chastity and marital fidelity” (Hsiao 153), Theresa's affair differs tremendously from Helen's. Theresa's affair with Old Chao reflects a kind of chaste innocence: “Was this ‘getting to know someone?’ How little she'd understood the joy of it! Here she could envision a man's skeleton, his musculature; she could describe the workings of his lymph nodes. But what he remembered, valued, feared—all this was news. Listening, she reveled. … What more could anyone ask? Their talk was enough for her, more than she'd dreamed of. She did not consider passion” (154). No explicit details of their affair are revealed to us. Theresa reacts with wonder over the smallest touch from Old Chao, and the respect they have for one another is readily apparent. Helen and Grover, however, carry on their liaison in order to satiate their own egoistical desires. The encounters amount to nothing more than lustful gropings and patronizing remarks from Grover. The seedy details of undressing, fantasizing, and seductive offers of material gifts add to the sleaziness of their encounters. Whereas Helen's bold indiscretion of conducting this affair with her family in the same house shatters her outwardly submissive image, Theresa's altruistic character redeems her “unfortunate” physical appearance. Thus, Jen confounds the stereotypes of Chinese women through Helen and Theresa: Helen's apparent fulfillment of the submissive Chinese woman is actually motivated by self-centeredness, and Theresa's self-sacrifice is obscured by her physical “unwomanliness.”
All of these dualities, barriers, and “cracks” which plague the foundation of the family structure lead to disasters time and time again, and it is Theresa who proves to be the savior of the family each time. (The name “Theresa” was not chosen by accident.) Unlike Helen, Theresa is the antithesis of all that is considered traditional beauty in Chinese culture. Her large feet brand her as a lost case for femininity and diminishes her marriageability; Meeting Grover, a prospective husband, she “stationed herself on the far side of the triple-tiered hall table, so that her feet won't show” (92). Tall and “homely as a pig-head three,” she is as un-Chinese as Cammie. Theresa is de-gendered; she does not conform to any gender-specific behavior prescribed by Chinese culture. Her intelligence (bitterly acknowledged by Ralph through his nickname for her, “Know-it-all”), career success, and large physical stature defy the ideal image of the submissive and demure Chinese woman.
But if Theresa defies typical definitions of the Chinese woman, she fulfills the obligations of that role much more so than Helen: “She was in many ways Americanized, but in this respect she was Chinese still—when family marched, she fell in step. And wasn't this what she'd longed for? Reunification, that Chinese ideal …” (265). Her personal sacrifices enable Ralph to rise out of his misery, the kind of self-sacrifice expected of women to empower the men. She is also the marginalized woman in the family, deprived of her right to love and live independently. Her sexuality has been repressed for so long that it begins to affect her vitality. She does not know how to love, or even how to live: “All her years, it seemed to her now, she had stood against life. She had studied it; she had made forays into it; but mostly she had stood by while others braved the field. Did she love Old Chao? She didn't know how to love anyone …” (173). Thus, when she had not only the temerity to become a doctor, but to have an affair with a married man, she loses her place in the family and “… had nothing to say, not anymore; her authority had evanesced” (199).
Theresa is the site at which conflicts between “Chineseness” and “Americanness” are explicitly at work, the location for ambivalences as described by Lim to operate on a conscious level. Her unstable relationship with the rest of the family reflects her own struggles with myriad forces that constitute who she is. She is not only the dutiful, family-oriented Chinese woman and the independent, assertive American doctor, she is also a woman experiencing sexual awakening and the guilt-ridden yet ecstatic feelings of being involved in a illicit love affair, a woman doctor negotiating the male-dominated medical profession, and an average citizen striving, like many others in America, for upward mobility and stability. Unlike Ralph and Helen, who act out internal conflicts but for the most part fail to engage in any self-reflection, she is intensely aware of the variety of identities all trying to coexist in her, some of which lead to paradoxical characteristics—a “chaste” illicit affair, a mannish woman, a Chinese woman M.D. Thus, while Jen implicitly challenges the definitions of the typical Chinese woman through Helen, she does so explicitly through Theresa.
Ultimately, Theresa is willing to be the unifying force in the family. Ralph and Helen's selfish pursuits literally run her over at the end when she is hit by Ralph's reckless driving; her coma, a martyrdom of sorts, redeems their sins as they put aside their selfishness to care for her and to reflect on what has led to this tragedy. That Jen concludes the novel at the moment when Ralph and Helen begin to reflect upon their actions is significant. For the Changs, “it was basest betrayal to think of anything but Theresa, but they had no choice. Hospital bills arrived daily; the uninsured roofer had sent a lawyer after them, as had Grover, who stood ready to foreclose. Though Ralph had gone back to teaching, they had to do more” (287). They could not easily adhere to the primary duty of caring for family because of the intrusion of a host of other responsibilities. These disparate factors must all be taken into consideration, and Helen comes to a painful realization that the simplistic view of life she held in the past was nothing but a great fallacy: “she had considered the great divide of her self's time to be coming to America. Before she came to America, after she came to America. But she was mistaken. That was not the divide, at all” (288). Through this quiet little illumination, Jen reminds us that to attempt to flesh out the intricacies of the Chinese immigrant experience in terms of the same formulaic opposition of “before America” and “after America” is to miss the point entirely.
Internal rifts caused by the Chang family members' own confusion over who they are and what they are supposed to become are exacerbated by the intrusion of external forces in the form of “typical American” influences. Railing against landlord Pete's “typical Americanness,” the Changs are guilty of the same stereotypical creation of the American “other:” “And pretty soon, no one knew quite how, ‘typical Pete’ turned ‘typical American’ turned typical American this, typical American that. ‘Typical American no-good,’ Ralph would say; Theresa, ‘typical American don't-know-how-to-get-along;’ and Helen, wistfully, ‘typical American just-want-to-be-center-of-things.’” (67)
Manini Samarth, in her article entitled “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being,” observes that such condescending assessments “[serve] as a divider between their private lives and values and their assimilation into the public and professional world outside … [and] guards their purity, their unsullied Chineseness” (94). This is, however, a vain attempt; when the first intruder from the “America outside” first enters upon the scene, the Changs are not prepared for the face it bears. Grover Ding and “the car” are introduced to the Changs at the same time, and immediately overwhelm them by creating the first real rent in the family. Ralph is metaphorically carried away from his family by the car—that American symbol of masculinist material success and rebellious soul—with Grover at the wheel. Grover, the image of the car incarnate, corrupts Ralph in a “typical American” diner with equally typical American food: black-and-white ice cream sodas, fried clam plate, Salisbury steak, onion rings, potato salads (in the middle of which Ralph impotently suggests: “Chinese pancakes?”). Along with the food, they indulge in “typical American” behavior: belching, unbuttoning pants, loosening collar, slumping in seat, and flirting with the waitress. Ralph proves to be no match for this cultural coup. Removed from the protection of his family, he is easily beguiled by Grover's trite maxims:
Keep your eyes open.
Keep your ears open.
Know who you're dealing with.
Know who I'm dealing with.
And keep moving.
When the Changs do encounter the “American Other” in the flesh (Grover), it bears a Chinese face. Here, Jen enacts a double subversion of “typicality:” notions of both “typical American” and “typical Chinese” are complicated by Grover, who, according to the prevailing definitions, is neither American by dint of his race nor Chinese by dint of his behavior. There is no doubt that Grover represents “typical American” traits; but Grover is also a slippery figure that constantly eludes the Changs' grasp (what exactly is his occupation? Is he or is he not a crook?), a slipperiness that resonates with Jen's ever-present intention of denying the formulation of fixed identities.
Ralph, Helen and Theresa reel in the wake of Grover's disruption of their lives, knowing that some inexplicably destructive force has invaded their lives: “At what point did they realize they were in crisis?” (110) Subconsciously aware of the potential destructiveness of this experience, Ralph struggles against it in his work: “… he was looking for a numerical solution to analytically insoluble equations. Every day he punched cards, punched and punched, trying to avoid instability, divergence, distortion” (114). All of this is to no avail as the family begins to fall apart under this seemingly irreparable rent. Their railleries of “typical Americans” not only fail to protect them from the infiltration of the American lifestyle, but also prove to be prophetic descriptions of themselves. Instability, divergence and distortion inevitably take over the Changs' lives, facilitated by their move to the suburban house. The symbol of assimilation and acculturation, the house fulfills its symbolic purpose of corrupting Ralph and Helen with extravagance: “Three bedrooms, one and a half baths, a walk-out basement. ‘And so many extras!’ A nook off the kitchen. A brick planter. A big backyard” (152). They do American things such as raise a lawn, play bridge, walk the dog. (“‘A dog?’ said Helen, at home. ‘Now we really are Americanized.’”) But the physical spread of the house further disperses the already alienated family members; devoid of the “tightness” of their old apartments, Helen and Ralph expand outward, led by their own selfishness and greed. Their individual desires, even more unchecked than before, begin to dominate their lives; Ralph obsesses with his “Imagineering” schemes and plunges into the “typical” American entrepreneurial enterprise—the fast food business (proudly named “Ralph's Chicken Palace”); Helen's pursuits widen their scope to include an illicit affair. At the height of “American rule” in the house, motivational quotes cover Ralph's basement walls: “ALL RICHES BEGIN IN AN IDEA. WHAT YOU CAN CONCEIVE, YOU CAN ACHIEVE. DON'T WAIT FOR YOUR SHIP TO COME IN, SWIM OUT TO IT” (198). Grover is now the house incarnate as his presence pervades its rooms. While “wooing” Helen, he “tantalizes” the house with traces of himself, flooding her with ideas of cheap romance and infidelity. Such a barrage of “American” influences, all occurring within the presumably safe confines of their house, further disrupts the already unstable foundations of the Chang household.
And the house does not hold. The cracks which plagued their old apartment begin to appear both at the house and at the Chicken Palace (turning it into a humbler “Ralph's Chicken Place” when the first “a” in “Palace” fell off). When the cracks force Ralph's business to close and Grover's double-dealings are revealed, the “typical American” influences as embodied by Grover are expunged from the house. The motivational quotes are wiped off the basement walls, replaced by a single Chinese proverb. Theresa, the one most conscious of her own internal conflicts and thus most equipped to deal with conflict at home, moves back into the house with Helen and Ralph and temporarily restore some semblance of a Chinese family back to the house. Ralph, however, remains clueless to his own schizophrenic swinging from an American household to a Chinese one, which had proved so damaging to the family structure. Lacking the ability to self-reflect, Ralph cannot come to terms with these puzzling antagonistic tendencies within himself. The discussions over the “settlings” in the Chicken Palace—a pathetic euphemism for the cracks in the restaurant's walls—betray their anticipation of the imminent Fall of the House of Chang: “The settling seems a bit wider today.” “I don't know if the settling's going to get better.” “Did you notice? That pain-in-the-neck settling's back again” (243). Ralph literally “cracks” his house by throwing a vase out the living room window, and by pushing Helen out the bedroom window. And Theresa's return to the family fails to “patch up” the Changs' problems. She must suffer an accident, for only tragedy—that paradoxical unifier of disjointed families—can mend the fractures of the Chang household. It is as though for Ralph and Helen to recognize and then confront their own fractured identities, they must be made to see it through the physical fracturing of the sites that have been the outlet and mediator of their inconsistencies.
There is no redeeming quality nor a sense of closure in the ending of this tale. This is not a “typical Chinese-immigrant” story, nor a “typical American” one; by the end of the story, Jen has fully diffused her satirically prescriptive claim in the first line of the novel that “It's an American story” (3). In the end, no one is “typical” anything. Ralph's revelation at the end is not the disillusionment of a Chinese nor an American, but simply a man confused by the complexity of the new context that surround him: “Kan bu jian. Ting bu jian. He could not always see, could not always hear. He was not what he made up his mind to be. A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so. America was no America” (296). Ironically, Ralph's disillusionment with the American dream came by way of a very clichéd and “typical” American realization, that “a man was the sum of his limits.” Both Ralph's and Helen's revelations at the end of the book are critical moments in which Jen invalidates the generational/cultural conflict paradigm, and reverberate with S. Wong's conclusion that having to choose between either side of this conflict “is not much of a choice at all” (Reading 44). Samarth aptly states that “As America becomes more and more real to us, we fear becoming more and more insubstantial, not knowing what myths sustain us or what flags call us home” (100). This confusion reflects the complexities in constructing subjectivities in a time when nationalities, ethnicities, and races are becoming increasingly de-essentialized, and writers and readers alike must constantly rethink and redefine the Chinese immigrant identity and experience, and reformulate a sensibility that extends beyond the limitations of monolithic identities.
By “Chinese American literature” here, I am referring to fiction and non-fiction written by both Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese whose work examines and/or dramatizes the Chinese immigrant experience.
See Sau-ling Wong's critique of Tan and Chin's works and their reinforcement of stereotypes through simple inversion of hierarchized oppositions in “Ethnic Subject, Ethnic Sign, and the Difficulty of Rehabilitative Representation: Chinatown in Some Works of Chinese American Fiction.”
Beck, Louis J. New York's Chinatown. New York: Bohemia Publishing Company, 1898.
Chin, Frank, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Hsu Wong, eds. Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. New York: Mentor, 1974.
Chu, Louis. Eat a Bowl of Tea. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979.
Hsiao, Ruth. “Facing the Incurable: Patriarchy in Eat a Bowl of Tea.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. 151-162.
Jen, Gish. Typical American. 1991. New York: Plume, 1992.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Kinkead, Gwen. Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Kwong, Peter. The New Chinatown. 1987. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.
Lee, A. Robert. “Eat a Bowl of Tea: Asian America in the Novels of Gish Jen, Cynthia Kadohata, Kim Ronyoung, Jessica Hagedorn, and Tran Van Dinh.” Yearbook of English Studies 24 (1994): 263-280.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “The Ambivalent American: Asian American Literature on the Cusp.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. 13-32.
Melchior, Bonnie. “A Marginal ‘I’: The Autobiographical Self Deconstructed in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.” Biography 17.3 (1994): 281-295.
Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus 17.1: 88-101.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam, 1989.
Wong, Jade Snow. Fifth Chinese Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.
Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. “Ethnic Subject, Ethnic Sign, and the Difficulty of Rehabilitative Representation: Chinatown in Some Works of Chinese American Fiction.” Yearbook of English Studies 24 (1994): 251-262.
———. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075
SOURCE: Beauregard, Guy. “Myths of History.” Canadian Literature, no. 154 (autumn 1997): 162-64.
[In the following review, Beauregard discusses several works of fiction by Asian North American authors that address themes of history, memory, and multicultural identity. Beauregard observes that Typical American challenges the reader to rethink what it means to strive for the American dream.]
Near the end of his memoir, David Mura asks a series of remarkable questions about identity and culture: “Does culture ordinarily form a net of remembrance, a safety guard against forgetting? Does it provide the individual with at least some clues, some vague outlines, from which to discern his family history? All I have are these doubts and feelings of loss, these questions which pull me on, step after step, a dance of folly. Over and over, knowing it is futile, I try to create my own myth of history.” An engagement with these myths of history—a commitment to remembering and imagining lives, desires, and identities in diaspora—links the narratives of David Mura, Gish Jen, Wayson Choy, and Larissa Lai, narratives that sketch out important details in the increasingly heterogeneous field of Asian North American writing.
David Mura's Turning Japanese is a self-reflexive, theoretically-informed memoir that narrates the story of a Japanese American poet's year-long stay in Japan. Make no mistake about it: Mura's narrative is not a naive search for lost “roots” or an essential “Japanese-ness.” Instead, Mura works through the more difficult task of rethinking what precisely “home,” “nation,” and “culture” can mean to a Japanese American who would rather have gone to Paris than Tokyo to spend a year writing. Mura realizes the need to imagine himself in a tradition that has left him unimagined. By seeing himself as a bricoleur, one who has to make do with the tools at hand, Mura draws upon and extends an important characteristic of Asian North American writing from The Woman Warrior onward: the need to negotiate a cultural identity out of half-understood phrases and half-remembered stories. Mura's search for “a perspective that was not white American” is urgent and inspired—the cultural continuity implied by the figure of his unborn daughter provides Turning Japanese with an emotional wallop that defies easy paraphrase.
There is nothing as moving in Gish Jen's Typical American, an ironic novel that charts the woeful consequences of Chinese immigrants buying into the American Dream. Yifeng, a young, Shanghainese-speaking man, comes to the United States to study engineering; he changes his name to Ralph Chang and dedicates his life to academics before shifting his desire to the accumulation of capital. Typical American unflinchingly presents the price of capitalist imperatives: Ralph's entrepreneurial obsessions (he spends long evenings making phony cash register tapes to avoid paying taxes); his violence toward Helen (at one point he throws her through a window); the cracks that appear in the walls of “Ralph's Chicken Palace” due to its location on unstable land—all ask the novel's readers to rethink what it means to buy into the American Dream. In the mid-1990s, however, Typical American's ironies verge on triteness—is it necessary to read a novel telling us that the American Dream is inherently racist and sexist? Is it enough to wonder, as Ralph does, how a nation involved in sending satellites into space could also have homeless people collapsing in doorways?
Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony is a much more sympathetic novel, one that offers the pleasures of making small connections across gendered, sexual, ethnic, and racialized positions. The action of Choy's narrative takes place between 1933 and 1942 in the increasingly familiar literary geography of Vancouver's Chinatown. As such, Choy builds upon the work of Sky Lee and Denise Chong, and adds his own subtle voice to the process of historical and cultural re-creation. The character of Grandmama metaphorically enacts this historical search when she makes wind-chimes from discarded pieces of glass and costume jewellery, searching the garbage cans of progressively more distant neighborhoods for “splendid junk.” In turn, the younger generations of characters make their own forays outside of Chinatown's racialized boundaries. A notable example is the illicit affair between Meiying and Kazuo, an affair that defies the tensions between Chinese Canadians and Japanese Canadians during Japan's military conquest of China. In Choy's narrative, the characters “met at the Carnegie Library on Hastings and Main, between the boundaries of Chinatown and Little Tokyo.” Here, as always, Choy's understanding of Vancouver geography allows him to find its seams and to create previously unimagined meeting spaces. And although the meeting spaces can be distressingly pluralistic—Choy's cast of characters includes a kindly white woman who brings a freshly-baked apple pie, and a white teacher who wants her students “to belong to a country that she envisioned including all of us”—Choy ends The Jade Peony with the aftermath of Meiying's gruesome self-performed abortion, reminding us of the risks and difficulties involved in crossing the borders that mark locations and identities.
Larissa Lai's When Fox Is a Thousand also searches for connections, but it completely rejects pluralism and its easy elision of hierarchies and exclusions. Lai is uncompromising in her depiction of the violence—whether racist, homophobic, or misogynist—that characterizes life in contemporary Vancouver. Racist dialogue and media images (of Asian gangs and Asian drug trafficking, to give only two examples) drift through the narrative, slamming into the novel's characters with a deadening thud; and, in what is perhaps the novel's most powerful section, the voices of five Asian Canadian women narrate their own murders in Stanley Park—such is the grim social landscape exposed and challenged in Lai's novel. What rescues When Fox Is a Thousand from total despair is Lai's desire to recreate history and redeploy myths from feminist and queer perspectives. Particularly effective is the wonderful wry commentary of the Fox, a figure from Chinese mythology, who at one point realizes:
how history gathers like a reservoir deep below the ground, clear water distilled from events of ages past, collecting sharp and biting in sunless pools. How stars dream like sleeping fish at the bottom, waiting to be washed into the bowl of the sky some time in the distant future when enough myths have collected to warrant new constellations.
I plan to see this come to pass.
Of the four works discussed in this review, When Fox Is a Thousand comes closest to imagining the new constellations of myths needed to understand the past and transform the present.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2101
SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. “Gish Jen: ‘The Book That Hormones Wrote.’” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 23 (7 June 1999): 59-60.
[In the following interview, Jen and Smith discuss Jen's development as a writer, her writing process, and her methods of balancing career with family life.]
If your idea of a serious writer is a man sequestered in his study, thinking deep thoughts in seclusion from society's trivial pursuits, then Gish Jen definitely doesn't fill the bill. Like most women with young children (her son, Luke, is seven years old; her daughter, Paloma, seven months), Jen inhabits a world in which the competing demands of work and family are everywhere—literally underfoot, like the baby toys strewn on the floor of the sunny kitchen in her Cambridge, Mass., home. Motherhood has extinguished neither her intelligence nor her artistic ambition, but it's changed both in ways she could not have anticipated. Life is complicated and hectic, but it's also rich and interesting in ways not available to that hypothetical sage in his study. After all, he will never refer to a new collection of his stories as “the book that hormones wrote.”
The volume in question is Who's Irish? (Forecasts, April 26), just out from Knopf. Jen finished the collection's two previously unpublished tales, “House House Home” and “Duncan in China” when she was pregnant, she says. “There's all that estrogen: it's phenomenal how productive you can be when you're not throwing up!” She gives the first of many big laughs, incongruously loud and deep for such a physically small woman. The robust, irreverent sense of humor that enlivened her previous novel, Mona in the Promised Land (Knopf, 1996), is an integral aspect of Jen's character as well as her writing.
The author found that her pregnancy, combined with the experience of raising Luke, freed her to explore new techniques and material. “‘House House Home’ is really a departure for me,” she says; indeed, this long story has a more circular time frame, with a woman looking back on her first marriage as she begins a new relationship, and a more contemplative mood than earlier works. “I was trying to write something that seemed more like a life, that wasn't so much about conflict and resolution. The fact that I'm even interested in that kind of narrative has a lot to do with being a mother. I'm more interested in growth now. The experience of having a little person and watching them evolve has made me more interested in the form of narrative as well as the details.”
It might come as a surprise to admirers of Typical American (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and Mona, loosely connected novels that explored the lives of the Chinese-American Chang family with sharp social awareness, to find the author so openly concerned with personal matters. But her characters' private preoccupations have always engaged Jen as much as their adventures out in the world, although they haven't received equal attention in reviews. She finds critical assessment of her work a little narrow. “Even when I'm praised, so much of the time what they say over and over is, ‘Oh, it's so American!’ as though that needs to be said. I still have to contend with, do I speak English? I could never have written the title story in Who's Irish? [narrated in a near-pidgin dialect by a Chinese immigrant woman] until I was firmly established as a writer of English. It's an ongoing problem for Asian-Americans, but I also have to say that it's interesting to me, because that's where the inner self bumps up against society. We're all constructs, we're all compromises between what we've experienced and how we're perceived.”
The 43-year-old author comes from a generation hyper-conscious of the links between individual fulfillment and what society permits. She grew up in Scarsdale, an affluent New York suburb with few other Chinese-American residents, and she attended Harvard during the 1970s, the first decade in which large numbers of women prepared to enter the previously all-male bastions of medical, law and business schools. Jen tried out both premed and prelaw before wandering into English 283, the legendary prosody class taught by Robert Fitzgerald. He was impressed by her writing and got her a spot in the publishing training program at Doubleday, where she worked for editor Bill Strachan. Jen soon realized that publishing was not for her.
“I wasn't writing, nor was I exactly making a living. Almost as a lark, I applied to business school. I went to Stanford because I knew they had a good writing program; that's how confused I was.” During her conflicted first year, Jen took writing courses on the side and read a lot of novels. The second year, when she overslept every day the first week and missed all her classes, it became clear that business school wasn't right for her, either. “I took a leave of absence, went to China and never came back.” Like the protagonist of her story ‘Duncan in China,’ she did a short stint as a “foreign expert” at a provincial coal mining institute.
Her parents, immigrants from Shanghai who had worked hard to give their children the opportunities they were denied, were appalled. “My mother didn't talk to me for a year and a half after I dropped out of business school, and for years my parents and siblings [three business people, one doctor] would lean on me to do something else. Even today, I think my family would be more relieved than dismayed if I were to stop writing. I still struggle with the question, Is it selfish? It's hard on the people around me, it's hard on my children. Is it worth it? I was programmed to be selfless, and I go through periods where I wonder.”
Jen found support and encouragement at the University of Iowa, from which she received an MFA in 1983. She credits Bharati Mukherjee and James Alan McPherson as the teachers who made the greatest impact. “Writing school often focuses on technique, which is very important, but I feel lucky that I met a couple of people who also cared about content.” She ruefully remembers being surprised by the warning of another Iowa teacher, Edward Hoagland, “You have to serve a 10-year apprenticeship”—a statement whose truth didn't hit home until she married David O'Connor, who worked in computer software at Apple, and moved to California in 1983.
“Apple was an exciting place to be for David, and of course it was an advantage that he was making a living, but novel writing just didn't seem like a legitimate activity in Silicon Valley. Everyone else was making lots of money, driving a sports car and had an identity; I sort of wanted to be a writer.”
The couple's 1985 move to Cambridge, where O'Connor now works for an offshoot of MIT's media lab, proved salutary. Jen got a fellowship at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute and began writing Typical American. “I came to the Bunting wanting to do a collection of stories. But that first week, when we went around the table and identified ourselves and I said I was ‘a would-be writer,’ everybody jumped on me. By the end of the week, not only was I identifying myself as a writer, but I was also saying, ‘I'm writing a novel.’”
As the title—the inspiration of Jen's agent, Maxine Groffsky—suggests, Typical American examines the disorienting freedom and often illusory promises of the New World through the paradigmatic story of one immigrant family. Ralph and Helen Chang struggle against poverty, make good, then suffer a series of disasters engendered by their infatuation with a slick, American-born entrepreneur. The Changs bear no relation to her parents, says Jen (“My mother got to the end of Typical American and said, ‘Ah, it's wonderful—and it's not about anybody!’”), and the book's increasingly somber tone sprang from events in her life, not theirs. “I had been trying to get pregnant for years, and then right before I got to the last section of Typical American I had a terrible miscarriage at four-and-a-half months. It was pretty devastating; I was worried that as a result of this experience I was a different person and wouldn't be able to finish the book. The novel was going on its way and had its own logic, but I think the miscarriage had a lot to do with the book taking such a dark turn.”
Paradoxically, the ebulliently comic voice of Mona in the Promised Land was also born during this period. “Just at the most serious part of Typical American, when things were getting worse and worse, out of the blue I started writing a story that eventually became Mona. This funny, buoyant voice popped out of nowhere. There is a way in which, trying to make a coherent narrative, something of its opposite will grow. The novel is a distance event; you're married to your project, you're ever-faithful and you're willing to do it for a long time. But you have other voices, other moods, and things will come calling that are unbidden and in the way [of the novel's development], so I siphon them off into stories.”
WRITING ON ADRENALINE
By the time Typical American was edited (by Houghton Mifflin's Seymour Lawrence) and published, Jen had a brand-new baby and was embarked on the full-length version of Mona—a joint venture only a first-time mother would be insane enough to try. “If Who's Irish? is the book that hormones wrote, Mona is the book that caffeine wrote,” she jokes. “It was murder: I had to schedule time to take a shower. During Luke's first five years, when I wrote the novel, I did not go shopping, I did not do lunch, I didn't get any exercise. I had to continue writing and I had to raise my family and I just couldn't do anything else. It was hard on me, but it was not bad for the work; I took a lot of risks in Mona that I wouldn't have taken if I'd had more time to think.”
Principal among those risks was Chinese-American Mona's embrace of Judaism, closely seconded by a frank portrait of well-meaning suburban teenagers' politically charged interactions with an African-American fired from the Changs' restaurant. Reading the novel now, it seems evident that Jen's candor, sensitivity and eye for nuance outweigh any potential offensiveness, but it was not so clear to the author when she nervously delivered the manuscript to Knopf's Ann Close (also her editor on Who's Irish?). She was relieved when Cynthia Ozick loved the book and amused when a student at Spelman College, where she read a portion of it, asked, “Why do you care what we think?” Her African-American auditor clearly considered Mona's depiction of race relations a nonissue, but Jen does not believe that she was wrong to be concerned about that reaction.
“Obviously, no one thinks it's good to be politically correct, but I think it's important to be politically sensitive. One of the good things that's emerged from multiculturalism is that people don't feel they can write whatever they want and then hide behind artistic license. You're forced to consider what you do unconsciously, and I think that's good for writers. I'm not against artistic freedom, but there's a moment for every writer when you bring things out in public and look at them. I think now we look with new eyes, and that makes for better fiction.”
What comes next in her own fiction is not yet clear. “I'd like to write another novel, but I'm just not sure that life circumstances will allow it right now. Paloma seems like a spectacularly easygoing, mellow baby, but that can change on a dime. A lot of whether I write something long or short depends on her. Your children have got to come first.”
It's not the pure commitment guided solely by art's grand design that beginning writers fantasize about—but then again, Jen was never much on making plans. “The way I work, I never know where I'm going. When I was writing Typical American I found it sort of scary that 300 pages in I still didn't see what came next. I swore I'd never do another book like that, it's just too nerve-racking, but in the end I wrote Mona the same way. It's how I know to write: the first time through, you don't really know what you're saying, then you look at what you've written and find out. Just as you might look back on your life and understand things about yourself that were always there, but you didn't recognize immediately.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
SOURCE: Heung, Marina. “Windows of Opportunity.” Women's Review of Books 16, nos. 10-11 (July 1999): 41.
[In the following review of Who's Irish?, Heung asserts that Jen's writing style has matured, and that her stories, in comparison to her novels, demonstrate a broader scope as well as greater insight and clarity.]
Families, generations and habitats have always been Gish Jen's subjects. Her first novel, Typical American, tells us how the story of how the Changs arrive in America and enter the affluent middle class. Mona in the Promised Land, her second novel, is an extended riff on identity-switching, with one of the Chang daughters, Mona, deciding that she is going to “become Jewish.” As the Changs set down roots and build a family, their saga illustrates the process of growing up and acquiring identities in America.
In Who's Irish?, Jen's new collection of short stories, two are “Mona” stories. The others employ a variety of voices and perspectives: the grandmother of an interracial child, an Anglo-American teaching in China, and a woman anticipating her first child. While Jen's novels depict the newness of the immigrant experience as well as the comedy and trials of growing up Asian American, the characters in these stories are often captured in moments of transition, as they try to make sense of their past and anticipate the future.
Art Woo, the computer sales rep in “Birthmates,” for instance, finds himself staying in a welfare hotel during a conference. The strangeness of this physical space sets in motion a series of disturbing and absurdly amusing encounters that lead him to a jolting reminder of the distances of race and class, a re-thinking of his failed marriage and a dawning awareness of missed opportunities.
In the final image of “Birthmates,” the protagonist glimpses an ominous shadow lurking on the fire escape outside his window. Windows are important in these stories: they delineate the mutual incomprehension between cultures and supply a metaphor for the psychic spaces marking differences of race, ethnicity and class. In the haunting story, “Chin,” an adolescent boy living in Yonkers, New York, gazes with fascination through his kitchen window at the Chinese family that lives across the alley from him. Puzzling over the mysterious household arrangements of his neighbors (why, for example, do they always keep their window closed?), he also begins to articulate his own identity:
They weren't like us who came from Yonkers and didn't have no special foods, unless you wanted to count fries. … I was more interested in why everybody suddenly had to have a special food. And why was everybody asking what your family was? First time somebody asked me that, I had no idea what they were talking about. But after a while, I said, Vanilla. I said that because I didn't want to say we were nothing, my family was nothing.
When the story ends, what he has seen is the ominous reality of parental authority and expectations, which also reflect on his feelings toward his own father.
In “House, House, Home,” Pammie Lee, a thirtyish mother of three, now in her second marriage, reflects on her first marriage. The evolution and dissolution of this relationship to an Anglo-American man twice her age is told as a journey through a series of habitats: a Maine cabin, a loft, a suburban house and finally, the “dog house,” a cramped space that turns out to be surprisingly intimate and capable of extensions and renovations. In reviewing the past, Pammie comes to see how age, ethnic and class differences infiltrated her marriage and affected her faltering attempts to work as an artist and architect.
In the end, this story embraces the “joyous deprivation” of an existence devoted to family and domesticity. The thought dawns on Pammie that perhaps “her own true gift [is] for household management,” and that “the largest drama is behind her.” But the “busy boredom” of her life is the template for arresting moments and small epiphanies, such as when she sees a “red and yellow fall day that people drove from faraway brown towns to come see: the kind of day when the world feels full of street corners, because at every one you gape like a tourist at the heart-stopping spectacle which is your very own world, without chlorophyll.”
At the end of “House, House, Home,” Pammie writes in a note: “I have, against all odds, become an adult.” Although it is always dangerous to read fiction autobiographically, one can't help sensing, in this volume, that we are in the presence of an author who has, like her characters, matured. The scope of her vision has broadened, her touch is light but sure, and her feelings for her characters modulate between irony, whimsy and sympathetic insight, but always with a clarity that leaps from the page.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756
SOURCE: Brownrigg, Sylvia. “Margarinized.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5026 (30 July 1999): 21.
[In the following review, Brownrigg comments that the stories of Who's Irish? address the theme of marginalization with intelligence and humor.]
Gish Jen's new collection of stories [Who's Irish?], like other recent fictions by Lan Samantha Chang or Mei Ng, explores a rich territory where intergenerational conflict intersects with cross-cultural misunderstanding.
Jen's characters are fluent in the vernacular of the American suburbia in which they are raised, but they remain alert to the chiding voices of their striving, often immigrant parents. “Ma fan” is one of the few Chinese phrases architect Pammie knows; it means “just like you”, and in her mother's critical usage it denotes a troublemaker, one who stands out. The good child would have “kept herself small and edgeless” so as not to embarrass her family.
Jen's characters do have edges, of humour and of independence, and they often stand out. In “Who's Irish?”, it is not a daughter but the narrator's mixed-race granddaughter, Sophie, who flouts the Chinese ways of quiet obedience; stripping naked in the park, throwing sand at her grandmother. Jen wonderfully captures the narrator's battle not just against Sophie—“I am not exaggerate: millions of children in China and not one act like this”—but also against the expectations of her own daughter. The grandmother resorts to spanking Sophie, something which her daughter has strictly forbidden, because “it gives them low self-esteem”; she is thereafter banished from baby-sitting, although Jen allows her a nice redemption when she befriends Sophie's other grandmother—who is Irish.
Here and elsewhere, Jen's spry comedy comes from being able to look at Chinese and American cultures with both an outsider's and an insider's eye. Thus, while she ironizes the older generation's conservativism, Jen can with equal swiftness mock the progressive neighbourhood to which Pammie and her older husband Sven move, as “tending toward the spiritual side, and toward an interest in yarn”. She slyly observes of an attentive husband, in “Just Wait”, that he speaks in a manner “he had learned in a sensitivity seminar”; in “Birthmates”, she sympathizes with another, Art Woo, who reluctantly attends a “grieving group” with his wife after she has a miscarriage.
Most of the stories canvas the state of feeling excluded—or “margarinized”, as one joke has it—whether racially, politically, or economically, as in the case of the hapless Art, who works in the dying minicomputer industry. “Birthmates” (which John Updike recently selected as one of the “Best American Short Stories of the Century”) pitches Art against his grating all-American co-worker Billy Shore who speaks what Art calls “Mainstreamese” and makes cheap cracks: “Art Woo, how's that for a nice Pole-ack name.” Mugged at his cheap hotel, threatened with redundancy, and left by his wife on account of his failure to grieve properly, Art is an unusually poignant figure in this book, whose characters tend to ward off their pain with a stream of puns.
Jen's earlier novels featured the endearing Chang family, and two of this volume's strongest stories are narrated by Callie Chang and describe incidents referred to in Mona in the Promised Land. “The Water Faucet Vision” covers Callie's religious phase in response to a dim period of conflict in their parents' marriage, while in “In the American Society” has Callie and Mona conspiring with their parents' secret projects: the father's to employ an illegal Chinese immigrant at the pancake house restaurant; and the mother's to join the exclusive local country club. Jen knows her way around this family; she evokes their passions and trials with such warmth and ease that one can only hope a third Chang novel may be in progress.
Jen's fictions are reliably intelligent, funny, lively and true; they are not, however, always well shaped, and she does not seem altogether comfortable with the short-story form. One longer piece, “Duncan in China”, is a wry, layered account of Duncan's period of work in China, and the foreignness he feels there. But the volume closes with a less successful novella, “House, House, Home”. Schematic and yet curiously plotless, the story chronicles the disintegration of Pammie's marriage to the much older Sven. As in other pieces, Jen richly examines the “busy boredom” of motherhood, but Pammie lacks focus, unusually for a Jen heroine. It is only in the story's later pages, when Pammie's mother comes for a post-breakup visit, that Jen's humour returns. There, at the place of mother—daughter conflict, the writer finds her voice, and her multicultural story comes to life.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6384
SOURCE: Xiaojing, Zhou. “Becoming Americans: Gish Jen's Typical American.” In The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche, edited by Katherine B. Payant and Toby Rose, pp. 151-63. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Xiaojing contrasts representations of the Chinese-American immigrant experience in Jen's Typical American with those of novels by Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Frank Chin. Xiaojing argues that Jen's work breaks from the paradigm of immigrant fiction established by Kingston, Tan, and Chin by focusing on the inner life of her characters as they work through the process of adapting to life in America.]
In a 1991 conversation with Martha Satz, the year Typical American was published, Gish Jen said that the novel “is about coming to America and what that means in reality.” She added, “For the characters in my book, it takes a while to become American and it's not so much becoming a citizen that makes them feel American, it's something like buying a house” (133). For the Chinese immigrants in Jen's book, what coming to America means in reality, and how they become and feel American are very different matters than they are for the Chinese immigrants and their children in the works of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Frank Chin. This difference marks some significant changes in the Asian American experience.
The thematic concerns and narrative strategies in fiction written by Chinese Americans are shaped by the American immigration laws regarding Asians and by Chinese Americans' social status in the United States. Since the 1940s, a relaxation in the U.S. immigration laws toward Asians, which had been characterized by exclusion and containment, has led to significant transformations in the demographics of Chinese Americans. When China became an ally with the United States during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been adopted in 1882, renewed in 1892 for another ten-year period, then made indefinite in 1902, was repealed in 1943. This repeal was followed by a legislative process that eventually removed race, ethnicity, and nationality as criteria which, among other things, prevented the Chinese and other Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. The resulting large number of middle-class and well educated immigrants have helped diversify the Chinese American community, which used to be predominantly working class.
These social and demographic changes have also led to shifts in thematic concerns and generated new voices and narrative strategies in the fiction written by Chinese Americans. Gish Jen's Typical American is indicative of both the demographic and literary changes. The locations of her stories are far removed from Chinatown, and her characters are not indentured laborers, or illegal immigrants, or displaced scholars and professionals who become “illiterate” and are forced to work at nonprofessional jobs. Jen's immigrant characters, both male and female, come to the United States to obtain higher education and become professionals and entrepreneurs, who struggle with the process of acculturation and identity transformation outside the borders of Chinatown communities. In her essay “Immigration and Diaspora,” Shirley Geok-lin Lim contends that Typical American and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife “share a common set of assimilartionary themes” and “plot the acculturation of their Asian protagonists into a U.S. society represented as desirable, fetishistically possessable, and offering utopianist possibilities” (299). Lim's generalized reading of Typical American is reductive of the word's complexity and its critique of the myth about unlimited possibilities and freedom in the United States. It also eliminates thematic and technical differences between Jen's and Tan's works. Nevertheless, Lim's essay offers a provocative criticism of “assimilationary position” (303) in Asian-American immigrant discourse—a position that Jen explores and complicates in Typical American.
The American experience of Jen's characters is at once more individualized and generalized than that of the immigrant characters in the works by Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Frank Chin. For instance, the Chinese immigrants in Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), Tan's Joy Luck Club (1989) and Chin's Donald Duk (1991) are portrayed more as ethnic cultural signs than as individuals. Insisting on their Chinese values and customs, the mothers in the works of Kingston and Tan function like custodians of Chinese culture, and remain “unassimilated” foreigners in their adopted country, either by resistance or as a result of circumstances. Likewise, the father in Chin's Donald Duk seizes every opportunity to give his son (and also the American reader) lectures on Chinese culture, including Chinese local opera and customs. As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong has noted, in some works of Chinese American fiction, immigrant parents are portrayed “as symbols of either hopeless cultural stagnation or unrelentingly purposeful cultural transmission” (“Ethnic Subject” 261). Being thus portrayed as representatives of the old world and another culture, the immigrant mothers in the works of Kingston and Tan serve the double function of at once passing on the Chinese cultural heritage to their children and contributing to the difficulties of their children's identity crisis. The mother-daughter relationships are basically a narrative strategy for revealing the daughters' sense of being split between two worlds and cultures.
Although Kingston's China Men (1980) is devoted to the Chinese immigrants' process of becoming Americans, its focus is on the historical process of collective experience. There is no character development; the multiple characters and their stories are devoted to the construction of a Chinese American collective history, which records Chinese immigrants' contributions to the building of America through their work in farming, fishing, mining, and railroad building, and their victories in fighting against racist American laws. When stories focus on individual experiences of the immigrant mothers in Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Tan's The Joy Luck Club, they take place more often than not in China, rather than in America. The individualized process of becoming Americans is reserved only for the American-born generations.
Jen's Typical American has broken away from this narrative paradigm. The Chinese immigrants in her book are depicted as developed characters. With its narrative focus on the development of the major characters, Jen explores the inner world of each character as it is being reshaped and transformed by the new social environments of the United States. In order to portray characters as real human beings, Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out, the author must establish a “fundamental, aesthetically productive relationship” to the characters. He explains, “It is a relationship in which the author occupies an intently maintained position outside the hero with respect to every constituent feature of the hero—a position outside the hero with respect to space, time, value, and meaning” (14). Jen establishes and maintains this “aesthetically productive relationship” to her characters throughout the book by telling their stories from an omniscient-narrator point of view. Her use of a humorous and ironic tone in her narrative voice also helps maintain her position “outside” of her characters. In fact, Jen's narrative voice and sometimes comic portrayal of characters with distinct personalities remind one of Jane Austen's novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, whose influence Jen acknowledges in an interview with Yuko Matsukawa published in 1993 (113).
In her treatment of the immigrants' assimilation process, Jen shows not so much the characters' resistance to the mainstream American cultural hegemony as the changes taking place within each main character. While presenting the characters' actions and their changed lifestyle, Jen obliquely raises questions about values and morality in the characters' transition from one value system to another. With these thematic concerns, the narrative structure of Typical American also differs greatly from those of The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club. Whereas Kingston and Tan organize their nonlinear narratives into several separate stories told in multiple voices, Jen employs a linear narrative structure and a single authorial voice in the traditional mode of nineteenth-century novels. The fragmented narratives in Kingston's and Tan's works allow them to tell disconnected stories about the immigrant mothers and aunts in China and America, and stories of the daughters' sense of fragmented identities. In other words, Kingston's and Tan's narrative structures reflect their thematic concerns of Chinese immigrants' and Chinese Americans' cultural dislocations and psychological disconnections. Jen's different narrative structure is determined by her thematic concerns of character development and the plot of her novel.
In addition, the Chinese immigrants' social and educational backgrounds in Jen's novel are very different from those of the characters in Kingston's and Tan's books. The three main characters—Ralph Chang, his older sister Theresa, and his wife, Helen—are all from elite families in China and are sent by their parents to study in the United States during the 1940s turmoil following the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese civil war. Ralph is earning his Ph.D. in engineering, Theresa is getting her degree in medicine, and Helen stops going to college, marries Ralph, and becomes a housewife.
Jen centers their changes on their conceptions of morals and proper conduct, which form the core of their Chinese identity. At first, they are critical of everything American. To them, “typical” Americans are “no-good”—they don't know how to get along, and they are too self-centered. When they are shortchanged by a clerk, they shake their heads and mutter, “typical American no-morals!” They are sure that they will not become “wild” in this country where they have the freedom to do whatever they want (67). Nevertheless, as the narrative of their lives in America unfolds, they all have become typical Americans. Jen uses humor and irony throughout the novel to unmask the characters and debunk their superficial criticisms.
She also employs humor and irony to show situations of cultural clash, in which the characters are caught without being aware of it. In juxtaposition to the easy conclusion about Americans' lack of morals by Ralph, Helen, and Theresa, Jen shows Professor Pinkus's accusation of Ralph's immoral conduct in contrast to American morals. When Ralph runs into trouble with his student visa, he asks Professor Pinkus, the new department chairman, for help. Pinkus promises to talk to the Foreign Student Office to straighten things out, but Ralph never hears from him. Not knowing how to approach Pinkus with his problems again, and discouraged by Pinkus's overbearing and critical manner, Ralph decides to talk to one of his children, who seems “less intimidating,” especially the youngest girl, who is “plain” with “bedsprings of bright orange hair” (39). But though he follows the child home a few times, he never musters the nerve to say anything to her, thinking that as a stranger, he could be arrested for talking to a young girl, and eventually his status as an alien without a visa will be discovered. Then his deportation is inevitable.
Ralph realizes that he has to talk to Pinkus directly and starts following him around, hoping that chance will bring them face to face. One day he unexpectedly runs into Pinkus outside a bar. But no sooner does Ralph introduce himself, assuming Pinkus may have forgotten who he is, than he is overwhelmed by Pinkus's response. “Not only do I know who you are, I know what you are,” says Pinkus. He then calls Ralph a “liar” and a “sneak,” and threatens to have him arrested for hanging around his house. Before Ralph can reply, Pinkus presses on with his warning: “If you want to lie, you want to sneak around, you should go back to China. Here in America, what we have is morals.” Ralph is dumbfounded. Jen's earlier description of Pinkus's youngest girl as “plain” and with strange, unappealing hair through Ralph's eyes, suggests that Ralph does not have the slightest interest in her as Pinkus assumes, thus rendering Pinkus's reaction even more shocking to Ralph. While Ralph is lost for words, Pinkus's threat becomes more intense. “We have morals! You keep hanging around my daughter, I'll shoot you!” (40)
This comic scene of cultural misunderstanding, though undermining the Changs' assumptions of their moral superiority over “typical” Americans, is reminiscent of the representations of the morally decrepit stereotypes of Chinese, epitomized in Fu Man Chu, a personification of the “yellow peril.” This stereotype has been used to justify the exclusion of Chinese immigrants and help perpetuate their alienation in American culture. Jen's comic portrayal exaggerates the characters' speeches and behavior so as to reveal Ralph's ignorance and Pinkus's biases in their cross-cultural encounters. Pinkus's assertion of American morals, and his threats directed at what he perceives as a violation of them, are unmasked as a superior and violent American attitude toward the “other.” What seems to be a typical case of cultural misunderstanding is in fact a result of the difference between a privileged American and a dislocated minority immigrant.
Jen's humorous narrative voice also allows her to expose the irony in the changes of the main characters' lives. At the beginning, Ralph's goal in life is to get his Ph.D. in engineering, then tenure as a college professor. But he is lured into business by the financial success of an American-born Chinese American, Grover Ding. He becomes acquainted with Ding at a dinner party in the home of Old Chao, Ralph's university colleague, sent over to study by the Chinese government, who eventually becomes the acting chairman of Ralph's department. When Ralph finally gets tenure, he decides to take a leave from the academic position and opens a fried-chicken diner with Grover's help, determined to become a “self-made man,” that is, a self-made millionaire. He covers an entire wall of his office with inspirational quotations such as:
ALL RICHES BEGIN IN AN IDEA.
WHAT YOU CAN CONCEIVE, YOU CAN ACHIEVE.
YOU CAN NEVER HAVE RICHES IN GREAT QUANTITY UNLESS YOU WORK YOURSELF INTO A WHITE HEAT OF DESIRE FOR MONEY.
He reads books entitled Making Money, Be Your Own Boss! and Ninety Days to Power and Success for tips on how to get rich fast. He teaches his daughters that the important thing in the United States is money: “In this country, you have money, you can do anything. You have no money, you are nobody” (199).
Inarguably, having money does make a great difference in people's lives, especially in the lives of people of color in the United States, Jen interweaves issues of class and race through Theresa's observations. Theresa is horrified by Ralph's lectures on money worship to his daughters. But as time goes by, she feels ambivalent about his lectures, which remind her of how poor people are treated in the hospital where she works as an intern in residence. “And to be nonwhite in this society was indeed to need education, accomplishment—some source of dignity,” Theresa concludes. “A white person was by definition somebody.” Besides, she sees that commerce is like a “brand of alchemy that turned” chickens “into a happy household” (200). With the money made from fried chicken, Ralph and Helen are able to add new appliances to their house in the suburbs of New York City. The new love seat and bridge table make Helen happy and content; Ralph earns respect from his suburban neighbors, especially when he takes his well-trained dog for a walk.
Nevertheless, this happiness and respectability are not obtained without costs. The peaceful, harmonious relationships between Ralph, Helen, and Theresa are replaced by chaos, estrangement, and resentment. All of them have transgressed the moral codes of behavior that once gave them a proud sense of who they were. Ralph begins to experience constant anxiety and fear not only over the risks of his business, but also for cheating on their income tax. The narrator's ironic comment on Ralph's moral lapse is indirectly critical of the American worship of materialist gains. Underreporting income makes all the difference in the Changs' life; although they are not rich, they become “respectable” (202).
Ralph's obsession with becoming a self-made millionaire also contributes to the deterioration of his marriage. Every day after dinner, Ralph locks himself up in a room and plays with the cash register. His devoted wife, Helen, once an innocent and modest Chinese girl, is seduced by Grover, now a frequent houseguest and indispensable facilitator and adviser in Ralph's business dealings. When Helen first hears from Ralph that Old Chao, a married man, is having an affair with another Chinese woman, she refuses to believe it. “Impossible,” she said. “Chinese people don't do such things” (168). Helen's seduction by Grover parallels her seduction by the American way of life represented in magazines. As she begins to desire a house in the suburbs with a yard and new furniture with matching curtains, her affection for Ralph transforms into fondness for Grover, who turns out to be a ruthless swindler. Helen's love affair with Grover and her attainment of the American way of life are short-lived. Ralph's business fails because of Grover's self-serving schemes. Their happiness based on material possessions proves to be as precarious as their Chicken Palace built on shaky ground.
Jen, however, assumes no simple right-or-wrong judgment of her characters. Helen has undergone some positive changes. Being the spoiled child of her privileged family with servants in China, she used to let others do things for her, including the arrangement of her marriage to Ralph by her friend Theresa. By the end of the novel, Helen has become a resourceful individual who finds pleasure in work and is capable of taking initiative in the face of hardship and disasters.
Like Ralph and Helen, Theresa has done the previously unthinkable thing—she has maintained her love affair with Old Chao, whose wife, Jannis, is a family friend of the Changs. Jen's humorous and ironic tone in describing Theresa's sense of morals and modesty enhances the changes taking place in her later: “She had always been nice about her morals; she grew nicer still. How dangerous a place, this country! A wilderness of freedoms. She shuddered, kept scrupulously to paths. Once she had allowed other residents to wink at her, and had sometimes even winked back. Now she stiffened and turned away” (142-43). The hardest thing for Theresa is not these open invitations to flirt, nor even the horrors of the emergency room. It is having to sleep in that little room which all interns shared, with men. The men disturb her because they force her to feel “how pointed her needs were …” (147). Theresa begins to be aware of her sexuality and allows herself to experience love and desire in ways that had been socially condemned in China. She finds satisfaction and happiness in her relationship with Old Chao, who decides to divorce Jannis. Theresa and Old Chao, both single-minded and career driven, have learned to relax and enjoy life.
Even though Theresa's love affair with Old Chao is different from Helen's with Grover, it is completely unacceptable to Ralph. She loses Ralph's respect for her, and her authority over him. Having lost her moral rectitude according to traditional Chinese ethical standards, Theresa's words lose credibility. Ralph turns a deaf ear to whatever she says. She has to compromise in her position on Ralph's materialistic attitude and teachings to his two daughters even though she does not approve of her brother's obsession with money or his relationship with Grover. Once adored and indispensable in Ralph and Helen's household, Theresa becomes alienated, her existence and needs forgotten. Eventually, Theresa has to move out of her brother's house after being humiliated by him. The destruction of the Changs' family relationships is followed by each of the three characters' transformation in pursuing his or her version of the American Dream of freedom, happiness, and self-fulfillment. The choices they have made, and what they themselves have become, run contrary to their notions of who they were as opposed to “typical” Americans. At the beginning of the novel, they were sure that “they wouldn't ‘become wild’ here in America, where there was ‘no one to control them'” (67).
Once being removed from the strictly social structure in China, and having the unfamiliar American freedom thrust upon them, the main characters undergo not only moral crises, but also identity changes. Helen has become capable of things that were once utterly inconceivable to her. Theresa is surprised to realize that she is “another person” (200). Ralph begins to wonder who he is. It never occurred to him before that he should question his own identity, and he is surprised to find that a lot of Americans wonder quite seriously who they are. In China, individual identities are hard facts based on who your parents are and, what tier of the social hierarchy you and your family belong to in terms of inheritance and achievements. What people worry about is being recognized. Knowing who you are provides “useful information in a terraced society,” which regulates how people should treat one another, and tells you what to expect from other people (177).
The social conditions that formed the Changs' individual identities and shaped their expectations have disappeared in America. In this “loose-knit country, where one could do as one pleased, a person had need of a different understanding” (178). Ralph needs to know what his limits are, and what he is capable of in terms of good and evil, but is baffled by his impulses and actions. He does not understand why he found his attraction to Grover irresistible; he does not know why he can no longer be satisfied by simple indulgences in life like plum juice, a fish pond, or a crabgrass-free lawn. He is surprised by his own reckless gamble in his business dealings, and puzzled by his alienation from his wife and sister. At the end of the novel, Ralph “was not what he made up his mind to be”—a “self-made” millionaire. “A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so” (296).
The paradox of freedom and limits is a major theme of Jen's novel, a lesson Ralph, Helen, and Theresa all have learned. In showing the limits of individual will and knowledge from the immigrant's perspective, Jen means also to point to the limits of the American Dream personified by the protagonists of Horatio Alger's novels. “America holds out this promise that a person can do anything,” Jen notes. She hopes that “Typical American will be viewed not only as an immigrant story but as a story for all Americans, to make us think about what our myths and realities are. We are not a country that likes to think in terms of limits” (qtd. in Satz 134). Bonnie TuSmith, in her perceptive essay ironically titled “Success Chinese American Style: Gish Jen's Typical American,” notes that “Understanding one's limitations is one theme of the novel,” and “Jen's overall narrative strategy is to use an ancient culture to anchor a newer one—with reciprocal learning the desired outcome” (24). Kingston and Chin have employed intercultural strategies with similar outcomes. Their American-born Chinese American characters such as Wittman Ah Sing (in Tripmaster Monkey) and Donald Duk have learned how to be Chinese American with an integrated, hybrid cultural heritage.
Jen, however, is less concerned with the characters' integration of bicultural heritage than with the development of the characters as individuals in the process of becoming Americans. In the American “wilderness of freedoms,” the Chinese immigrants have had the opportunity to do the previously unthinkable and learn about the limitations of social reality and individual knowledge. “If you have grown up in a place where you have one reality and everyone else has the same reality, you begin to believe that is reality,” Jen remarks. “You are unaware of the degree to which it is artifice. Whereas if you can see the terms in which other people think you begin to realize that your reality is not so absolute” (Satz 135). In Typical American, Jen portrays the characters' changes in part through their perception of the differences between Chinese and American societies. In so doing, she exposes the American reader to another reality through another cultural viewpoint.
Jen shows how cultural differences are embedded in linguistic expressions. Jen contrasts the “loose-knit” American social structure with the “terraced society” of China by referring to a phrase in Chinese. In China, connections and relationships are so important that they have become part of a standard phrase—mei guanxi, meaning “it does not matter,” literally, “it has no relationship/connection.” More often than not, to say something “mei guanxi,” Jen points out, actually indicates how much something matters (177-178). These social and linguistic differences also shed light on Helen's perception of the difference between China and the United States In China, Helen perceived the world to be enormous, but a walled-in, finite space. Here, the enormous world for her becomes infinite with endless horizons. The contrasting metaphor of space runs throughout the novel, reflecting the character's transitional experience of acculturation. The endless horizons of America for the Changs at once represents the lack of social enforcement of moral codes, and the infinite possibilities Ralph believed in as he used to marvel at Grover, the self-made millionaire: “In America, anything is possible” (106). “A man is what he makes up his mind to be” (186). The promise this legendary America holds contrasts with the confinement Chinese culture imposes on individuals.
However, Ralph was to find out that America's possibilities and China's limits are not the absolute polar opposites they seem to be. At the beginning of the novel, Jen reveals how in Chinese culture people are keenly aware of the limits of personal capability and circumstances, by explaining the linguistic difference between English and Mandarin Chinese. In English, the verb “listen” does not carry the connotation of not being able to hear, whereas the Chinese verb “listen” is used as a compound to indicate the results of the action of listening. Ting de jian in Mandarin means, one listens and hears. Ting bu jian means, one listens but fails to hear. Jen uses this linguistic difference as an indication of people's understanding of the personal and social limits of their abilities and accomplishments, which seem to be the opposite of Americans' confidence in their limitless capabilities. At the end of the novel, Ralph becomes disillusioned about the seemingly infinite possibilities for both himself and America. He feels trapped in himself, from which no escape is possible. He realizes that freedom in America is not as promising and limitless as he thought. His capacity is just as limited here as in China. He fails to be what he made up his mind to be. Freedom only makes him realize that he is only “the sum of his limits.” America is not the America he once thought it to be.
Jen remarked in the 1991 conversation with Satz that “we [Americans] believe in endless expansion and endless expression of our will. The grandiose self.” The disillusioned, humbled, and reflective Ralph, Jen noted, might suggest a parallel to a maturing stage in the American national identity. “Ralph is at a point much like the one we are at as a country,” said Jen. “Our adolescence is over—I hope. We're sobered. People are starting to think about the environment, about war, about our place in the world” (qtd. in Satz 134). In portraying her Chinese characters as Americans and emphasizing their “typical American” experience, Jen directly challenges exclusionary notions of American identity. Speaking of Typical American, Jen said that she wants to “challenge ideas of what a ‘typical American’ looks like, to put forward the idea that the Changs are not any less American than anyone else.” She also pointed out that “There are people who, when they choose to read ethnic writing, want comfortably exotic stuff that makes them feel like they're traveling in some foreign country” (qtd. in Matsukawa 115).
Jen shares much with other Chinese American writers in her claim of the American identity for her characters and in her resistance to the exoticized readings of works by Chinese Americans. In her essay “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers,” Kingston has pointed out the connection between cultural “othering” and the historical exclusion and political disempowerment of Chinese Americans: “To call a people exotic freezes us into the position of being always alien—politically a most sensitive point with us because of the long history in America of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the deportations, the law denying us citizenship when we have been part of America since its beginning” (57). The history of Chinese immigrants' experience and the perpetuation of “otherness” of Chinese Americans in the American culture have determined both the content and narrative strategies in the fictions written by Chinese American writers. Despite their differences, both Kingston and Chin have retold and reinscribed Chinese American history in opposition to the misrepresentation of Chinese Americans in American popular culture and literature.
In their representations of their characters' American experience, Kingston and Chin seem to be more concerned about intervention in the misrepresentations of Chinese Americans than about characterization as Jen is. Their works, as protests and resistance, are directed more at social injustice than at the interiority of the characters. The inner conflicts of their characters are more often than not the results of racial stereotypes. For instance, in China Men, even though the narrator's brother, a fourth-generation Chinese American, was enlisted in the U.S. army, after the government certified that his family “was really American, not precariously American but super-American, extraordinarily secure—Q Clearance Americans” (299), the Chinese American pilot in the comic book Blackhawk was still portrayed as an unassimilated inferior “other”:
Chop Chop was the only Blackhawk who did not wear a blue-black pilot's uniform with yellow and black insignia. He wore slippers instead of boots, pyjamas with his undershirt showing at the tails, white socks, an apron; he carried a cleaver and wore a pigtail, which Chinese stopped wearing in 1911. He had buck teeth and slanted lines for eyes, and his skin was a muddy orange. Fat and half as tall as the other Blackhawks, who were drawn like regular human beings, Chop Chop looked like a cartoon.
A similar Chinese American stereotype is also to be found in Hollywood movies. Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist in Kingston's third book, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1987), notes that “John Wayne has a Hop Sing, and the Cartwrights have a Hop Sing. They name him Hop Sing on purpose, the name of the powerful tong, to put us down. […] The way Hop Sing shuffles, I want to hit him. Sock him an uppercut to straighten him up—stand up like a man.” Even when Hollywood attempted such a supposedly positive figure of Chinese America as Charlie Chan, they could not but make him effeminized and submissive, as Wittman asserts: “I want to punch Charlie Chan too in his pregnant stomach that bellies out his white linen maternity suit. And he's got a widow's hump from bowing with humbleness. He has never caught a criminal by fistfighting him” (320).
Similarly, in Frank Chin's Gunga Din Highway (1994), a character, parodying Charlie Chan's Number Four Son, responds to the Chinese stereotypes in the American movies with irony: “Gee, Pop! Even the apes are doing better in the movies than the Chinese. Apes have gone from King Kong to Planet of the Apes! And we have gone from Charlie Chan to Susie Wong, ping-pong, ping-pong” (199). In Donald Duk, Chin exposes the rationale underlying the stereotypes of Chinese Americans through Donald Duk's teacher of California history, a white American, who reads to his class a passage from a history book:
The Chinese in America were made passive and nonassertive by centuries of Confucian thought and Zen mysticism. They were totally unprepared for the violently individualistic and democratic Americans. From their first step on American soil to the middle of the twentieth century, the timid, introverted Chinese have been helpless against the relentless victimization by aggressive, highly competitive Americans.
To counter these misrepresentations, Chin resorts to the Chinese warrior tradition and history by introducing iconistic figures such as Kwan Kung, a legendary general of courage and loyalty in Chinese history, into the book through Donald's father, who plays the most powerful role of Kwan Kung in the Chinatown Cantonese opera.
Likewise, Kingston appropriates and revises Chinese literature, history, legends, myths, and ethnic customs in The Woman Warrior, China Men, and Tripmaster Monkey, to protest against racism and sexism, to resist Eurocentric cultural hegemony, and to reinscribe the Chinese American identity in opposition to the dehumanizing stereotypes in the American media. These strategies for asserting a self-determined identity in direct opposition to stereotyped misrepresentations have led to a mode of narrative characterized by intertextual incorporations and intertextual dialogues, which raise questions about race, gender, ethnicity, class, and culture in connection to power relations. The statements made by characters in Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, and Chin's Donald Duk and Gunga Din Highway, sometimes seem to echo the authors' own ideas and attitudes articulated in their nonfictional writings. The boundary between the character and the author is blurred, or rather in their author-character relationship, the author's position is not “outside” of the character.
Gish Jen's Typical American has also departed from this mode of narrative even as it continues to redefine the once Eurocentric and white American identity by portraying Chinese immigrants' process of becoming Americans, as do the works of Kingston and Chin. There is no mention of classical Chinese literature or myths, though there are a few Chinese sayings in her book. Her characters remain distinct individuals, whose consciousness and perceptions are clearly not shared by the author. The Changs' American experience is more pertinent to those contemporary Chinese immigrants in the United States, who are academics and entrepreneurs. However, to really understand what becoming American means for the Changs in Jen's book in a larger context of the American reality, one must be informed of what it meant for earlier Chinese immigrants to become Americans, and how it feels for the American-born children of Chinese immigrants to be Americans, as dealt with in the works of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Frank Chin. In her book, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, Amy Ling traces the in-between-worlds experience of Chinese Americans in Kingston and Tan to the works of an earlier generation of Chinese American women writers.
When The Woman Warrior appeared in 1976, Kingston realized that many readers misunderstood her book because they were ignorant of Asian American history (Kim xvi). “Chinese American history has been a battle for recognition as Americans,” Kingston writes; “we have fought hard for the right to legal American citizenship” (“Cultural Mis-readings” 59). In response to the general reading public's lack of knowledge about Asian Americans' collective experience in the United States, she deliberately filled her second book, China Men, with historical facts. By doing so, Kingston hopes that a younger generation of Chinese American writers will be freed from the necessity of providing historical information so as to deal with other issues and explore new ways of writing fiction: “[M]aybe it [China Men] will affect the shape of the novel in the future. Now maybe another Chinese-American writer won't have to write that history” (qtd. in Kim xvii-xviii).
Typical American is at once a continuation and departure from the works of Kingston and other Chinese American writers. In her recent essay “A Person Is More Than the Sum of Her Social Facts,” Jen discusses the effects of multiculturalism on minority writers like herself, arguing for minority writers' freedom to explore “the very inner life that identity politics denies” (B11). She says elsewhere that “multi-culturalism has made more boxes for people” (Satz 136). Frank Chin has expressed similar feelings through his character Benedict Mo in Gunga Din Highway:
In Santa Barbara people ask me why I do not just write about people instead of the Chinese, whereas in San Francisco and Los Angeles, people ask me why the Chinese characters I write are not more Chinese.
Were Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry capable of writing of themes and emotions and truths of characters beyond the confines of their particular, unique Black Afro-American experience? Did writers Louis Chu or John Okada have any other color inside of them besides yellow? Real writers are rainbows. That is what I'm trying to say with my play.
Jen's insistence on the importance of exploring her characters' “inner life” must be considered within the contexts of Asian Americans' collective experience in American history and culture. As Kingston's and Chin's works illustrate, individuality and interiority are precisely those human qualities that are erased by racial stereotypes. In making these two aspects the center of her characterization, Jen opens up new creative possibilities for writing about what becoming American means in reality for some recent Chinese immigrants. The difference of her thematic concerns and narrative strategies from those of other Chinese American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Frank Chin, is more than a matter of personal choice. In exploring the Chinese immigrants' moral ambivalence and crisis, and in confronting their questions about identity and the meaning of life in America, Gish Jen's Typical American marks a new departure in Asian American literature and adds a new voice to American fiction.
Jen, Gish. Typical American. New York: Plume, 1992.
Chin, Frank. Donald Duk. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1991.
———. Gunga Din Highway. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1994.
Kingston. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of A Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Knopf, 1976.
———. China Men. New York: Knopf, 1980.
———. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ballantine, 1989.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
———. “A Person Is More Than the Sum of Her Social Facts.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 23 May 1997: B11.
Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers.” Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities. Ed. Guy Amirthanayagam. London: Macmillan, 1982. 55-65.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Immigration and Diaspora.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-Kok Cheung. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 289-311.
Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon, 1990.
Matsukawa, Yuko. “MELUS Interview: Gish Jen.” MELUS 18.4 (1993): 111-120.
Satz, Martha. “Writing About the Things That Are Dangerous: A Conversation with Gish Jen.” Southwest Review 78.1 (1993): 132-40.
TuSmith, Bonnie. “Success Chinese American Style: Gish Jen's Typical American.” Proteus 11.2 (1994): 21-26.
Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. “Ethnic Subject, Ethnic Sign, and the Difficulty of Rehabilitative Representation: Chinatown in Some Works of Chinese American Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies 24 (1994): 251-262.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725
SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Blair-Speak.” London Review of Books 22, no. 1 (6 January 2000): 25.
[In the following review of Who's Irish?, Annan comments that Jen's prose is witty and perceptive, but that her stories are marred by unrealistically happy endings.]
Ever since her first novel Typical American appeared in 1991, the Chinese American writer Gish Jen has been acclaimed as the new Amy Tan. Amy Tan herself acclaims her on the cover of Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Jen's second novel; and again on this collection of short stories. Jen has a lot going for her: she is witty, perceptive, penetrating, sharp on motives and a great mimic. She can do Black American, Jewish American (including the puns) and, of course, Chinese American: ‘When I first come to the United States, I also had to hide-and-seek with those deportation guys. If people did not helping me, I am not here today.’ Jen is affectionate towards her characters and impeccably well-intentioned. And so are nearly all of them, even when they appear to be up to no good. It almost always turns out that someone who has betrayed someone else, or stolen their silver flask, didn't really do any such thing. Above all else, Gish Jen is charming; immensely charming; charming verging on cute.
Typical American is a first-generation immigrant novel, and Mona in the Promised Land is its sequel, with the second generation occupying the foreground. The family saga begins in the late Forties, when Yifeng Chang arrives at an American East Coast college to study engineering. He is soon called Ralph; his older sister, a medical student, is already called Theresa, because in China she went to a convent school. The subject of religion never comes up, but they are presumably Catholics, because they carry rosaries. In every other way they are typically Chinese, and the plot—a sentimental comedy with a happy ending—is the story of their adaptation to life in America, with Theresa always a step ahead of Ralph. He marries a Chinese friend of hers called Hailan, who becomes Helen. Helen is very young, and was brought up rich and sheltered in China, so she starts several steps behind Ralph (in adaptability, that is), but soon overtakes him. The Revolution cuts them all off from their families: letters and gift parcels get no replies. Jen tells us that the immigrants grieve, but we don't see them doing it much. Exile is not a tragedy.
In due course Ralph is promoted from research student to junior lecturer; then he gets tenure. By now the Changs have two little daughters, quiet, studious Callie and merry, mischievous Mona, both of them as bright as can be. They move from a slum tenement to a ‘Dutch colonial’ in a suburb called Scarshill. Jen herself, we learn from the book's jacket, was brought up in Scarsdale. Both hill and dale have very good schools, lots of delis, and lots of Jewish residents. But then the Chinese are ‘the New Jews, after all, a model minority and a Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.’ Mona jokes about changing the family name to Changowitz. Helen shops for must-have furnishings and joins the country club; Ralph buys a car and learns to drive (in that order). Theresa qualifies and has an affair with a professor. Helen is shocked because Chinese women don't behave like that. Then she, too, has an affair. Ralph gives up academia, preferring to make money in the restaurant business. There are upheavals—dramatic and threatening—both in the restaurants and in the marriage; but all ends happily.
Mona is the central character in Mona in the Promised Land. This in itself is a sign of Americanisation, you might say, because in the first novel the whole family is the protagonist, whereas in the second the now teenage Mona measures her own identity against the family's, and even rebels a bit and takes off on her own—as Theresa has already done by moving to California with her professor. But Chinese families cohere and live according to the maxim that ‘one generation is supposed to build on the last, ascending and ascending like the steps on a baby bamboo shoot.’ So after a bit Mona follows her more docile elder sister to Harvard (‘How nice indeed for the parents to be able to say: “The girls go to Harvard!” Mona realises this herself, the misty elegance of the sound—it lingers in the air like something out of a perfume spritzer.’) A Chinese family never goes dysfunctional, and in the end they are all reunited. The ones who have run off and lived in sin get married, Theresa to the professor, Mona to her dropout Jewish boyfriend Seth; even her Jewish girlfriend Evie marries her working-class black boyfriend, who used to be second chef in one of Ralph's restaurants. A new generation with plenty of mixed-race members is on the way or in some cases already toddling about underfoot.
All earlier misdemeanours by the second generation are forgiven by the first. Seth decides to go to college after all—mainly because of the understanding and liberal attitude of his ultra-trendy but fundamentally wise stepmother. It's all too optimistic for words, and maybe that's why Seth's hands talk in Blair-speak: ‘He likes to make a kind of cage with them as he listens, each fingertip lightly touching its comrade on the other hand. When he talks, the cage opens, as if to let the truth flap out.’
If the conclusion is too saccharine to swallow, the rest of Mona in the Promised Land is as funny as a Marx Brothers film, which it sometimes resembles. The load-bearing joke in the second novel is that at the age of 13 Mona converts to Judaism. This is because Rabbi Brian Horowitz has ‘nice laugh lines’ and lots of charisma, besides being liberal to the point of letting the kids do their bar mitzvah barefoot. (Later on he gets the sack for excessive permissiveness, defrocks himself, and enrols as a research student. However, by the time of the happy Californian grand finale, he has gone back to being a rabbi and married a cosy Californian female rabbi.) During his time at Scarshill, though, Mona becomes a pillar of the TYG (Temple Youth Group), then a TYG counsellor. This means taking her turn at manning the TYG Hot Line. Here is an extract from her entry in its logbook:
Japanese (?) male calling for (is this prejudiced?) somewhat inscrutable but probably profound reasons. Although who knows, maybe also/just for language practice (English). Good vibes established despite long silences and short sentences. More attention should probably have been paid to drug education. Given caller's depressed state of mind, probably ought also to have explored caller attitude towards hari-kari, even if that's stereotype.
In fact, the caller is Seth, to whom Mona has given the brush-off: he is trying to get back in touch by impersonating Mona's first crush, a Japanese boy at her school who went back to Japan. Actually, the caller isn't really Seth either, because Seth can't do a Japanese accent—so he's enlisted a Chinese friend of his who can.
One of the oddest things about Jen's work is that there are no Wasps in it at all. In ‘House, House, Home', the last and longest story in Who's Irish?, a Chinese American art history student called Pammie marries her white professor. Even he isn't Anglo-Saxon, though, being of Swedish descent and called Sven. Pammie and Sven stay together for ten years and have two children; but when Pammie gets pregnant again, the marriage breaks up. Although old enough to be Pammie's father, Sven is a perpetual adolescent and doesn't like the idea of settling down. ‘I do not want to lie on my deathbed full of regret,’ he announces on his 60th birthday. And so he drives off in his Volvo, never to return.
Meanwhile, at the ‘children of color’ lunch which she organises, Pammie has met Carver, who came to help out: ‘Graceful; gentle; possibly a Pacific Islander. He has a face like a monk's, with a certain look of wise forbearance that involved the deliberate settling of the eyebrows; and he wore an earring—betokening, in his case, mostly youth, Pammie guessed. His monumentality was far more striking, especially when he knelt to better hear his small supplicants.’ After Sven's departure, Pammie and Carver meet again under circumstances too corny to be described. And that's it: her prince has come. Jen's plots are so brazenly unlikely that occasionally one can't help wondering whether she isn't sending up the ideal of racial harmony, which seems to be the underlying theme—message, even—in all of them. But no one who wasn't sincere could have concocted the embarrassing last paragraphs of ‘House, House, Home’.
One short story, though, stands out from the rest—and also explains why they all end as they do. ‘Duncan in China’ is about a middle-class Chinese American drop-out who gets a job teaching English at a coal-mining institute deep in the Chinese provinces. There is an element of travel-writing, and it's all to the good. The scenery—geographical and human—makes a welcome change from chirpy suburbia, though the language jokes are just as funny and the characters just as solidly established as the Chang family and their neighbours. Jen evokes the grim atmosphere of suspicion and austerity in the Chinese Republic, but something else as well: in Duncan's classroom, former Red Guards sit side by side with the former ‘struggled against', people who had perhaps been tortured and seen their brothers and sisters and parents tortured and killed. ‘Duncan was amazed and touched by the fantastic restraint that held his classroom together. Wasn't this related to what he had come to China to see? He had not expected that it would be so tinged with sad realism, though—all anyone wanted anymore was to be left alone, that's what the students said.’ In the final paragraph, Duncan reflects that ‘being an American’ had given him ‘not so much an unshakable conviction as a habit of believing in the happiest possibility. Truly, it was a form of blindness. He understood why denizens of the Old World laughed at him. Yet he saw now, finally, that it was as incurably his as any faith.’
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SOURCE: Zierler, Wendy. “Laughter with a Twist.” Far Eastern Economic Review 163, no. 5 (3 February 2000): 36-7.
[In the following review, Zierler asserts that the stories in Who's Irish? demonstrate Jen's best writing to date. Zierler observes that Jen is at her best when in the tragic-comic mode.]
Gish Jen is at her best when she is funny and serious at the same time. And she is at her best in this new collection of stories about the Chinese-American experience.
Who's Irish in this book? Not the immigrant Chinese mother who narrates the title story, but her perennially unemployed son-in-law, allowing for some hilarious observations on the merits of one hyphenated American identity over another. “I understand,” she concedes, “I am just lucky, to come from a country where the food is popular all over the world. I understand it is not the Shea family's fault they come from a country where everything is boiled.” “Who's Irish?” sustains this humorous appeal throughout, but also has a darker side, reflecting on the loneliness of old age and the horrors of child abuse.
Jen offers a similar recipe of laughter and tears in “Birthmates,” a story included in the 1995 annual anthology of Best American Stories. In this story, Art Woo, a middle-aged computer salesman attending a trade conference, discovers he has mistakenly booked himself a room in a welfare hotel, with a wooden plaque above the checkout desk boasting “Fewest Customer Injuries, 1972-1973.” Afraid of the neighbours, Art arms himself with the telephone handpiece before leaving his room. Ironically, however, Art, who is down on his luck both professionally and romantically, finds kindred spirit at the hotel, where he is befriended by a downtrodden black woman.
Likewise with one of the longest stories in the volume, “Duncan in China,” in which Duncan Hsu flees “the Chinese bourgeois experience” of America for China to become an English teacher, a.k.a. “foreign expert,” at a coal-mining institute in Shandong. Duncan is both affable and laughable in his mainland exploits, in his ardent, lovestruck meditations on the “handsome clavicles” of his student Louise: “What an utterably beautiful part of the anatomy the neck was! Especially the base, with its perfectly matched meeting of graceful strong bones, and adjacent sweet pockets of impossibly vulnerably flesh.” Or on the beauty of Sung dynasty vases: “Those porcelains could make him cry, what with their grace and purity, and delicate crackle glazes; what with their wholeness and confidence and supremely untortured air. They made him feel what life to be. And what his life was. They were uplifting; they were depressing. That was beauty for you.”
As the story progresses, however, Duncan's romantic notions of China begin to collide with bureaucratic reality, and even more seriously, with the grisly stories of his impoverished, tubercular cousin Guotai, whose name ironically means “country peace” and whose father and mother were both killed during the Cultural Revolution. Guotai wants Duncan to sponsor him and his seven-year-old son Bing Bing for American citizenship, but all Duncan is willing to do is take them out for a duck dinner.
At the heart of the tragi-comic situations that beset Jen's characters in Who's Irish?: Stories lies a religious problem, or more correctly, a quest for meaning in the absence of religion. Gish Jen's interest in religion was first made evident in her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, the story of a teenage Chinese-American girl growing up in New York who trades in her wontons for bagels and converts to Judaism. Jen's novel offers little theology or deep consideration of what it means to adopt a new faith. Instead, the novel explores the idea of identity, how it can be taken on and off, and how peculiarly American is this idea of identity-as-a-wardrobe-change.
The stories in Who's Irish: Stories (two of which feature the Chang sisters from Mona in the Promised Land) pick up where her earlier novel leaves off, providing a series of characters who pine after the certainties of a codified faith. In China, Duncan realizes—to his great dismay—that he has made a religion out of rejecting middle-class American values, particularly his brother Arnie's belief in making money.
In “House House Home,” married life with unconventional art professor Sven Anderson becomes a religious experience for aspiring Chinese-American painter Pammi. Sven encourages her to worship at the altar of Art, “capital A,” to pay homage to “originality of perception,” and to rebel against all things domestic, filial and appropriate. But Pammi ultimately replaces Sven's lofty notions of art for art's sake for the practicalities of architecture and the idea of home.
Who's Irish: Stories represents some of Jen's best writing to date precisely because of this consistent blend of gravity and levity, of the impious and the spiritual, the solemn and the absurd. There is a tempered optimism that emerges from these stories as well, born of the idea that alongside some of darkest aspects of life are some of the funniest. “Duncan in China” ends on this kind of optimistic note, with Duncan's recognition of his own folly as well as his own brand of faith. “Still he could say this, that there was one thing he had, being an American—not so much an unshakable conviction as a habit of believing in the happiest possibility.” The best stories in this collection offer the reader a similarly felicitous sense of the possibilities of good fiction.
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SOURCE: Furman, Andrew. “Immigrant Dreams and Civic Promises: (Con-)Testing Identity in Early Jewish American Literature and Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS 25, no. 1 (spring 2000): 209-26.
[In the following essay, Furman compares fiction about the Jewish-American immigrant experience to that of the Chinese-American immigrant experience in Jen's Mona in the Promised Land. Furman asserts that Jen's writing “engages the paradigm shift regarding the immigrant ethos” that has developed in America since the 1960s.]
One of the things about which he often made fun of me was my Talmud gesticulations, a habit that worried me like a physical defect. It was so un-American. I struggled hard against it.
Don't tell me we're just as good as anybody else, don't tell me we're Americans just like they are. No, no, these blond-haired Christians are the legitimate residents and owners of this place.
American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish.
These are certainly not heady times to be an immigrant (documented or illegal) in this country. It has become almost de rigueur in political discourse to blame our recent immigrants for problems ranging from unemployment and crime to the national deficit. This largely emotive groundswell of anti-immigrant sentiment has translated itself into public policy in recent years, from the rather draconian federal welfare law that bears down most heavily upon illegal immigrants (and also grants states the right to cut off certain benefits to legal immigrants who are not citizens) to the generally increased fervor with which our current anti-immigration laws are being enforced.1
Still, amid all the hoopla concerning our anti-immigrant or xenophobic zeitgeist (our relentless focus upon the pressures from without the immigrant experience), we have given short shrift to the subtle ebb and flow of the immigrant ethos itself in America, its visions and revisions. One cannot account for our current bad patch between immigrant and non-immigrant populations without taking into account the contrast between the immigrant dreams of the past and the immigrant dreams of the present. For if it is true that America seems increasingly on the verge of reneging on its promises to its immigrants, it is also true that the terms of that promise are not nearly as clear as they once were. A transformation from within the immigrant experience is underway, and cuts to the heart of our very conception of American identity.
To conceptualize the immigrant dreams and civic promises of earlier in this century, one can look at the path of Jewish American immigrant assimilation, which reached its statistical peak in 1907. Jewish American humor and literature shed a good bit of light upon this sociological journey toward assimilation. As long as Jewish humor continues to delight audiences, jokes about Jewish assimilation will occupy their own niche in the genre. Many of these jokes chide Jews for their urges to assimilate, as the ineluctable “Jewishness” of the would-be WASP invariably provides the comic twist that makes for the punch-line. One of my personal favorites concerns a Jewish pauper who converts to Christianity after his local church offers him a ＄500 reward to do so. When his Jewish friends inquire some days later whether he received the reward, he replies (without a trace of sarcasm), “Is that all you Jews think about is the money?” Such humor affirms the impossibility of assimilation and revels in the naiveté of any self-deluding Jew who believes otherwise. Simultaneously, such jokes deflect our attention, if only for a moment, from the more deadly serious implications of the Jew's ineluctable Jewishness. As Erica Jong recently put it, “A Jew is a person who can convert to Christianity from now to Doomsday, and still be killed by Hitler if his mother was Jewish” (97).2
This is not to say that most early Jewish American immigrants simply made their peace with the inescapable burden of Jewish identity. Upon newly acquiring a hyphenated identity, Jewish Americans struggled to determine which side of the hyphen they should embrace. This struggle served as the essential grist for the artistic mills of our early Jewish American novelists. Given the relative safety and the material rewards that seemed to go hand in hand with being an “Amerikaner,” it should come as little surprise that the Jewish side of the hyphen stood little chance of competing for the soul of many of these early protagonists. Consequently, the best of our early Jewish American novelists often dramatized the “costs,” as Irving Howe put it, “exacted by their struggle to tear themselves away” from the “remembered world of their youth” (“Introduction” 3). In Anzia Yezierska's fine novel Bread Givers (1925), the fiery Sara Smolinsky struggles to extricate herself from the patriarchal Jewish mores of the “old world,” but, having done so by lighting out to a college in the Midwest and pursuing a career as a teacher, she finds that she must seek an uneasy reconciliation with her tyrannical, Orthodox father. Sara asks herself, “How could I have hated him and tried to blot him out of my life?” (Yezierska 286). “Can I hate my arm, my hand that is part of me?” (286). Abraham Cahan's David Levinsky, like Sara Smolinsky, also rejects the old ways in favor of the new. He must cut off his earlocks and suppress his urge to gesticulate “Jewishly” before he can, à la Benjamin Franklin, rise from Poverty and Obscurity to a position of material comfort. The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) reaches a tragic climax as Levinsky bemoans the loss of his Jewish identity. Levinsky realizes, ultimately, that he “cannot escape from my old self. … David, the poor lad swinging over a Talmudic volume at the Preacher's Synagogue, seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak-manufacturer” (Cahan 530).
Finally, the young David Schearl of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) also ventures further and further from the Yiddish hearth to immerse himself in the rattle and hum of New York. Although he is too young to fret over his assimilatory urges, his dour Hebrew School teacher, Yidel Pankower, reflects poignantly upon the imminent decline of Jewish identity:
What was going to become of Yiddish youth? What would become of this new breed? These Americans? This sidewalk-and-gutter generation?
To be sure, Pankower peppers the word “Americans” with the most derisive timbre he can muster. The very phrase, Jewish American, would assuredly strike the disgruntled teacher as a hopeless oxymoron, its hyphen more barrier than bridge. Indeed, in Pankower's eyes, David Schearl and his cohorts are well on their way to becoming Americans at the expense of their Jewishness. The perfunctory efforts of his Hebrew School students (not to mention the countless spitballs they aim his way) do not inspire him with enough immigrant gratitude to give America even one cheer.
At this point, allow me to turn my attention to Gish Jen's recent novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996). Jen's novel might be seen as an end-of-the century status report on the Jewish immigrant experience that Pankower anticipates with apprehension; more broadly, the novel illustrates the sea change between the immigrant dreams of the past and the immigrant dreams of the present. The Jews of Jen's New York suburb, Scarshill (modeled, no doubt, upon the Scarsdale of Jen's youth), would probably tell Reb Pankower, if they could, that they have managed to do just fine thank you. Emboldened by their post-war material success in America and Israel's stunning victory in the Six Day War, they possess a cultural confidence that Pankower could never have anticipated.3 On this front, the Jews of 1960s Scarshill contrast interestingly with the suburban Jews of Woodenton in Philip Roth's early story, “Eli, the Fanatic,” which is set just after the Holocaust. Roth's Woodenton Jews live in amity with their gentile neighbors by eschewing their “extreme practices” (any outward display of Judaism) (“Eli, the Fanatic” 189). They wholeheartedly embrace mainstream conduct and even attempt to put the kibosh on a yeshiva that opens up in their neighborhood for fear of what the goyim might think. Roth's Woodenton Jews, then, embody the jittery, ghettoized self-consciousness that earmarks so many early Jewish American protagonists.
By contrast, the Jews of Jen's Scarshill seem to care not a fig what their gentile neighbors might think. A pervasive Jewishness defines Scarshill's culture, so much so that Jen's Chinese-American protagonist, Mona Chang, finds herself immersed in yiddishkeit as an adolescent: “she's been to so many bar and bas mitzvahs, she can almost say herself whether the kid chants like an angel or like a train conductor. At Seder, Mona knows to forget the bricks, get a good pile of that mortar. Also she knows what is schmaltz” (6). Oys and Gevalts roll casually off of Mona's tongue. What is more, she even learns how to spell diaphragm after reading a Jewish American novella by (who else?) Philip Roth. All of which is to say that Jen's Scarshill, on one level, illustrates that Pankower's “sidewalk-and-gutter generation,” or at least a significant portion of it, managed both to escape the urban gutters for greener suburban pastures and to retain more of their Jewish identity than Pankower anticipated.
Small wonder, given the prominence of the Jewish American community in Scarshill, that Mona Chang wishes to become a Jew, and, in fact, converts. As one might expect, given this plot, reviewers of the novel have made a lot of hay over the affinities between Chinese-Americans and Jewish Americans as they emerge in the novel. For example, the Jewish American emphasis on educational prowess parallels quite nicely with the Changs' priorities. The Changs share with the Jews of Scarshill the assumption borne out of the immigrant consciousness that “one generation is supposed to build on the last,” and that an Ivy-League pedigree represents the most solid foundation upon which to build (100). Chinese-Americans are the “New Jews,” Mona notes, “a model minority and Great American Success” (3).4 To Jen's credit, these affinities surely exist beyond the pages of her novel. Speaking from my own experience, I could not help but notice as an adolescent that the Asian and Jewish American enrollment in my public high school's Advanced Placement program defied our demographics. An intellectual competition between Jewish and Asian Americans, tempered by a mutual respect, thrived in the sprawling San Fernando valley where I grew up just as it thrives in the Scarshill of Mona Chang's youth.
Still, the cultural significance of Jen's novel lies beyond the affinities that she cannily dramatizes. (In fact, it should be noted that at least as many distinctions as affinities between Jewish American and Chinese-American culture manifest themselves in the novel). First, Mona does not merely embrace an ethnic-chic Jewish identity, as the bagel on the novel's cover seems to imply. Rabbi Horowitz forces Mona to do her homework; he “assigns so many books that Mona feels like she started on a mud bath, only to end up on a mud swim” (35). Through her study of Torah, Mona discovers the biblical precept (specifically, tikkun olam) that fuels the social activism of Scarshill's Jewish community and so appeals to her: “How they can help, how they can fix, how they can contribute and illuminate” (35).
Second, and more to the point of this essay, Mona in the Promised Land is not so much about the Jewish American rise to socio-economic and cultural confidence, nor is it about the Chinese-Americans' parallel journey as the “New Jews” (3). Rather than merely trace these cultural evolutions, Jen goes after decidedly bigger fish as she engages the paradigm shift regarding the immigrant ethos, precipitated in large part by the multicultural enthusiasms of the 1960s that continue apace today.
Immigrants from the 1960s on (as well as members of minority populations already established in the country for generations) began to scrutinize the assimilationist ethos of their predecessors. Herbert Gans recognized this flight from the mainstream in his perspicacious essay, “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” “Americans,” Gans contended, “increasingly perceive themselves as undergoing cultural homogenization, and whether or not this perception is justified, they are constantly looking for new ways to establish their differences from each other” (215). Gish Jen's novel reaffirms Gans's reading of the cultural landscape with something of a vengeance. For if the flight from ethnicity forms a rift that divides the generations in the early Jewish American novels, it is the countervailing rejection of an assimilated mainstream identity that currently divides the second generation, represented by Mona and Callie Chang, from their immigrant parents.
Mona and her sister Callie struggle to embrace distinct cultural identities. While Mona converts to Judaism, Callie immerses herself in her Chinese heritage which the Changs have suppressed. Mona's parents do not subscribe to the multicultural rage. Like the early Jewish American protagonists discussed previously, they succumb to the assimilationist impulse and find it incredible that their children wish to adopt an ethnic, rather than a mainstream, identity.5 Ralph Chang cannot fathom why Callie decides to learn Chinese at Harvard—“Has no use” he says (129). Likewise, upon discovering that Mona has converted to Judaism, Helen makes no bones about expressing her disapproval. She and her husband fled Communist China so that their children might become “American, not Jewish” (49).
To be sure, the Changs raise their daughters to be Americans, sans hyphenation. The rub is that the very definition of American identity has become slippery in the years since, say, Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska were penning their immigrant novels. This has a good deal to do with the demographic rise of “minorities” in America. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the very word, “minorities,” seems a misnomer. For we are now, as the novelist Shawn Wong and others have observed, a nation of minorities (Wong 230). Consequently, the “mainstream” American experience becomes more and more difficult these days to pin down. The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant cohort in this country seems ever on the decline, both demographically and (one might as well say it) culturally. As the literary critic Stephen Sumida perceptively notes, “the repositioning of ‘minority’ literatures and literary studies at the ‘center’ of American literary history and criticism … [is] actively underway” (804). That the multicultural approach currently prevails at our universities bespeaks primarily the shared sense of duty on the part of academics to rescue minority fiction from years of historical neglect; however, a concomitant derision toward the culture of an increasingly embattled mainstream manifests itself in our cultural conversation as well. To wit, in Jen's first novel, Typical American (1991), the Changs define mainstream America by a seemingly inexhaustible string of unsavory descriptors (e.g., “no consideration for others,” “no manners,” “no shame”) that often follow the phrase “typical American.”
It should come as little surprise, amid such a zeitgeist, that Jen's characters cling to whatever cultural identity might distance themselves from the increasingly nebulous, and toothless, “mainstream.” The days of cultural homogenizing seem long past in Jen's novel. In fact, a homogenized mainstream identity seems scarcely to exist for Jen's characters even as an option to reject. Instead, a whole host of “minority” identities form a patchwork quilt that one might as well call the American character.6 Mona must explain to her perplexed mother that to be Jewish is to be American under the current dispensation: “American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish” (49).
One could hardly imagine Abraham Cahan's David Levinsky uttering such sentiments, which is simply to emphasize that to be an American at the turn of the twentieth century had exceedingly little to do with embracing whatever religion or ethnicity one wanted and everything to do with sacrificing that element of one's identity, often at a tremendous spiritual cost. Even in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969), set just after World War II, the novel's Jewish American protagonist reads the cultural landscape, from the Christmas carols that bombard him for two straight months a year, to the genteel television families so alien from his own, to the anti-Semitism that keeps his father on one of the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. He gleans enough to know that the distinctively Jewish remains decidedly un-American; thus, Roth depicts his flight from Judaism in all its religious and cultural manifestations. For example, he seeks lurid encounters with shikses like Thereal McCoy (sound it out) since “America is a shikse nestling under your arm” (PC 146).
Clearly, a disparate set of civic promises has emerged on the cusp of the twenty-first century during our multicultural moment. As Mona implies above, the freedom to choose one's cultural identity lies at the heart of this new civic promise. Importantly, Mona could have chosen a number of minority cultures through which to forge her own unique American identity. The pervasiveness of Jewish culture in Scarshill and its attractiveness to her convince Mona to appropriate Judaism. But the interplay between Chinese-American and Jewish American culture in Scarshill suggests, above all, the interplay between the plethora of minority cultures in all sorts of combinations and intensities that currently defines our national character. Jen's epigrams are instructive. She chooses to quote both a Japanese-American, David Mura, who reflects upon his immersion in Jewish culture growing up in Skokie, Illinois, and a Mexican-American writer, Richard Rodriguez, who reflects upon his immersion in Chinese culture: “I'm becoming Chinese, I know it.”
It is the temerity of Gish Jen's approach, rather than her conception of the American identity, per se, that strikes me as dazzlingly original. Jen's characters brazenly flout their prerogative to adopt or eschew ethnicities at their convenience. On converting to Judaism, Mona blithely observes, “I'd just have to switch, that's all”; her friends, Eloise Ingle and Barbara Gugelstein, switch from Jew to Wasp and back again at their convenience (14). All the same, it has been some ten years since Werner Sollors, in his landmark study, Beyond Ethnicity (1986), noted the dynamic interplay between “consent” and “descent” in the formation of cultural identity in America. “One may say,” Sollors argued, “that ethnicity is continuously created anew” (245). So, while Jen dramatically affirms the mosaic of cultural influences that inform (in varying combinations and intensities) our individual American identities, other prominent American voices have beaten her to the punch.
To what degree one might choose one's cultural identity lay at the root of the debate between Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe in the 1960s regarding the appropriate content and tenor of the Negro American novel. Given the fiery contentiousness that defines our current academic milieu, we would do well to emulate the tough-minded but collegial exchange between Howe and Ellison. Howe initiated the debate with his provocative essay, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” which he published in his magazine Dissent. In the essay, Howe lauded Richard Wright for writing a protest novel in Native Son (1940) that accurately conveyed Negro rage in America. So far so good. Howe, though, went on to criticize both James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for their evasive portrayal of Negro life. “How could a Negro put pen to paper,” Howe asked rhetorically, “how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?” (“Black Boys” 168). Or, as Howe contended later in his essay, “plight and protest are inseparable from [the Negro] experience” (180).
In the pages of the New Leader, Ellison took Howe to task for his reductive assessment of the Negro experience. Specifically, Ellison refuted Howe's implicit assumption that “unrelieved suffering is the only ‘real’ Negro experience, and that the true Negro writer must be ferocious” (“The World and the Jug” 111). Ellison was the first to admit that Negroes in America experienced more than their fair share of suffering, but he rejected the premise that suffering defined the Negro experience. The Negro, in Ellison's view, was a “product of the interaction between his racial predicament, his individual will and the broader American cultural freedom in which he finds his ambiguous existence” (emphasis mine 112). Negro Americans, then, were hardly impervious to the rich and diverse cultural influences swirling about them in America.
Essential to Ellison's view was that the Negro, in some measure, could choose which of these cultural influences to embrace and which to eschew. For his own part, Ellison chose to appropriate a wide array of cultural treasures from decidedly un-Negro traditions to forge his American identity. In a 1961 interview with Richard G. Stern, Ellison recalled his absorption, as a child, in the Vanity Fair magazines and opera recordings that his mother would borrow from her white employers (5). “I knew the trickster Ulysses just as early as I knew the wily rabbit of Negro American lore,” Ellison asserted in a separate, important essay, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” (58). Finally, he challenged Howe's myopic view of the Negro experience by claiming a rich cultural array of literary ancestors. “[P]erhaps you will understand,” he proposed to Howe in one of his more implacable moments,
when I say [Wright] did not influence me if I point out that while one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's “ancestors.” Wright was, in this sense, a “relative”; Hemingway an “ancestor.” Langston Hughes, whose work I knew in grade school and whom I knew before I knew Wright, was a “relative”; Eliot, whom I was to meet only many years later, and Malraux and Dostoievsky and Faulkner, were “ancestors”—if you please or don't please!
(“The World and the Jug” 140)
The pressures of “descent,” if I may borrow the term from Sollors's lexicon, bore down heavily upon Ellison. He inherited a position along the continuum of African American literary history and was keenly aware of it. He accepted that his work would be judged (by Howe and others) alongside his “relatives,” Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Ellison, however, was courageous enough to exert his authority to “consent” to the formation of his identity, as well.
In this sense, Ellison was ahead of his time. Growing up in the deep South at the height of Jim Crow, he certainly realized how little stock most of the country placed in “consent” when it came to matters of race and ethnicity. Ellison's choice to embrace the artistic contributions of, say, Bach and Mozart would not have been enough to earn him the right to choice seating at his local Philharmonic. In spite of these countervailing segregationist forces, Ellison knew how porous those walls between races and ethnicities actually were. He recognized that the inexorable legislative divide between the races belied the cultural interplay that defined the identity of Americans of all racial and ethnic stripes.
Recognizing the country's sick obsession with “descent,” one of Ellison's contemporaries, Norman Podhoretz, would look forward to the demise of race altogether. In a provocative 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz laid out the following modest proposal:
I cannot see how [erasing the stigma of race] will ever be realized unless color does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means—let the brutal word come out—miscegenation. … I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.
To Walt Whitman's query, “Who need be afraid of the merge?”, Podhoretz answers, “Not I.” The races, of course, have hardly achieved the spiritual merge that Whitman had in mind; nor have they physically merged in the thirty-five years or so since Podhoretz penned those lines, though our blood-lines merge increasingly by the day. That our preoccupation with descent still dominates our cultural landscape in 1996 can be glimpsed in Gish Jen's novel. Indeed, Jen is not so cavalier as to suggest that all Americans can choose their ethnicities. Alfred, an African American employee at the Chang's restaurant, silences Mona and her friend's bleatings over the social construction of race with his own sobering observations:
We're never going to be Jewish, see, even if we grow our nose like Miss Mona here is planning to do. We be black motherfuckers. … And nobody is calling us Wasp, man, and nobody is forgetting we're a minority, and if we don't mind our manners, we're like as not to end up doing time in a concrete hotel. We're black, see. We're Negroes.
Small wonder, given the external limitations bearing down upon Alfred, that Stanley Crouch, like Norman Podhoretz before him, anticipated hopefully in a recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “Race is Over” that “Americans of the future will find themselves surrounded in every direction by people who are part Asian, part Latin, part African, part European, part American Indian” (170). Only through this blurring of “descent” does Crouch, a self-professed intellectual protégé of Ralph Ellison, foresee the widespread embrace of Ellison's integrationist precepts. For it is our fixation upon race (or descent) that continues to blind us to the diverse cultural influences that define the American identity. Alas, it seems awfully late in the game for Stanley Crouch to have to lament,
We sometimes forget how much the Pilgrims learned from the American Indians. … We forget that we could not have had the cowboy without the Mexican vaquero. We don't know that our most original art-music, jazz, is a combination of African, European and Latin elements.
All of which brings us back to our increasingly divisive milieu when it comes to issues regarding the immigrant identity in America. For the foment of anti-immigrant sentiment tells us, at least in part, that a good many Americans still cling to a decidedly un-Ellisonian mainstream vision of the American identity, an identity “unpolluted” by those ethnic influences. My hunch is that those Americans pushing for English-only laws would rather not believe that Spanish has been woven into our national fabric from the time Columbus and his Spanish crew “discovered” the New World, and that it preceded English as the lingua franca on this continent. Bob Dole's Presidential campaign surely meant to court this powerful contingent of voters by distributing a list of the candidate's favorite foods just prior to the election. The short list included only hamburgers, chocolate milkshakes, cherry pie, and fried chicken (Kolbert A13). Now, far be it for me to question the veracity of the list or to criticize Mr. Dole's arguably dull culinary taste, but, in the event that he harbored a yen for, say, sushi (the pun seems appropriate), one suspects that that particular food would not have made it onto the list. Indeed, the distinctively ethnic still smacks of the “un-American” to many.
Simultaneously, Ralph Ellison's conviction that the American cultural identity has always been defined by multicultural influences increasingly gains currency in our milieu, as evidenced in the anti-assimilationist convictions of Gish Jen's characters (not to mention the recent spate of ethnic pride marches in Washington DC). The Mexican-American writer, Richard Rodriguez, has also recently described the collaboration of multicultural influences that forged his American identity:
In this immigrant country, the differences among us will, I trust, always be apparent. But the most interesting thing about our separateness is that, finally, it has the possibility of being shared. … I remember one July reading William Saroyan, pleasing myself with the discovery that I understood Saroyan's life and his fictional universe. I was an Armenian from Fresno that day. I was a Negro reading James Baldwin. It came as no surprise, then, to learn that I was a New York Jew reading Alfred Kazin's Walker in the City.
A schism, then, between two contrasting views of the American identity lies at the root of the antagonism that currently defines the relationship between immigrant and non-immigrant communities. For while an increasing number of immigrants (and non-immigrants) believe, like Jen's Mona Chang and Rodriguez above, that “American means being whatever you want,” a contrastive, nativist perspective remains strong as well (Jen 49). Dorothy E. Roberts, a lawyer, instructively limns this new nativism in the United States. “Many whites,” Roberts contends, “fear a loss of cultural, as well as numerical preeminence. While whites have demanded that nonwhites assimilate to an Anglo-American way of life, the possibility that whites should assimilate to nonwhite culture seems downright un-American. This thinking assumes that American culture is synonymous with the culture of white people and that the cultures of the new immigrants are inconsistent with a national identity” (211).
What is particularly fascinating about this surge of nativism in the United States is that the blue-blooded, whom Roberts has in mind, are not its only proponents. Indeed, disputes over the definition of a “truly American identity” currently embroil the immigrant population itself. A recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by the novelist Bharati Mukherjee embodies this rift within America's immigrant communities. In the piece, Mukherjee contrasts her own decision to become an American citizen at the cost of her Indian identity with her sister Mira's refusal to transform her identity. While Mukherjee attempts to describe dispassionately these “two ways to belong to America,” an unmistakable resentment toward those immigrants, like Mira, who refuse to assimilate pervades the piece (13). “I embraced the demotion from expatriate aristocrat to immigrant nobody,” Mukherjee contends, “surrendering those thousands of years of ‘pure culture,’ the saris, the delightfully accented English. [Mira] retained them all” (13). It just isn't fair, she implies, that some immigrants can decide to retain their cultural identities (and even their foreign citizenship) and expect Americans to love them regardless. Through her assumption that “self-transformation” to a mainstream American identity is “[t]he price that the immigrant willingly pays,” Mukherjee embraces those immigrant dreams and civic promises of earlier in this century; she aligns herself with the early Jewish American protagonists, with Mona Chang's parents in Gish Jen's novel, and, ironically, with the mostly white and clamorous cohort of Americans pushing for English-only laws (13).
I am tempted to return to the bittersweet story of the Jewish American immigrant experience to conclude, for our future resolve on matters of immigrant identity and public policy just might hinge upon our interpretation of this story. Although there are more poor Jews in this country than most people imagine, Jewish Americans (as a group) have realized their immigrant dreams; they achieved both political asylum and a good measure of socio-economic comfort in a relatively short period of time. As Alfred Kazin quipped, “What's the difference between the ILGWU” (the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union) “and the American Psychiatric Association. One Generation.” What we must keep in mind as we celebrate Kazin's observation is that Jewish Americans made this socio-economic leap thanks in no small part to their willingness to assimilate to the mainstream. This was the deal they struck with America, which increasingly seems like a bum deal these days as a whole generation of Jewish Americans (myself included) grope to rediscover what has been lost. David Klinghoffer, the young literary editor of the National Review, reflected recently upon the surging baal teshuvah (returnee) phenomenon within Judaism. “Hardly a week goes by,” Klinghoffer contended, “that I do not meet a person in his twenties or thirties, raised ignorant of Judaism in a Conservative synagogue or Reform temple … who has begun his Jewish education as an adult and considers himself today, as a twenty-eight-year-old I know puts it, a ‘Jew in training'” (56).
This trend toward rediscovery also manifests itself prevalently in contemporary Jewish American fiction, which rarely gravitates around the assimilatory urges of the protagonist. Rather, contemporary Jewish American writers such as Melvin Bukiet, Tova Reich, Thane Rosenbaum, Allegra Goodman, and Rebecca Goldstein broach issues regarding Jewish theology and identity with an unprecedented intensity. In the most recent notable general anthology of Jewish American fiction, Writing Our Way Home: Contemporary Stories by American Jewish Writers (co-edited by Nessa Rapoport and Ted Solotaroff, 1992), Rapoport heralds in this “Jewishly educated and culturally confident community of writers” (xxix). This sociological and aesthetic journey from an agonizing self-consciousness to cultural confidence has been a long and arduous one for Jewish American immigrants, their children, and grandchildren. As we enter the twenty-first century, we are faced with a pressing question: should today's immigrants be forced to endure this same journey, or should a more liberal civic promise greet them as they strive to achieve those immigrant dreams of Mona Chang, undreamt of in the past?
My home state, Florida, for example, recently made national news for the inhumane manner in which the Coast Guard sought to deter six Cuban refugees from making it ashore in their small row boat (whereupon, under current Federal policy, they would have been eligible to seek political asylum). Several news programs ran video footage that showed a member of the Coast Guard dousing one of the refugees with pepper spray (see Mercer).
It is important to note, for the sake of historical veracity, that Jong might have revised her sentence to read, “A Jew is a person who can convert to Christianity from now to Doomsday, and still be killed by Hitler if his grandmother or grandfather was Jewish.”
The prosperity and cultural confidence of the Jews in Jen's Scarshill accurately reflects the socio-economic trend within the Jewish American community after World War II. “Between 1945 and 1965,” Hertzberg notes, “about a third of all American Jews left the big cities and established themselves in suburbs. The small-town synagogues which already existed in these areas were transformed into large, bustling congregations, and hundreds of new communities were created” (321). That is to say, the post-war Jewish migration to leafy suburbs, like Jen's fictional Scarshill, did not lead to utter assimilation. That the Jewish American community raised at least a billion dollars to build new synagogues in the 1950s and 1960s illustrates that Jews managed, in large measure, to bring their religious and cultural practices with them to the suburbs (Hertzberg 321).
Kitano and Daniels explore in some depth the evolution of this mainstream perception of Chinese-Americans as a model minority. They observe, “Like all stereotypes, it has some relationship to reality but is no more indicative of the variety of Chinese-American experience than the former ‘coolie laborer’ stereotype was” (51).
The assimilationist precepts of Ralph and Helen Chang are common among first generation immigrants (including Asian American immigrants), for whom the concept of the “American Dream” resonates most strongly. As Joann Faung Jean Lee suggests, beyond the first generation a different set of expectations arises “just by virtue of growing up in the United States: beyond working hard, and causing no problems, where does the Asian fit in the larger society?” (x). Gish Jen, of course, engages this question through her artistic imagination in Mona in the Promised Land.
The staggering growth of the Asian American population over the last few decades suggests how significantly Chinese and other Asian American cultures will contribute to our national character. The Asian American population increased from 3.7 million in 1980 to 7.3 million in 1990 (see Sharon Lee and Edmonston 101). Chinese-Americans, at 23.7٪ of the total Asian American population, represented the largest single Asian American group in 1990 (110). Lee and Edmonston safely predict that, in addition to adapting to the mainstream United States society, “The Asian population will also be changing US society through the diffusion of Asian cultural elements into American culture” (101).
Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky. 1917. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
Crouch, Stanley. “Race Is Over.” The New York Times Magazine 29 Sept. 1996: 170-71.
Ellison, Ralph. “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.” Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. 45-59.
———. “That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure: An Interview.” With Richard G. Stern. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. 3-23.
———. “The World and the Jug.” Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. 107-43.
Gans, Herbert J. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Reisman. Ed. Herbert Gans, Nathan Glazer, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Christopher Jencks. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1979. 193-220.
Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Howe, Irving. “Black Boys and Native Sons.” The Decline of the New. New York: Horizon, 1963. 167-89.
———. Introduction. Jewish American Stories. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: NAL Penguin, 1977. 1-17.
Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Jong, Erica. “How I Got to Be Jewish.” American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices. Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Hanover, NH: Middlebury College Press, 1994. 90-99.
Kitano, Harry H. L., and Roger Daniels. Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995.
Klinghoffer, David. “What Do American Jews Believe?” Commentary Aug. 1996: 55-57.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Dole's Public and Private Sides Are Mostly One and the Same, Advisers Say.” The New York Times 11 Oct. 1996: A13.
Lee, Joann Faung Jean. Asian American Experiences in the United States: Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam and Cambodia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.
Lee, Sharon M., and Barry Edmonston. “The Socioeconomic Status and Integration of Asian Immigrants.” Immigration and Ethnicity: The Integration of America's Newest Arrivals. Ed. Barry Edmonston and Jeffrey S. Passel. Washington, DC: Urban Institute P, 1994. 101-38.
Mercer, Pamela. “Miami Cubans Are Outraged at Treatment of 6 Refugees.” New York Times 1 July 1999: A12.
Mukherjee, Bharati. “Two Ways to Belong in America.” The New York Times 22 Sept. 1996: A13.
Podhoretz, Norman. “My Negro Problem—and Ours.” Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments. Ed. Paul Berman. New York: Delacorte, 1994. 76-96.
Rapoport, Nessa. Introduction. “Summoned to the Feast.” Writing Our Way Home: Contemporary Stories by American Jewish Writers. Ed. Ted Solotaroff and Nessa Rapoport. New York: Schocken Books, 1992. xxvii-xxx.
Roberts, Dorothy E. “Who May Give Birth to Citizens? Reproduction, Eugenics, and Immigration.” Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States. Ed. Juan F. Perea. New York: New York UP, 1997. 205-19.
Rodriguez, Richard. “An American Writer.” The Invention of Ethnicity. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 3-13.
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———. Portnoy's Complaint. New York: Random, 1969.
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Wong, Shawn, Ishmael Reed, Bob Callahan, and Andrew Hope. “Is Ethnicity Obsolete?” The Invention of Ethnicity. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 226-35.
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SOURCE: Lee, Don. “About Gish Jen.” Ploughshares 26, nos. 2-3 (fall 2000): 217-22.
[In the following essay, Lee provides an overview of Jen's life and career.]
Gish Jen lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, eight-year-old son, and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and the hectic pace of her life is reflected in her rapid-fire speech. The celebrated author of two novels and a collection, Jen is known for her humor and brimming intelligence, her ready opinions and easy laugh, her charm, and, not least of all, her volubility. Even though she remembers herself as being shy and withdrawn as a kid, she admits she was constantly kicked out of class for talking.
Born in 1955 in New York, Jen grew up Chinese and Catholic in Queens and Yonkers, where the “library” at her school consisted of a single shelf of books. When her father, a professor of civil engineering, and her mother, an elementary school teacher, moved the family to the predominantly Jewish suburb of Scarsdale, Jen finally had access to a proper library. She made feverish use of it, reading every book in the building, going from The Island Stallion to Camus's The Stranger in the fifth grade. In junior high she wrote poetry, and in high school—when she discarded her given name, Lillian, which was too fusty for her tastes, and took up Gish, after the actress Lillian Gish—she was the literary editor for the school magazine.
Still, writing was never more than a pleasant diversion for her. She was a child of immigrants from Shanghai, the second of five children, four of whom would attend Ivy League colleges. Her three brothers would become successful businessmen, her sister a doctor, and there were similar expectations for Jen. She dutifully attended Harvard, with law or medicine prescribed for her future. Her plans changed dramatically, however, when she took English 283, a prosody course taught by Robert Fitzgerald, who required a weekly assignment writing verse. “Right away I loved it,” Jen says. “I remember telling my roommate I loved writing, and if I could do it for the rest of my life, I would. But—I'm the daughter of immigrants—it never even crossed my mind for one minute that I might become a poet.” Fitzgerald begged to differ. “Why are you premed?” he asked her. “I suggest you consider doing something with words.” Since she had just received a C in chemistry, she was open to suggestion. Fitzgerald advised that if she wasn't going to be a poet, she should at least try publishing, and arranged a job for her at Doubleday.
She worked in New York City for a year, but wasn't quite happy. “I realized I had found myself in some middle ground. I was neither doing what I really wanted to do, nor was I making any money.” Once again, she opted for something more practical. “I had already been premed and prelaw; that left the one thing I'd never had any interest in—business school.” She entered the M.B.A. program at Stanford, mainly because the university had a graduate writing program. As expected, she didn't have her heart in the business curriculum, entranced instead by the novels she was reading and the writing workshops she was taking on the side. Fortunately her business classes were pass/fail, and her husband-to-be, David O'Connor, prepped her the night before exams. “He would say, ‘Okay, you need to know these three things,’ and I would go and get a 66 and pass my exams. In the meantime I was taking really great writing courses across the street.” The first week of her second year, she overslept every day and missed all her classes. “It was clear that I was never going to set foot in the classroom again, so I finally took a leave of absence,” she says. (Not too long ago, she ran into an economics professor who told her that she had been a frequent subject of faculty dining-room discussions, which usually concluded: “Let's never take someone like her again.”)
Dropping out of Stanford didn't fly well with her parents, either. They cut her off financially, and her mother did not speak to her for a year. Jen taught English at a coal-mining institute in China, then enrolled in the M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Although her work was received well there, Jen was fully aware that she had a difficult road ahead of her. “Maybe some people could have seen that multiculturalism was around the corner,” Jen says, “but it certainly wasn't apparent to me, or to any of the Asian-American writers that I knew. Things have changed so drastically. People often ask me where the comic outlook comes from. Among other things it comes from my experience. I have seen so much social change in such a short amount of time, it seems miraculous.”
After Jen graduated from Iowa in 1983, she and O'Connor married and lived in California until 1985, when they moved to Cambridge, where she played housewife more than writer. A lack of confidence about her literary career reduced her to taking a typing test for a job at Harvard. “I remember vividly the moment at which the woman at the front of the room said, ‘Ms. Jen?’ and I thought, ‘That's me,’ and she said, ‘You have typed ninety words a minute with no mistakes. I'm sure we can find you a job.’ It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in about three years.” Depressingly, it turned out they couldn't find her a job—at least not right away. She waited and waited, thinking a secretarial position would save her, but something else did. She was awarded a fellowship at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute. “It was quite a wonderful moment. They finally found a job for me at some dean's office and called me, and I said, ‘No thank you. I am no longer interested. I am now a fellow at the Bunting Institute.’”
During her fellowship, she worked on her first novel, Typical American, which was eventually published by Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence in 1991. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the book launched Jen into the literary limelight. The novel follows three Chinese immigrants, Ralph Chang, his wife, Helen, and his sister, Theresa, as they pursue the American Dream and struggle against the pressures of assimilation, greed, and self-interest. Both a comedy and a tragedy, the novel brilliantly turns the notion of what it means to be typical American on its head.
“We are family,” echoed Helen.
“Team,” said Ralph. “We should have name. The Chinese Yankees. Call Chang-kees for short.”
“Chang-kees!” Everyone laughed.
Ball games became even more fun. … “Let's go Chang-kees!” This was in the privacy of their apartment, in front of their newly bought used Zenith TV; the one time they went to an actual game, people had called them names and told them to go back to their laundry. They in turn had sat impassive as the scoreboard. Rooting in their hearts, they said later. Anyway, they preferred to stay home and watch. “More comfortable.” “More convenient.” “Can see better,” they agreed.
As successful as Typical American was, Jen sometimes resented critics who quickly labeled—and diminished—her as an Asian-American writer. Her reaction was to complicate what that meant via her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, which came out in 1996 through Knopf. It surprised everyone. A sequel of sorts, the novel focuses on Ralph and Helen Chang's daughters, Mona and Callie, as they grow up in a Jewish suburb of New York called Scarshill. Mona Chang joins a temple youth group and then, to her parents' dismay, converts, and is thereafter referred to as “Changowitz.” Ironically, Mona learns that her rabbi is right in telling her, “The more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you'll be.” With the backdrop of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, the novel is a riotous, provocative collision of social, ethnic, and racial issues, populated by a mishmash of characters who are Chinese, Jewish, black, Wasp, and Japanese—a dizzying sendup that challenged readers to redefine ethnicity, and prompted one very confused journalist to headline her review of the novel “Matzo-Ball Sushi.”
Mona in the Promised Land grew out of a short story, “What Means Switch?,” that Jen wrote while trying to finish Typical American. She had lost her first pregnancy, and didn't know if she'd be able to see her way to the end of the novel. Then she ran into an old high-school acquaintance and was inspired to revisit her teen years in Scarsdale in a short story. “You could feel the intense liberation,” she says. At the same time, she jotted down some ideas for a new book in a binder of index cards. “A year or two later,” she says, “I looked at one of the cards, and it said, ‘Mona turns Jewish.’ And I thought, ‘Oy! Can't write that,’ and I laughed. Then I paid attention. The uncomfortable laughter told me that I'd hit a nerve.”
Jen's next book, Who's Irish?, a collection of stories published in 1999 by Knopf, confirmed her mastery of the short form as well. The stories originally appeared in publications such as The New Yorker. Two stories were selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, and one that was originally published in Ploughshares, “Birthmates,” was chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
Perhaps the most daring piece in Who's Irish? is the title story, which is narrated in pidgin English by a Chinese woman. Her daughter is married to an Irish American, and the woman possesses a few stereotypes of her own:
I just happen to mention about the Shea family, an interesting fact: four brothers in the family, and not one of them work. The mother, Bess, have a job before she got sick, she was executive secretary in a big company. She is handle everything for a big shot, you would be surprised how complicated her job is, not just type this, type that. Now she is a nice woman with a clean house. But her boys, every one of them is on welfare, or so-called severance pay, or so-called disability pay. Something. They say they cannot find work, this is not the economy of the fifties, but I say, Even the black people doing better these days, some of them live so fancy, you'd be surprised. Why the Shea family have so much trouble? They are white people, they speak English. But my husband and I own our restaurant before he die. Free and clear, no mortgage. Of course, I understand I am just lucky, come from a country where the food is popular all over the world. I understand it is not the Shea family's fault they come from a country where everything is boiled.
Jen says, “I could not have written this story early on in my career in dialect, using that voice, because if I had sent it out, the assumption would have been that I didn't speak English. I'm sure some editor would have sent it back to me, saying, ‘Oh, well, you know, when your English is a bit better … '”
All along the way, Jen has danced an elaborate dance with the times. She has chosen, she says, to avail herself of what freedom she could find rather than play assigned roles: of China expert, say, or of professional victim. “I have hoped to define myself as an American writer.” And yet the world has continued to try to define her otherwise. In an interview on NPR, a journalist asked Jen why Mona in the Promised Land had “no real Americans in it.” And Kirkus Reviews described Who's Irish? as “a sharp-eyed debut collection of eight tales examining America as it is seen by foreigners.”
Nonetheless, Jen has pushed onward. Another story in Who's Irish?, a novella called “House, House, Home,” shows her going in a more complex narrative direction. She hopes to carry over this impulse to experiment to her next novel, which she is working on, when she can steal the time, in an office away from house and children and husband. “This is the way, maybe, in which I am still the daughter of immigrants,” she says. “It was a very long time before I was able to hear my own voice, and even to this day I need to be in a quiet place and feel I'm away from my parents, my editor, my agent, even my audience, in order to hear what it is I really have to say.”
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SOURCE: González, Begoña Simal. “The (Re)Birth of Mona Changowitz: Rituals and Ceremonies of Cultural Conversion and Self-Making in Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 225-42.
[In the following essay, González examines the dialogic tensions between ritual and ceremony in Mona in the Promised Land, in the context of Chinese-American literature. González argues that Mona suggests the need to embrace the concept of heterogeneity and reciprocal, shared difference in the formation of individual identity.]
Much has been written of the cultural alternatives of continuity, rupture, or invention in recent years. It has become a pervasive thread that runs not only throughout the cultural production of ethnic “intracultures” such as the Asian American one, but also throughout the cultural production of the “mainstream” United States, for, as Oscar Handlin points out, the history of immigration is the history of America (qtd. in Sollors, “Literature” 649). All three stances, cultural continuity, rupture, and invention, find an appropriate formal representation in the trope of the ritual/ceremony. Taking as the starting point for my argument Alan Wald's differentiation between ritual and ceremony as first implied in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, I intend to deal here with the dialogic tensions between ritual and ceremony in Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land, in the intertextual context of Chinese-American literature. I will consider Jen's problematizing of Sollor's binary of consent and descent.
As Sau-ling Wong points out,1 at least three new tendencies can be observed in the Asian American critical field: the abatement of cultural nationalism, the increasing “permeability” between Asian and Asian American studies and communities, and, last but not least, the new favouring of diasporic over domestic approaches to Asian America (1-2). However, the necessary denationalization that draws critics and scholars away from dangerous essentialist stances is often offset by the attendant depoliticization of Asian American issues. On the one hand, we ought to bear in mind the risks of falling back into narrow understandings of identity and nation. Yet, as Wong reminds us, we still have to take into account the urgent need to contextualize and recontextualize the understanding of Asian American studies, and, by extension, of ethnic studies, in order to avoid constructing a “dehistoricized dichotomy” (12) between the internationalist, deconstructivist mode and the “old” cultural nationalism of the Aiiieeeee school.
We must situate our analysis of Mona in the Promised Land in this theoretical framework so as to prevent readers from perceiving the ritual-ceremony binarism, or the alternatives of continuity, rupture, or invention, as fixed, chronological choices. What could be suggested instead is the strong likelihood that these two cultural and literary tropes function in a concurrent way. We thus echo Sau-ling Wong's advice regarding the new Asian American state of affairs: “It would be far more useful to conceive of modes rather than phases of Asian American subjectivity: an indigenizing mode can coexist and alternate with a diasporic or a transnational mode, but the latter is not to be lauded as a culmination of the former” (“Denationalization” 17).
The distinction between ritual and ceremony as pointed out by Alan Wald can then be analysed from a diachronic and a synchronic point of view. In the first case, we could trace back the essentialist, nationalistic thesis and then describe the responding feminist and deconstructivist antitheses. And yet, it is preferable to keep chronology out of the foreground since it would easily mislead us into thinking that, once Kingston and later writers have contested the masculinist and essentialistic agenda of cultural nationalism, Asian Americans have “got over” and “grown out of” that stage, and no reference to it is needed. Thus, the focus of my analysis is not so much on the rise of these different perspectives, although we must mention their genesis in passing. Rather, I will focus on the crucial synchronic description of the palette that goes, spatially, from the mode of ceremony to that of ritual, or vice versa, in Mona in the Promised Land.
Wald studies Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and discovers new insights that contribute to a more enlightened understanding of spirituality. Ceremony is Silko's recording of Tayo's spiritual quest with the help of a mentor, a heterodox medicine man. Betonie, according to Wald, functions as a foil to the more traditional medicine man, Ku'oosh, in that the former “is an innovator who teaches that new ceremonies must be developed to respond to the contemporary situation” (25). Thus, it becomes pointless to repeat fossilized gestures which have ceased to be meaningful for the new generation: “Silko sharply distinguishes between ritual in which the false lessons of history are simply re-enacted, and ceremony, a praxis-like activity in which a consciously controlled creative act restores humanity to its correct relation to the world” (25-26). Therefore, fossilized forms can be said to belong to the realm of rituals, where lived, living, and ever-evolving acts constitute the realm of ceremony, the realm where Gish Jen will ultimately place Mona.
Historically speaking, the argument between Asian American purists who uphold myths, customs, and rites as something untouchable, and proponents of a more flexible understanding of what I call ceremony came to light when Frank Chin and Jeff Chan put forward a dogmatic theory of “ethnic authenticity.” In the line of Fanon, Memmi and Wald, Frank Chin contended that Chinese-American culture had been attacked, altered, adulterated, and hidden, as was the case of the external colonies2. These Asian American editors of the historic anthology Aiiieeeee attacked Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan, because, among other things, they supposedly distorted and “polluted” Chinese-American legends, myths, and history by pandering to feminist and orientalist tastes in the mainstream reading public. The controversy that both King-kok Cheung and Elaine Kim call the debate between nationalism and feminism (construed as “white,” assimilationist feminism) reflects for Lisa Lowe the conflict between two diametrically opposed ways of understanding identity and culture: a purist school that indelibly “fixes” both or a pluralist perspective that de-stabilizes the very notion of identity and opens it up to multiplicity and “free play.”
The Aiiieeeee editors, and especially Frank Chin, prove to be graphocentrists since they worship the written Chinese tradition as if those texts were religious relics: “We must respect text, all texts, to make intelligent comparisons. We go to Grimm for Grimm's, and The Ballad of Muklan for The Ballad of Muklan” (Chin, “Uncle” 75). In establishing who is “fake” and who is “authentic,” the purist members of the Aiiieeeee group are actually aping the nativist and sexist critics, in that both collectives suppress the heterogeneity of Lowe's pluralist perspective and succumb to what Elizabeth Spelman calls “pletoraphobia” (160), that is, they entertain a certain irrational fear of “the many” and multifarious. Therefore, the Aiiieeeee editors, according to King-kok Cheung, have actually fallen in the Eurocentric trap that they have elsewhere criticized: “in their vehement insistence on “Asian-American integrity” [these writers] may have given in to the Western conception of a unitary self and underestimated the potential of a multiple consciousness—one that is neither schizophrenic nor bisectable into East and West, neither merely preserving the ancestral culture nor dissolving into the mainstream” (Cheung, Articulate 19).
Maxine Hong Kingston responded to Chin and Chan's invectives by invoking her artistic freedom and problematizing the representativeness of the “ethnic writer.” Trinh Minh-ha briefly describes this situation as “the automatic and arbitrary endowment of an insider with legitimized knowledge about her [sic] cultural heritage and environment” (374), so that all works written by Chinese-Americans in this case would function as ethnographic documents.3 Thus, the creative possibilities for these writers would be greatly reduced, as Kingston points out:
Why must I ‘represent’ anyone beside myself? Why should I be denied an individual artistic vision? … I'm certain that some day when a great body of Chinese American writing becomes published and known, then readers will no longer have to put such a burden on each book that comes out. Readers can see the variety of ways for Chinese Americans to be.
Apart from using Chinese material in an attempt to enact “cultural redemption,” in the manner that Rey Chow suggests writers should do,4 Kingston has maintained that rituals have to be recontextualized again and again in order to keep being significant. This coincides with Old Betonie's words in Ceremony:
You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing. …
At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong.
… Things which don't shift and grow are dead things.
This is the reason why the pioneers in Kingston's China Men invent new customs and rituals (which are indeed ceremonies, given their protean nature) in order claim the new land,6 because, as Linda Hunt contends, “new situations require new myths” (10). In The Woman Warrior, it is Brave Orchid and the other students at the School of Midwifery who transform the rituals (72), while Wittman Ah Sing is the master of transformation, the Monkey King, in Tripmaster Monkey. Kingston has repeatedly defended her new versions of old myths by arguing that “[w]e have to do more than record myth. … That's just more ancestor worship. The way I keep the old Chinese myths alive is by telling them in a new American way” (Pfaff 26).
In that same vein it is interesting to note the opinion of William Boelhower, for whom only the “recontextualization” of “ethnic material” is valid in our postmodern society, “where the “real” world has become predominantly an open series of possible worlds” and simulacra (132). Therefore, according to Boelhower, a purist recovery of “the so-called authentic culture of the ancestors, is actually a pseudo-discourse, a pathetic anthropology and the issue of whether an account is authentic or fake is not only pointless in such a context, but also ludicrous” (132).
The Asian American cultural history that we have been describing can be traced in Jen's novel, especially in the changes that take place in Mona's life and those of her friends. In three-hundred pages we witness the coming to consciousness and ethnic awareness of a whole hippie generation in the late sixties (209, 76, 170), only to see the perplexing results some years later, in the epilogue: “In another ten years, there'll be so many Orientals they'll turn into Asians” (6). The incipient collapsing of all “Orientals” into a single image is depicted as controversial from the very outset. It is present as much in the unconscious and uncomfortable matching of Mona Chang and Sherman Matsumoto (that is, the “authentic” Asian) as in Helen's explicit rejection of such a label, “Asian American,” which seems to lump together Japanese, Koreans, Indians, and Chinese (301-302).
In the same way, the ludicrous nature of an attempt to go back to what we never were is highlighted in several scenes. In the Jewish initiation rite, Mona, like any other “neophyte,” learns that Judaism is about remembering that you are Jewish. Another telling scene occurs when Callie, as the “natural ambassador” she is taken to be, is asked to explain all about China,7 where she has never been, and to “dress Chinese” (270), which she eventually does (301), thus buying into the re-orientalizing trend of later days. A strong criticism of this type of “authentic” self-marketing also underlies Seth's impersonation of Sherman, which is fairly true to life.
However, despite the initial scepticism about the new “ethnic trend,” in due time even the older generation will relent:
Of course [the author's ironic mark], in good time, even Ralph will be affirming his heritage; in good time, even he will be celebrating diversity in this, our country the melting pot—no, mosaic—no, salad bowl. Mostly this will mean writing checks. He'll be too old for going to unity dinners, and he won't be too sure what everyone is talking about, anyway. Community? What community?
The older Changs' own predictable attitude is obvious in sentences such as “Ralph and Helen don't believe in vacation” (209) or in their obsession with safety, epitomized in Ralph's motto “make sure” (210, 243). Significantly, “in good time,” those phrases will be replaced by the more flexible motto of adjusting and “getting used to it” (300, 291-92).
The analysis of Mona in the Promised Land along the lines of the antinomy ritual and ceremony can shed light on this cultural paradigm while deepening the comprehension of the novel and the reality it portrays. Jen's novel is just one example of how recent Chinese-American literature clearly problematizes the simple reenactment of dead rituals.8 Instead, many contemporary Chinese-American writers propose an alternative creation of ceremonies, which are not only necessary for what Alan Wald termed “restoring humanity” to a harmonic relation with the world (25-26), but are also essential in revitalizing one's own culture.
Mona in the Promised Land, published in 1996 by Gish Jen as a sequel to her first novel, Typical American (1991), focuses on the problematic spiritual and cultural inheritance of a Chinese-American girl, Mona Chang. Typical American had introduced the Changs to the readers: Ralph and Helen, Mona's parents, are young immigrants from China who learn to adapt and to live their new life in America, even though they have to undergo betrayal and failure before they start to prosper. Mona in the Promised Land portrays the late 60s and early 70s, a time of economic expansion and success for the family. It focuses on the second generation, Callie and Mona, instead of the older generation, their parents. The narrator follows the younger of the two daughters, Mona, through her adolescence. This is not only a stage of personal development and discovery, but in her specific case it becomes a “poignant phase of cultural conflict. In her teens, Mona is socialized and “Americanized” in a special way: she wants to become Jewish, like most of her friends.
Adjusting to new rituals is a recurrent element throughout the Changs' life (4). This adjusting sometimes means creating, even though the immigrants may do it unwittingly, as when food rituals and recipes are altered or invented. The very front cover of Mona in the Promised Land iconizes food rituals while taking up the circular trope that the narrator, through Seth, employs to distinguish Japanese and Chinese societies from individualistic Americans (236). The cover design thus blends the typical Jewish American bagel with a traditional Chinese dish of chow mein, a paradigm of hybridity. The cultural trope of food continues with the Chinese dishes concocted by Callie's African American friend Naomi, dishes which Mona finds too “authentic” and she eventually replaces with her Chinese mother's “most recent favorite duck dish recipe—namely, Peking duck, Westchester style. The whole secret is soaking the duck overnight in Pepsi-Cola” (186; also see 41).9
Mona's mother, Helen, admits that she and her husband can't remember China and Chinese customs very well and therefore, improvise some rites.10 In this way, cultural ceremonies evolve and are kept alive. Helen belongs to those women who adjust in the name of survival or what Sau-ling Wong terms “Necessity” (Reading), just as Brave Orchid does in The Woman Warrior or Mah does in Ng's Bone. We are reminded of Helen's “no waste” economy from the beginning to the end of the book. The food imagery pervades the entire novel and echoes the ways several Asian American authors insist on the importance of resilience, as exemplified in The Woman Warrior by Brave Orchid's motto “big caters win.” This becomes obvious in several passages of Mona in the Promised Land where we witness the daughters' enforced eating (119) and Ralph's boasting about his son-in-law's good appetite (301).
But when adjusting turns into switching, that is an altogether different matter. Helen and Ralph can make concessions and adapt, but they cannot stop being Chinese or let that happen to their daughters. This is precisely what Mona is trying to do when she decides, following Sollors and Dearborn's patterns of free conversion in supposedly “free America,” to become Jewish (14). Her early attempts to gain acceptance by flaunting authentic—which is really “fake”—“chineseness” (5) make cultural boundaries all the more questionable. But, at first, that seems the only way to belong and “fit” in the new, wealthy Jewish suburb, where Mona feels like “a sore thumb … sticking out by herself” (231). At best, she and her sister, Callie, are regarded as “permanent exchange students” (6), even “embraced,” though only as exotic pets. Later on, when she has become “a Chinese Jew,” Mona is treated, in an even more obvious way, as the “official mascot” (32), a “phenomenon” (63), “a kind of Jewish Yoko Ono” for her boyfriend Seth (223).
The whole book traces Mona's quest for identity,11 and, paradoxically enough, it is precisely through Jewish rituals and conversion that Mona comes to understand her “chineseness.” By coming to terms with the Temple Youth Group, so concerned about survival, memory, and justice, the protagonist realises how Chinese she is: “now that she is Jewish, she feels more of a Chinese than ever”; “The more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you'll be” (66, 190). Only when she gets out of her usual milieu does she fully realize that she is different, or at least perceived as such by others. People like Sherman/Seth and the Jewish neighborhood force her to confront her “chineseness,” just as Sherman tries to discover “what it means to be American … by thinking what it means to be Japanese” (235).
On the other hand, wanting to become a Chinese Jew may turn out not to be so paradoxical, after all. There is a notable historical parallelism between the Jewish and Chinese people, and between the Jewish and Chinese diasporas. In the United States, the Chinese are called the “New Jews,” because they seem to be the living proof of the American Dream, the “model minority”; further, both cultures place a high value on learning and hard work. The Chinese have also played the symbolic role of stereotyped Jews as industrious, greedy, successful merchants in many Southeast Asian countries. Similarly, Korean-Americans have also been associated with this image, so that they have had to bear the brunt of interethnic conflicts such as the L.A. riots. This strategic position of the “middleman,” which makes the Chinese, and the Asians in general, the ideal scapegoat in racial conflicts, is explicitly mentioned in Mona in the Promised Land: “‘Our trouble is that we are in the middle,’ Helen goes on. ‘Alfred is mad; he would like to sue your friend Barbara's [wealthy, Jewish] family. But he cannot sue them, so he sue us'” (239). There are also other traces of Chinese-Jewish parallelism in the novel. Helen herself accepts that they are similar in some cultural aspects (119), which does not stop her from expressing her severest censure of Mona's “conversion” (49). In the end, Mona's conversion is not so outrageous: in becoming Jewish, she is reaching out for Chinese features she had not realized before.
For Mona, Judaism seems to be about “ask, ask, instead of just obey, obey” (34),12 which is exactly the opposite of what she always hears at home about being the oppressed minority (36, 137), the victim throughout history. Questioning authority has always been Mona's favorite hobby, so she is now delighted at having to practice it. In contrast to the “undemocratic Japanese and Chinese,” Mona argues that “we Jews, we participate” (236). She always denounces stereotypes and discrimination since both her parents and the society at large are not lacking in either of them, as Naomi, Callie, and Mona's successful bias-hunting project during their summer job proves (170).
The episode devoted to the Ingles is full of subtle social commentary and shows “mainstream” prejudices all too clearly. When Mona is asked where she is “from, from,” she gladly supplies what they are expecting: “Deepest, darkest China,” at which only the young Ingle brothers laugh, since “the rest of the family is not sure whether to laugh or not” (181). Frank Chin has often denounced this insulting ignorance:
A Chinese can take being told … he's pretty “Americanized and aggressive” as compliments, as English and being American for him are the results of conscious effort. The same things said to a Chinaman are insults. It's putting him in his place … in the Chinatown that's in the blood of all juk sing, the deathcamp Chinatown.
(Chin “Confessions,” 65; see also China Men 290, 286, and Tripmaster)
If the boys have realized that Mona is second generation, they still readily assume that she speaks Chinese, which is not really true (241), and they wonder whether she “misses China even though she's never been there” because it is her “home”! They don't actually let Mona explain herself on several occasions, but answer some questions themselves (182). And, as if by magic, Mr Ingle ends up having “an inscrutable look on his face,” one of the narrator's winks that does not escape the attentive reader's eye (183).
Mona's iconoclastic tendencies echo those of young Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist of Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey. Both are “big mouths” (100, 244-45),13 but while the older Wittman tries to recover the genuine Chinese-American tradition by staging the greatest American play, adolescent Mona chooses to turn Jewish and thus reject her Chinese heritage (29). Of course, this rebellion responds to an urgent compulsion to be similar to her friends instead of “abnormal” (30). It also meets the adolescent's pressing need to deny and be different from one's parents: “But then again, maybe she would have turned into anything no daughter of her mother could be; maybe it was just that simple. Adolescent rebellion” (254). However, quotations like this offer the readers the temptation to oversimplify matters. We must avoid the pitfalls of easy generalization by remembering Lisa Lowe's caveat against simplistically equating Chinese-American literary works with just a few master narratives, especially those of the generation gap and parent-child conflicts, since “interpreting Asian American culture exclusively in terms of [these narratives] essentializes Asian American culture” and, to a certain extent, conceals “the particularities and incommensurabilities of class, gender, and national diversities among Asians” (26). By reducing ethnic discourse “to struggles between first and second generations,” this homogenizing mechanism “displaces (and privatizes) inter-community differences into a familial opposition” (26).
Mona's revolt is also inscribed in the Chinese-American women's literary tradition where asking to be treated as a “separate accounting unit” (25, 67), as a “person,” seems particular offensive since it violates one of the greatest traditions and rituals, filial piety14 because “after all, one generation is supposed to build on the last, ascending and ascending like the steps of a baby bamboo shoot” (100).15 While “Jews believe in the here and now …, the Chinese believe in the next generation” (231). Thus, when Mona naively claims her independence, her mother replies that her filial duty is above all that American nonsense:
“And who do you think you are, tell me what to do? Daughter's job is to listen, not to tell mother her big-shot opinion.”
“That's the whole problem. I'm not just a daughter. I'm a person.”
Outside, a plastic jug moans in the night wind.
“You know what you are?” Helen says. “You are American girl. Only an American girl can do something like that and hide it from her mother. Every day you lied to me. … Only an American girl would think about her mother killing herself and say oh, that's so racist. A Chinese girl would think whether she should kill herself too. Because that is how much she thinks about her poor mother who worked so hard and suffered so much. She wants to do everything to make the mother happy.”
In this context, there seems to be no room for individuality, as is the case in China,16 where people seem to be regarded as no more than representatives of a profession and/or rank, as Mona surmises when visiting an exhibit on Chinese portraiture:
[Their] clothes were not about self-expression; they were closer to uniforms. And that was what mattered—not these people's inner selves, but their place in society … she understood what mattered most to the people in the pictures as if it still mattered most to her: not that the world would know them for themselves—they would never dare to dream of any such thing—but only that they might know that they belonged, and where.
Finally Helen blames herself and Ralph for “abdicating their responsibility” as parents and decides on a different, stricter course of action: they go back to being Chinese parents instead of “typical American parents” (246) and forbid Mona to attend Temple meetings: “That's enough Jewish. … Forget about services. Not funny anymore. You know where all the trouble started? All the trouble started from you become Jewish” (248). America as the Land of Freedom, the Promised Land of the ironic title, all but vanishes in the air:
“Mom,” Mona says. “It's a free country. I can go to temple if I want. In fact, if I wanted to, I could go to a mosque”. …
“Forget about free country”, she says.
“What do you mean? This is America. I can remember what I want, I can be what I want, I can—[…] It's a free country, I can talk however I want. It's my right.”
“Free country! Right! In this house, no such thing!”
… “That's exactly the problem! Everywhere else is America, but in this house it's China!”
“That's right! No America here! In this house, children listen to parents!””
“Fort Chang” (269) resists the insidious interference both of school and street:
Mona seems an enthusiastic proponent of what Sollors terms the “consent” paradigm and does not favor “descent” obligations such as those her mother appeals to in the previous quotations. The consent/descent alternative is explicitly debated in one of the Temple group meetings. Some people act as “staunch adherents of the what-the-mother-is-the-child-is rule” (consciously reminiscent of slavery). Some others defend the theory that upbringing determines personality even more than inherited genes; that is, they are convinced believers of “you-are-what-you-eat,” an apt metaphor in this food-ridden book. A last group even ventures to say that it is one's personal decision that makes one Jewish or Chinese: “Who are they to say what she is actually, because of her blood or her diet, either? Like the Changowitz, says this person, meaning Mona” (56). Mona's deeply felt need for “new beginnings” (31) responds to Dearborn's and Sollors' paradigm of the American immigrant conversion and rebirth while at the same time rendering it problematic: “And where does it come from, the will to make yourself into something more than your endowment? Is that just inherited too? There are Chinese Jews in China, Mona knows” (267).
The very idea of choosing whatever you want to be is sometimes the object of mocking derision, especially when the narrator includes Naomi's iconoclastic and hypermodern ideas.
Naomi … thinks it's great for Callie to be in touch with her ancestry. Forget your parents, she says.
“But aren't my parents my ancestors?” says Callie.
“Only if you so choose.” Naomi herself claims for her ancestors a number of people not related to her—for example, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
In the same way Mona chooses to be a Jew to emulate “great” figures such as Einstein, Freud, Sandy Koufax or Woody Allen (135), even though she cannot change her Chinese physical appearance, no matter how much the people in the Pancake House chant “Grow your nose. Grow your nose” (136). The African American cook, Alfred, insists on the impossibility of changing one's looks completely and the utter certainty, therefore, that people like him will never escape the fate associated with those looks: “We're never going to have no big house or no big garage, either … We're never going to be Jewish, see, even if we grow our nose like Miss Mona here is planning to do. We be black motherfuckers” (137). Later on, once “innocence” is lost after the fall into disgrace in the Camp Gugelstein fiasco, Mona's Jewish friend, Barbara, who used to be as idealistically naïve as Mona, concedes that her (Barbara's) mother may be right: “A little Jewish is fine, but my mom says too much is too much. … harping on difference brings trouble, she says; it's human nature. Some people are too Jewish even for the Jews. For example, Rabbi Horowitz” (222).
On the whole, Mona finds one's voluntary change of personality and religion perfectly legitimate. However, at times, weakened by all the obstacles that real life opposes to her initial plan of conversion, she contradicts her previous stance. A clear illustration of this contradiction is her stern advice to Seth not to give up on Judaism because he is Jewish (211), even though she has been upholding her right to be Jewish instead of Chinese and he himself feels capable of turning Japanese (278-79). To which self-reflexive Maxine of Kingston's The Woman Warrior would have volunteered something like “What is tradition and what is the movies?”.
Leaving home is the supreme rite of passage. If the Jewish conversion and rebirth that Helen denounces triggers her daughter's rebellion, Mona has no choice but to become an adult, self-reliant self when ostracized extra-muros. In Grand Central Station, where Mona is trying to decide where to go next after falling out with her mother, she feels she is at the beginning of time again, in the Garden of Eden:
She feels as though she stands at the pointy start of time. Behind her, no history. Before her—everything. How arrogant! As if you have no mother! As if you come out of thin air! She can hear Helen's voice. Still Mona feels it—something opening within herself, big as the train station, streaming with sappy light.
It seems as if life is going to change radically for Mona. And it does, especially after her parents walk into the room where Seth and she are making love. Her mother's dejected mood and her subsequent refusal to see her or speak to her dramatically mark Mona's exile. As Rabbi Horowitz anticipated, “nothing stands still. All growth involves change, all change involves loss. It's not fair to have had to pay a price for love; and yet I'm a richer person for it” (268).
Still, for Helen, the acceptance of Mona's ultimate rebellion only takes place at the end of the book, which conveniently closes with a ritual of reconciliation between mother and daughter. Appropriately enough, the context for this final healing ceremony is one of the oldest rituals, marriage. However, this old rite is infused with new life when it changes from the expected symbol of consent that Werner Sollors described in Beyond Ethnicity to a really hybrid form, where the antinomic paradigms of consent and descent blend. It is Helen who is choosing to acknowledge her daughter for what she has chosen to be, a Changowitz, while Mona herself chooses to re-establish the long-lost link with her Chinese mother. By almost usurping the bridegroom's place, Helen is unconsciously turning a ritual into a meaningful ceremony, while at the same time she metamorphoses it from a means of union by consent towards the acceptance of descent on one's own terms (304).
Just before the wedding ceremony, Mona is thinking about becoming a Changowitz. And we soon find out “what's in a name,” for naming is not only “part of the human rituals of incorporation,” in Trinh Minh-ha's words, that is, the primary way to avoid being “less human than the inhuman or sub-human” (Woman 54). Different people's “threatening Otherness” also has to be tamed and “transformed into figures that belong to a definite “transformed into figures that belong to a definite image-repertoire” (Trinh Woman, 54), more or less subtle stereotypes, in order to limit the disconcerting fluidity of the multicultural or hybrid self. Thus, while still playing (with) the Sollorian tune of conversion and reinvention of one's own identity and cultural self, the hybrid nature of Changowitz has the same unsettling effect as that of a freak, as the responses to first hearing the name confirm18.
What the book ultimately suggests is the need to embrace—in a mirror image of Helen and Mona in the healing marriage ceremony—the concept of heterogeneity and reciprocal, shared difference, which is not the same as adopting token colorful people as our “permanent exchange students.” Hybrid or not, the postmodern subject is no longer unitary or consistent, but shifting. In this postmodern world, which allows only indeterminacy, Io, Seth and Mona's daughter, is not aware that her very name—I—is telling her, just like her mother, to create her own self. Or is she? “For what else would be the favorite cuisine of a child part Jewish, part Chinese, barely off breast milk? But of course, Italian” (303).
See also Cheung's introduction (Interethnic 1-2).
See Wald (24). Chin and Chan list the causes that brought about this annihilation of Chinese-American dignity and masculinity: white Christianity, the old-timers' degrading living condition, the overt racism both in white people's attitudes and in their legislative regulation (Chin and Chan 68).
See Cheung (Articulate 12); Kim (xix); Lee (55); Sollors (Beyond 11); and Sollors (“Literature” 658).
“Redemption is the practice of resistance against the obliviating moves of any dominant politics. What need to be redeemed are not the classics but the experiences of uneasy translations between cultures, translations that are mediated by the possession and lack of power” (Chow 140-41). Chow also proposes another interesting concept that writers can engage in: the “ecology of human waste” (179). This “ecology” tries to rescue or recreate hitherto silenced or marginalized voices, exemplified in all of Kingston's books, especially in the figure of the crazy lady in the Chinese village where Brave Orchid had worked as a doctor.
Kingston, in a conversation we held in July 1996, agreed to the parallelism between Silko's conception voiced through Betonie and her (Kingston's) own belief in re-creating myths.
Talk-story and naming are probably the most prominent ways to make that land theirs.
She has already “usurped” that power in her house, where she proves more knowledgeable about China and things Chinese than her own Chinese-born parents. This arrogant behaviour is brought about by her friend Naomi's snobbish influence (128-30, 41-42).
In Ng's Bone the narrator has to infuse new life into old customs such as the important ritual of sending back the bones to China. In contrast, in Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, Olivia, in spite of her neutral American yuppie life, learns a different dimension to her forgotten Chineseness and engages in a ritual of memory by discovering the power of “yin eyes,” and all this thanks to an uncanny guru, her sister from China.
We keep finding instances of this privileged metaphor until the very last chapter where we find out adult Mona's favorite food, Jewish latkes, which, in a veritable multicultural and syncretic fashion, she deep-fries Chinese-style in a wok that used to belong to her non-Chinese (Jewish?) mother-in-law.
In The Woman Warrior, the narrator actually seems surprised that the Chinese people could maintain such old traditions and rites when no explanations are handed down to the younger generation; she provides instead the unorthodox hypothesis that “maybe everyone makes it up as they go along” (166).
The search for identity or home (on displacement and emplacement, see 231 and 247 respectively) and the rebellious nature of the young generation perpetuate themselves, as ex-Rabbi Horowitz points out (269) and Mona discovers. In the end she suffers the same emotional exile from her parents that Helen herself had experienced in her early years in America (300).
See also 137, 254. However, apart from asking instead of obeying, Mona knows that, as a real Jewish person, “you've got to know your holidays. You've got to know all the ritual, so you know who you are and don't spend your time trying to be Wasp and acting like you don't have anything to complain about” (137). She resists her parents accommodating self-effacement, but she nonetheless ignores the way that the orthodox (i.e., “authentic”) Jews also have strict rituals and religious laws that would just replace her rigid Chinese family's traditions.
For Mona's teacher, this somehow looks “un-Chinese” in such a nice small Chinese girl (27, 63).
See Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. This disrespect for elders or breach of filial duty is frequently rebuked by Mona's parents, especially by Helen (7, 29, 45, 220, 233, 250), and it is often linked with the need to be discreet so as not to lose face or sully the family's reputation (237, 249, etc.).
See Tan's Joy Luck Club, where a similar belief is expressed by one of the mothers:
I was raised the Chinese way
I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness.
And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.
See the story of No Name Woman in The Woman Warrior.
See Nunez, where Chang always posed for photographs in uniforms, which veiled his already distant self (18).
See Boelhower on the protean multiethnic subjects that he describes as “the real monsters in American society” (137-38).
Boelhower, William. Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Cheung, King-kok. Articulate Silences: Maxine Hong Kingston, Hisaye Yamamoto, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
———. Cheung, King-Kok ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Chin, Frank. “Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 4.3 (1972): 58-70.
Chin, Frank and Jeffery Paul Chan. “Racist Love.” 1971. Seeing through Schuck. Ed. Richard Kostelanetz. New York: Ballantine, 1972. 65-79.
Chin, Frank, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. Aiiieeeee. Washington: Howard UP, 1974.
———. eds. The Big Aiiieeeee. New York: Meridian, 1991.
———. “Uncle Frank's Fakebook of Fairy Tales for Asian American Moms and Dads.” Amerasia Journal 18 (1992): 69-87.
Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
Dearborn, Mary. Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. 1961. New York: Grove, 1963.
Hunt, Linda. “‘I Could Not Figure Out What Was My Village’: Gender vs. Ethnicity in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.” MELUS 12.3 (1985): 5-11.
Jen, Gish. Typical American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
———. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.
Kingston, Maxine. China Men. 1980. New York: Ballantine, 1981
———. “Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston.” Begoña Simal-González. REDEN 14 (CENUAH 1997): 167-77.
———. “Talk With Mrs. Kingston.” Timothy Pfaff. New York Times Book Review 15 June 1980: 1, 25-27.
———. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. 1989. New York: Ballantine, 1990.
———. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. 1976. New York: Random House, 1977.
———. “Writing the Other: A Conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston.” Ed. Marilyn Chin. MELUS 16.4 (1989-1990): 57-74.
Lee, Robert G. “The Woman Warrior as an Intervention in Asian American Historiography.” Approaches to Teaching Kingston's “The Woman Warrior.” Ed. Shirley Lim. New York: MLA: 1991. 52-63.
Lowe, Lisa. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Making Asian American Differences.” Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 24-44.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. New York: Orion, 1965.
Ng, Fae Myenne. Bone. 1993. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
Nunez, Sigrid. A Feather on the Breath of God. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage-Random, 1979.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.
Sollors, Werner. “Literature and Ethnicity.” Ed. Stephen Thernstrom. Harvard Encyclopaedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980. 647-65.
———. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
Tan, Amy. The Hundred Secret Senses. New York: Putnam, 1995.
———. The Joy Luck Club. 1989. New York: Ivy/Ballantine Books, 1992.
Trinh, T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
———. “Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference.” Making Face, Making Souls: Haciendo Caras. Creative and Critical Perspectives. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990. 371-75.
Wald, Alan. “The Culture of ‘Internal Colonialism’: A Marxist Perspective.” MELUS 8.3 (1981): 18-27.
———. “Theorizing Cultural Difference: A Critique of the ‘Ethnicity School.’” MELUS 14.2 (1987): 21-33.
Wong, Jade Snow. Fifth Chinese Daughter. 1945. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1989.
Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
———. “Denationalization Reconsidered: Asian American Cultural Criticism at a Theoretical Crossroads.” Amerasia Journal 21.1-2 (1995): 1-27.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6971
SOURCE: DelRosso, Jeana. “The Convent as Colonist: Catholicism in the Works of Contemporary Women Writers of the Americas.” MELUS 26, no. 3 (fall 2001): 183-201.
[In the following essay, DelRosso examines the intersections of gender and Catholicism with the discourses of nationhood and colonialism in several narratives of Catholic girlhood. DelRosso discusses the impact of education in a convent school in China on the immigrant experience of the character Theresa in Jen's Typical American.]
Writing about the complex relationship between Christian religions and third-world countries in Women and Christianity: A Map of the New Country, Sara Maitland argues that Christianity has frequently been a special vehicle of oppression, but it has also, as in South America, proved a dynamic inspiration for change (16). Maitland's observation speaks to the perspective of many contemporary women writers regarding the role of Catholicism in colonized nations. Writers such as Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, and Rigoberta Menchú address the conflicts between Catholicism and their individual cultures with an ambivalence, an internally divided attitude informed in part by the fact that Catholicism was imported into those cultures through colonialism. This ambivalence is not limited to Latin American writers, but also informs the work of many Chinese-American and Caribbean authors such as Gish Jen and Rosario Ferré; in other words, this conflict emerges in texts in which Catholicism comes into contact with ethnicity. The connections between Catholicism and ethnicity in recent writings by women of the Americas demonstrate how such writers critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct Catholicism in terms of its relationship to nationhood and its colonial history.
Catholicism, like most religions, is looked upon unfavorably by academics. English departments marginalize it, perhaps because academics consider religion incompatible with intellectualism. Women's studies departments disapprove of it, perhaps because Christianity remains steeped in patriarchy and because women continue to be excluded from much Roman Catholic ministry and practice. This idea that Catholicism is a dirty word for women in particular may explain why scant feminist literary criticism has seriously considered representations of the Roman Catholic church as an important category of analysis.
Even outside of academia, however, Catholicism has had an unfavorable image, especially in the United States. Indeed, the religion has a tradition of seeming un-American. The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century American perception of the Roman Catholic church associated it with European imperial powers and therefore with threats to the freedom of the new world. The mid-nineteenth century experienced a resurgence of anti-Catholicism: growing numbers of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and other areas of Catholic Europe caused Protestants to fear that the democracy of this new country would be undermined by the rule of Rome. By the early twentieth century, however, the American fear of the church gave way to the perception of Catholics as anti-intellectual, with their clericalism and their continued reliance on the pope for their political ideologies (Gandolfo 6). The combination of Catholicism and ethnicity, then, tends to connote in the US today an immigrant culture, a group tied to the apron strings of Rome and antagonistic toward the needs of a growing democracy.
These US attitudes influence our perceptions of neighboring countries as well. The perceived menace of Catholicism manifests itself in popular conceptions of countries like Mexico, which threatens the very borders of the US. Significantly, American anti-Catholicism draws sharply from historical competition for land (and thus nationhood) from Catholic groups both within and without the borders of the US (Franchot xxi). This fear of encroachment is inextricably tied to issues of immigration, which remain at the heart of US relations with Central and South American nations. This essay will read across the boundaries of nation in order to rethink the US in terms of its southern neighbors of the Americas. As José Saldívar suggests, it is crucial to address the politics of the borderland in the study of the Americas (ix). What follows, then, is a reading of Catholicism as it crosses those borders in the writings of contemporary women. I propose that such writers, often living on the margins of dominant hegemonies themselves, not only cross the perimeters of nationhood but also explore, resist, and negotiate the confines of American understandings of Catholicism, rereading the religion in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. It is imperative to our understanding of contemporary women's texts that we recognize that many women today are writing about Catholicism in surprisingly multi-valenced and ambiguous ways. The Anglo-feminist, American, anti-Catholic critique perseveres, but it exists concurrently with a more liberating, transnational view of Catholicism indigenous to ethnic literature of the Americas.
For the purposes of this essay, I will confine my discussion of contemporary women's writings about Catholicism to the category of Catholic girlhood narratives—a category which knowingly conflates the disparate genres of fiction and memoir—with the following assumptions: that memoir is often part fiction (recent research on Menchú's memoir attests to this)1; that fiction is often part memoir (the authors I will discuss all write about the countries of their childhoods, for example); and that we can read both as re-workings of a similar body of materials that constitute Catholic girlhood narratives. Such narratives are often contextualized within a convent setting. Thus they also become useful tools for exploring the varying relationships between the church and the female figure. I propose that probing the intersections of gender and Catholicism with discourses like colonialism and notions of nationhood in these Catholic girlhood narratives will expose the diverse, often seemingly contradictory positions from which women write about Catholicism today, positions from which they variously and often simultaneously view the church as vehicle of repression, of subversion, or of liberation. To begin, I will look at some Catholic girlhood narratives that find positive spaces for women in the convent and consider the ways in which Catholicism provides such spaces.
We can explore this ethnically-informed ambivalence about Catholicism through the lens of Shirley Geok-lin Lim's essay, “Asians in Anglo-American Feminism: Reciprocity and Resistance.” Reacting against the universalizing notions of Anglo white feminists who want to speak for and over all women, Lim describes how she first came to such feminism through its intersection with Catholicism. She writes:
An internally consistent system such as Catholicism possesses oppressive weight for the individual enmeshed in its social networks. But its consistency becomes a point of departure or becomes itself a disruptive force when it intersects and destabilizes another ideological system, such as Confucianism. Within the stable relations constituted by Confucianism, the female is always subordinate to the male, the younger to the older, the outsider to the insider family member. … To a young female in this family, the dogmatic constructions of Catholicism can very well take on the lineations of a liberationist theology. The ideals of an order made in Heaven, rather than embedded in familial hierarchies, of loving your neighbor as yourself (and as your parents and siblings!), are frankly subversive, almost anarchic in their effect on retrograde Chinese chauvinists.
Lim's girlhood experience of Catholicism offers an explanation for why women writers who are introduced to the Catholic church through colonialism may find the precepts of that religion liberating. To this young girl of Chinese heritage, Catholicism breaks down social strata, emphasizes individual equality, and invokes a higher source of authority than the oldest male family member. Compared with her Confucian upbringing, Catholicism becomes subversive for this Malaysian girl.
It is significant that Lim's exposure to Catholicism occurs through her Catholic school training by women religious. Educated in a convent school, Lim found feminist ideals in the convent community, whom she envisioned as
dangerous women, living outside the protection of the Confucianist family, Asians and whites together. … They lived without men, outside of marriage, without children of their own, doing the kind of work that men do. They were women who were like men. That I was given to their care every day from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., that Chinese parents were deferential to them, were intimidated and made smaller by their presence: these facts did not pass by me unremarked.
The subversiveness of Catholicism for Lim thus moves beyond its effect on class and familial hierarchies to embrace the dissolution of racial rules and gender roles. The convent offers an alternative for Lim to the fate of the traditional woman of Chinese heritage, who can only become wife, daughter-in-law, mother: a person defined through her usefulness to others. The women religious at the convent reject all three roles, thereby undermining gender divisions of power and authority.2 Their community calls into question notions of both racial and sex-role segregation and thus provides Lim with a space in which a woman can be independent of husband, family, and cultural traditions. Finally, the convent offers Lim an education, the means to independence through fulfilling work, and a route to feminism.
Many feminist theologians similarly read the convent as a site of feminist awareness and achievement. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza claims that she, like Lim, came to feminism through Catholicism because her Christian faith and community caused her to question and ultimately reject cultural roles for women (137). Mary Ewens, O.P., writing more specifically about women religious, extols the feminist opportunities offered in single-sex religious communities in her essay, “Removing the Veil: The Liberated American Nun”:
In their personal lives and in their work they have enjoyed many of the freedoms and opportunities that feminists are pleading for today. They have supported themselves, owned property, received an advanced education, and held executive positions. They have not feared success; have had mentors who gave them encouragement and advice; and have been freed from the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. They have transcended sex-role stereotypes and enjoyed friendships based not on sexuality but on common interests and a sharing of the deepest aspirations of the human soul.
Ewens' characterization of American women religious echoes Lim's early experience with the sisters at her convent school, reinforcing the notion of the convent as a site of female independence and growth. Nancy Mairs, in her memoir Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, also admires the active, self-ruling sisters who led her to Catholicism, “who spent their summer vacations with the farm workers, in the fields, in the camps, in the jails … [who would] run for the state legislature. And win” (86). Clearly feminist theologians have found a positive location for women in the convent's liberating provisions regarding issues of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
This feminist entryway into Catholicism through the site of the convent appears in the work of fiction writers as well. For example, this safe space of the convent offers a myriad of previously unconsidered possibilities to Theresa in Gish Jen's novel, Typical American. We meet her in China, “on a convent school diamond, [where] Know-It-All (that is, Theresa) fields grounders from her coach” (5). Immediately the text establishes the American convent school as a place of both mental and physical female growth, two new options that disturb Theresa's traditional mother, who becomes horrified by her elder daughter. Theresa not only lacks the small frame and feet so desirable in a Chinese girl, but “in the convent school, she'd not only acquired this English name, Theresa, she'd also taken up baseball—with her father's permission—so that now she strolled when she walked, sometimes with her hands in her pockets” (47). Such an unseemly characteristic for a young Chinese woman compels her to wear shoes a size too small when trying to attain a husband, “not so much to make her feet more acceptable … but to help her maintain a more ladylike step” (49). Theresa, like Lim's teachers, begins to become one of those “women who were like men,” a confusion of her gender role that renders her unable to participate in more traditional forms of Chinese courtship, family, and social systems. Yet this attainment of a strong, assured stride reflects Theresa's achievement of a strong, assured selfhood, one in which she will have to mince neither steps nor words, but will be able to walk through life with a proud pace that will give her the ability to span continents with confidence.
In addition to physical strength, Theresa develops emotional and intellectual traits that continue to conflict with gender expectations: “So smart, so morally upright, but she talked too much, in a voice that came from too far down in her chest” (Jen 47). While her education, specifically her scientific training, eventually aids Theresa in her endeavor to become a doctor, as a young girl she views this education as a deterrent to her attainment of a husband: she cannot help but compare their pre-engagement rituals to an animalistic “mating dance.” Her convent training thus prevents her from entering into a potentially unhappy marriage because her Western education causes her to have certain expectations of what a “modern type” of man will value (50). While her near-fiancé's reaction to Theresa's revelation of the potentially less desirable aspects of herself devastates her, the realization of her different expectations for husband and family allows Theresa to adapt more readily to the limited freedoms she gains when she immigrates to America.
As Jen places Theresa in the crossroads of Catholicism and Confucianism, other writers similarly address the intersections of Catholicism with various social, economic, and political systems in ways that establish Catholicism as a liberating force. In Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, we see the meeting and merging of Catholicism with the political system of Marxism in the figure of Father Jose Dulce María, “a Spanish priest with a head full of revolutionary ideas that had earned him the honor of being relegated by the Society of Jesus to that hidden corner of the world, although that didn't keep him from transforming biblical parables into Socialist propaganda” (137). Father Jose preaches liberation theology in Chile, believing that “the Holy Church is on the right, but Jesus Christ was always on the left” (154). Here Lim's paradigm for seeing Catholicism as a positive force is slightly adjusted because the Catholic church becomes revolutionary and liberating in its intersection with an equally revolutionary and liberating politics. Thus the radical Pedro Tercero may disguise himself as a priest in order to continue spreading his Marxist agenda, thereby rendering indistinct the border where Catholicism ends and communism begins, and he can eventually escape the country after being smuggled to the Papal Nuncio. Indeed, the church itself is presented as the last source of food, congregation, protection, and political asylum during the military coup, suggesting that the union of liberatory politics and religion is the only possible survival mechanism in the face of a military dictatorship.
Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies finds positive forces in Catholicism's intersection with the clearly negative system of totalitarianism. While we may ask ourselves what would not look liberating when compared to the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Alvarez's novel seems to suggest that the most oppressive conditions in other systems tease out the most liberative responses in Catholicism, particularly within the Catholic convent. Rather than merge systems as Allende does with the character of Father Jose, Alvarez allows the systems to remain distinct, so that Catholicism may shine all the brighter against the dark background of El Jefe's tyranny. Don Enrique Mirabal originally refuses to allow his daughters to attend a convent school because he hopes to prevent his daughter Patria from becoming a nun: “More than once, he said that Patria as a nun would be a waste of a pretty girl” (11). He finally gives in to his wife's entreaties, however, because he recognizes that his daughters will require an education, along with their newly acquired class status, to secure an appropriate husband.
Yet the Mirabal sisters learn more than how to read, write, and meet a man at the Merciful Mother Inmaculada Concepción convent school; it is there that they meet Sinita and learn the truth about their leader Trujillo's reign of terror: “Trujillo was doing bad things?” It was as if I had just heard that Jesus had slapped a baby or our Blessed Mother had not conceived Him the immaculate conception way” (Alvarez 17).3 They also learn resistance because the Sisters of the Merciful Mother enact their religious duty when they hide Hilda, a young political dissident, thereby rewriting the convent as not just religious refuge, but also place of safety, political asylum, and developing sisterhood among women, despite ideological differences. As Pedro Tercero hides himself in priest's vestments to escape the eyes of Esteban Trueba, so Sor Hilda passes unnoticed by the police in her nun's habit, suggesting that the hiddenness inherent in veiling can be a useful tool for women's subversive politics. It is only when Hilda leaves the asylum that the convent provides that she is caught by the police, again intimating that the convent offers one of the sole sources of political refuge and resistance.
Even before awakening to the political role of her convent school, Patria believes she has a call from God to enter the convent: “When we played make-believe, I'd put a sheet over my shoulders and pretend I was walking down long corridors, saying my beads, in my starched vestments” (Alvarez 45). Yet despite her girlhood conviction, Patria instead hears her Christian calling in human love. She leaves the convent to marry a young farmer, but loses her belief in Catholicism when she gives birth to her first child, stillborn. Her crisis of faith is finally assuaged in her work in base communities, like the Christian Cultural Group, the kind of liberation community Rosemary Radford Ruether defines as a sub-community of a parish for the purpose of evangelization (Sexism 204). Such work becomes the basis for Patria's decision to become a revolutionary because she realizes that her religious calling is to the people of the Dominican Republic, the campesinos. After the bombing of their religious retreat, the Christian Cultural Group transforms itself into Accion Clero-Cultural and joins the rebellion because the “priests had decided they could not wait forever for the pope and the archbishop to come around. The time was now” (163). Patria joins the revolution through the church, her convent school background causing her to abandon her pacifism for action. Eventually, the work of clergy and lay people provokes Trujillo's regime into launching a campaign against the Catholic church itself, despite the country's majority Catholic population. Thus the church, through its nuns, priests, and laypeople, positions itself in direct opposition to tyranny and oppression.
Rigoberta Menchú complicates further the role of the revolutionary church and, more specifically, the Catholic convent, in I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala. A memoir rather than fiction, this text provides another glimpse into the effects of Catholicism upon the narrative of a young Guatemalan girl. Rigoberta is first exposed to the church through Catholic Action, a missionary group from which she learns about Catholicism:
The Catholic religion had already come to our region. The Catholic religion chooses, or at least the priests choose, people to become catechists. I was a catechist from the age of twelve. The priest used to come to our area every three months. He'd bring texts for us to teach the doctrine to our community. … By accepting the Catholic religion, we didn't accept a condition, or abandon our culture. It was more like another way of expressing ourselves. … Catholic Action is like another element which can merge with the elements which already exist within Indian culture.
Rigoberta's role as a catechist, or missionary, consists of working with and preaching to the children in her community and down in the finca, or plantation, a role that, she believes, allows her to serve both God and her people.
As Rigoberta grows older, becoming more and more outraged at the plight of the poor in her country, she joins resistance against the landowners, a resistance that is aided by the Catholic missionary groups. The nuns in the convent school teach her how to read, write, and speak Spanish, and the priests give her and her community political advice to organize and unite in solidarity. The nuns and priests supply the funds needed to help Rigoberta's father hide from the landowners; likewise, they offer to help Rigoberta's mother leave the country when her organizing makes her a political target. Rigoberta herself stays with the nuns in a convent for a few days when her safety, too, is threatened. It is from this religious community that Rigoberta gains the knowledge she needs to fight the landowners: “No-one taught me how to organise because, having been a catechist, I already knew” (Menchú 122).
Rigoberta believes that only by using the tools of the oppressor may she and her people overcome oppression. Concerned about the linguistic barriers among Indians in Guatemala, she learns Spanish from the nuns in order to fight more effectively the landowners on their own ground. But it is the religion of those nuns who educate her that provides Rigoberta with both the moral basis and the strategic planning necessary to her crusade: “Our main weapon, however, is the Bible. We began to study the Bible as a text through which to educate our village” (Menchú 130). Her community looks to Old Testament leaders like Moses, Judith, and David, both as examples of how to lead people out of oppression and as biblical support for their resistance. Catholicism provides Rigoberta and her community with the weapons they need to combat their oppression.
Thus it would seem that contemporary women writers recognize the Catholic church—and, more specifically, the Catholic convent—as a site in colonized countries of political asylum, revolutionary resistance, and female autonomy. These writers subvert US anti-Catholicism by demonstrating the ways in which Catholicism promotes the individual independence and political liberation of ethnic women of the Americas, largely through the work of female missionaries and religious sisters. But this is hardly the end of the story for these texts, or for the Catholic convent. Catholicism is also examined critically in Allende's, Alvarez's, and Menchú's texts, as well as in other works by women writers.
While some feminist literary critics remain unwilling to acknowledge that Catholicism has any significance, for better or for worse, in women's writing, a few feminist theologians express their concern with the negative effects of Catholicism on women, especially regarding the ways in which the missionary work of the convent functions as colonial power. Mary Daly, for example, discusses the destructiveness, violence, and compulsion inherent in colonialist missionary work. In Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, Daly argues, “Even the peaceful missionaries who have gone to ‘heathen’ lands have felt justified in using questionable tactics to impose ‘true’ beliefs upon others and in doing so have ‘righteously’ allied themselves with economic imperialism” (168). Maitland agrees, arguing that the Christian understanding of ministry as something done by one person to another is unhealthy and wrong (21). And feminist anthropologists Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock have pointed out the ways in which Christian colonization was particularly detrimental to women, arguing that Catholicism “exacerbated inequalities and undermined those social, political, and economic institutions that still guaranteed … women's rights” (18). Thus we cannot regard the position of women religious in colonized or imperialized nations as merely benevolent presences whose sole purpose is to serve the people. Here, then, lies the root of the ambivalence of women writers of the Americas regarding the role of the convent in their countries.
Menchú's text examines this larger dilemma with Catholicism in general, demonstrating how, despite the apparent willingness of Rigoberta's Guatemalan community to practice the traditions and accede to the beliefs of Catholicism, this religion is never fully accepted by the community. While Catholic religious ceremonies are observed, they are combined with traditional Indian ceremonies in a religious syncretism that allows the community elders to explain the differences between the two and to provide for a more liberal merging of Catholic and communal law, as in the leniency demonstrated toward women who seek divorce (Menchú 76). Indeed, while both sets of customs are followed, the Catholic traditions place a more oppressive weight upon the community: when Rigoberta recalls her first communion, she remembers, too, that her family had to go into debt to buy her the clothing, flowers, and candles she needed for the ceremony: an undue burden, considering that her parents had to struggle just to feed their children.
Despite the aid and support given to Rigoberta's community by the nuns and priests, the community still considers these missionaries suspect and never fully accepts them into their confidence. This is partly because the same church that teaches resistance also preaches passivity and acceptance of one's lot in life, as Rigoberta learns in the convent school:
Their religion told us it was a sin to kill while we were being killed. They told us that God is up there and that God has a kingdom for the poor. This confused me because I'd been a catechist since I was a child and had had a lot of ideas put in my head. It prevents us from seeing the real truth of how our people live. I tried to get rid of my doubts by asking the nuns: “What would happen if we rose up against the rich?” The nuns tried to avoid the question. … Catholic Action too submitted us to tremendous oppression. It kept our people dormant while others took advantage of our passivity.
Mary Daly recognizes this Christian practice of focusing attention on the rewards of the hereafter in order to maintain the submissiveness of oppressed peoples (30). While Daly's arguments concern the oppression of women, Menchú demonstrates how such teachings are complicit in a colonialist agenda that requires submission from the people it exploits. This may explain why Rigoberta's father categorizes the missionaries with the landowners he fights against: “no rich man, no landowner, no priest, or nun, must ever know our secrets” (188). While his suspicions may seem simply to represent a distrust of anyone who speaks Spanish, Rigoberta's father clearly recognizes the similarities between attempts by both landowners and missionaries to colonize his people. Menchú herself offers a more complicated reading of the missionaries, noting the differences between the church of the rich, which works to perpetuate the status quo, and the church of the poor, through which she fights and organizes, and which joins her struggle.
Allende also looks critically at the role of Catholicism, specifically in regard to the convent, in the colonized country of Chile. She identifies the Catholic church as the site of Father Restrepo's fearful fire-and-brimstone sermons, which only young Clara the Clairvoyant is brave enough to undermine. Even Severo, who attends church regularly (if not religiously), believes “that masses and religious vows, like the selling of indulgences, images, and scapulars, were a dishonest business” (14). Jaime, Severo's grandson, takes this view a step further through his Marxist beliefs. He claims that “religion was the cause of half the world's misfortunes … Christianity, like almost all forms of superstition, made men weaker and more resigned,” suggesting that not everyone is able to reconcile Christianity and communism as easily as Father Jose (221).
Yet Allende alludes to an even more sinister interpretation of Catholicism in Chile, particularly in regard to the role of the convent in colonization. Despite certain misgivings, the upper classes use the convent to educate their daughters (if not their sons) because a convent school seems to provide the best education in a colonized country: it offers the education of the colonizer. Although Severo eventually removes Clara from her convent school (because, significantly, Clara stops talking), and Clara's daughter Blanca's only experience in such a school consists of “the combined torment of nausea, guilt, and boredom” (quite unlike Lim's experience of the convent as a young girl), the convent retains its position as educator of the elite (142). Indeed, women religious constitute a background force for the upper classes in this text: besides teaching their girl children, they run the hospitals (which only the rich can afford to use), bake the desserts for the social engagements of the wealthy, and thus compete with the working classes of indigenous people for employment.
This elitist agenda does not go unnoticed, however; the servant Nana's view of nuns is significantly less admiring than that of her employers, and she cautions Clara about their deceptiveness:
“Those women are all depraved,” she warned her. “They choose the prettiest, smartest girls from the best families to be sent to the convent. They shave the heads of the novitiates, poor girls, and set them up for a lifetime of baking cakes and taking care of other people's old folks.”
Nana seems to recognize that which the convent claims in return for its service to the community: the convent requires the sacrifice of young girls, who will be educated in the service of others and whose position as prettiest, brightest, and wealthiest will allow them in turn to educate others in Western world views, thereby distancing these young women and those they will teach from their native communities.
The Sisters of the Merciful Mother similarly watch Alvarez's Patria, giving her special attention to encourage her into the convent, and are obviously disappointed with her decision to marry instead. Like Alvarez, Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferré further explores this notion of the convent's colonialist investment in young girls in her short story, “Sleeping Beauty.” María de los Angeles attends the Academy of the Sacred Heart because, her father admits to its principal, a parochial education is the best the country offers: “there are no first-rate private schools for girls on the island besides those taught by your order” (Ferré 96-97). It is significant that the convent was founded by the missionaries who helped to colonize Puerto Rico and that it continues to perpetuate the status quo of racial elitism; thus the Mater Chapel is endowed with an air conditioning system that allows the Beautiful People to “enjoy the glitter of our Holy Mother church wrapped in a delightful Connecticut chill,” a reference perhaps designed to remind us that Puerto Rico remains a United States commonwealth (Ferré 103).
More significant, however, is Don Fabiano's distinction that the convent is the best school “for girls.” This assessment raises both class and gender issues: the convent school becomes a site of financial elitism which, as in Menchú's text, places heavy burdens of payment and guilt upon the parents; the convent claims a high enough status to be trusted with the welfare of young girls, though not necessarily of young boys; and young girls hold some value for the convent. We must certainly consider with a measure of gratitude the willingness of women religious to educate other women, especially within a Western paradigm in which the education of young men would be given priority. However, we must also consider the motives of women religious for taking it upon themselves to educate young girls.
In Ferré's story, the principal of the Academy of the Sacred Heart and María de los Angeles's religious mentor and teacher, the Reverend Mother Martinez, wants another soul for her convent and thus enters into an epistolary disagreement with Maria's father about the girl's future. Yet Don Fabiano recognizes that, if María were to join the order, “the fortune accruing to the convent would be no pecatta minuta” (Ferré 96). He acknowledges the Reverend Mother's own investment in the economic aspects of the church, recognizing her role in managing “the considerable assets of the Holy Church” (Ferré 96), and he speaks to her as he would to a business competitor. His use of the Spanish phrase may well be a reproach to the nun who, as a teacher, is required by US law to speak English, the language of the colonizer. While the Reverend Mother responds with her own veiled threats about Don Fabiano's accountability to a higher authority, she too uses the language of business, claiming that “the Good Lord has us here only on loan” (Ferré 98). Thus she disregards the best interests of María de los Angeles in a bid for the financial interests of the church, investments that she acknowledges might eventually become “the property of the state” (Ferré 98), the neo-colony of Puerto Rico that continues to be an object of North American imperialism. As Alvarez's Patria realizes that “there were priests around who would report you to the SIM if you spoke against the regime,” Don Fabiano knows that there are nuns who would persuade a girl to enter the convent in order to obtain her inheritance for their coffers (Alvarez 154). Thus like Lim, María de los Angeles finds herself in the intersection of Catholicism and her own culture. But unlike Lim, María remains stuck there.
Perhaps we should return to Jen's Theresa, who also seems to remain stuck in this intersection of Catholicism and colonialism because her upbringing at the convent places her in the difficult position of removal from her Confucian family. She mentally distances herself from their traditional ways of thinking and moves outside their realm of being, just as she mentally and physically differs from her younger sister, “whose blessing was the blessing of blessings—to be who she was supposed to be, so in tune with her time and place” (48). Despite her Christian background, or rather, because of it, Theresa does not receive this particular blessing. Her physical distancing from her family (first to the home of friends in Shanghai, eventually to the United States) mirrors the painful yet, for her, necessary movement away from the values and traditions of her Chinese culture. The United States does become, for Theresa at least, a place in which she can temporarily reside at the intersection of Catholicism and Confucianism.
Theresa remains stopped at the red light position of outsider, alien, other that she embodies in her brother's family, a position that largely results from her American Catholic education in a Confucian society. Her convent upbringing still defines her, as it named her, thereby claiming her as its own and placing her within a tradition of saints whose name she bears. Indeed, the “miracle” of her deliverance of the poverty-stricken Ralph, with its corresponding imagery of Theresa as “Older Sister” in the “black coat,” paints Theresa in distinctly saint- and nun-like imagery that separates her from a sense of belonging in her brother's family (Jen 55). Her ways of thinking also remain distinct, and distinctly womanist, from her fellow refugees: when they discover that the Chang's first baby is a girl, “Theresa didn't mind, but Helen and Ralph were disappointed” (116). Yet her constant sacrifice for her brother and his family repeats the Chinese principle of male dominance, revealing Theresa's continued entrenchment in Confucian tradition as well as demonstrating her ensnarement in self-abnegating Catholic traditions.
Theresa finds the limits of Catholicism's liberative abilities because she is unable to commit to the nun-like life that her family wants to impose upon her in the US. Her guilt about her relationship with Old Chao results from her violation of both Chinese social codes and Catholic religious laws. Both systems condemn her actions, and silence is imposed on her by both Confucian and Catholic patriarchal laws that mandate the containment and control of women's sexuality. Theresa finally must return to Confucianism to find her place in family and society, rereading the material, commodified arrangement of woman as concubine in a positive light. Her convent education fails her in her moment of greatest need, though it does enable her to retrace her steps down an older path with new eyes.
Thus it becomes clear that the colonial intent of the convent directs itself at the young girls in these texts, appropriating them physically and often fiscally into a system that both requires and perpetuates their easy consumability (for who would object to the loss of a few girl-children?) and/or re-educating them to create the mother-teachers who so often are expected to practice, preserve, and pass on the beliefs of a Christian imperialism. Must we then question the opportunities the Catholic convent opens to young women in these texts? Do the colonizing actions of the Catholic church undermine the positive (dare we say feminist?) provisions such a church might offer? Are we left with only two routes diverging from this crossroads, a binary opposition in which the church is represented in terms of either colonization/capitalism/imperialism or hope/promise/revolution?
Perhaps not. We must remember that Lim emphasizes that it was not the system of Catholicism itself, but its intersections with other systems, that offered her points of liberation: “none of them offered the girl-child a stable, established, supporting society. Each system, oppressive alone, became interrogative and subversive in the matrix of multiculturalism” (Lim 246). Lim readily admits that Catholicism's liberative abilities are limited. Furthermore, she claims that it was her introduction to colonialism that drew her away from Catholicism, a re-positioning that occurred when she moved from her girlhood Catholic convent to a high school whose principal was a military Englishman. Yet despite her realization of the complicity of Catholicism in such exploitation of herself and her country, Lim does not reject or deny her previous, gendered, more liberatory experience of Catholicism; nor does she suggest that the divisiveness of such opposition leaves us with only an either/or dichotomy. Rather, she claims that the intersections of such systems question the individual systems themselves, suggesting that this meeting of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and ideologies both produces and nurtures the possibility for various degrees of social change, creating situations that range along a continuum of benefits to detriments but that nevertheless remain determined by the location that forms them.
Gayatri Spivak argues, “The assimilated ex-colonial is trained in the European secular imaginary. She ‘knows’ nothing on the other side” (175). I would posit, however, that the feminist consciousnesses offered by the texts I have been discussing here, themselves inflected by resistant, cross-cultural views of nationality, “know” all the sides of the relationship between Catholicism and colonialism and “know” that the intersection of these systems offers the young female figure the potential not of either/or but of both/and. Each of the texts discussed in this essay derives from its young female protagonist a sense of the conflict that exists in these cultures regarding Catholicism, a simultaneity of stances that emerges from the culmination of each girl's various experiences with the religion, none of which can be ignored.
So we come full circle and are left with a spectrum of ideologies and representations of the Catholic convent, a continuum fostering the critical urgency born out of its own diversity. We cannot overlook Catholicism's complicity in colonialism, a role that many women writers of the Americas are determined to address in their novels, memoirs, and theories. Yet we also cannot underestimate the liberating power of the revolutionary church, especially regarding the potential it offers through the convent as demonstrated in girlhood narratives. Rather, we can perhaps read the position of these texts as Gloria Anzaldúa reads herself, with the consciousness of la mestiza who, in straddling cultures, must rely on plurality and tolerate ambiguity, but who looks to a future in which such abilities will be both valued and necessary (79-80).
The veracity of Rigoberta Menchú's memoir has recently been questioned, specifically in Stoll. I read Menchú's text as a Catholic girlhood narrative, valuable both for its depiction of the role of Catholicism in Guatemala and for its documentation of the violence against Guatemalan citizens by the Guatemalan army.
For a discussion of the notion of women religious becoming more man-like through virginity and religious devotions, see Ruether.
While Alvarez's Minerva demonstrates with this comment a misunderstanding of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to the conception of Mary, not Jesus, without sin, this young girl learns much harsher lessons than church doctrine at her convent school.
Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. New York: Bantam, 1982.
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. New York: Plume, 1994.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. Boston: Beacon, 1973.
Etienne, Mona and Eleanor Leacock, eds. Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Praeger, 1980.
Ewens, Mary, O.P. “Removing the Veil: The Liberated American Nun.” Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. Ed. Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979. 255-78.
Ferré, Rosario. “Sleeping Beauty.” The Youngest Doll. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 89-119.
Franchot, Jenny. Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
Gandolfo, Anita. Testing the Faith: The New Catholic Fiction in America. New York: Greenwood, 1992.
Jen, Gish. Typical American. New York: Plume, 1991.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Asians in Anglo-American Feminism: Reciprocity and Resistance.” Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 240-52.
Mairs, Nancy. Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal. Boston: Beacon, 1993.
Maitland, Sara. A Map of the New Country: Women and Christianity. London and Boston: Routledge and K. Paul, 1983.
Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Ed. and Intro. by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church.” Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. Ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974. 150-83.
———. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon, 1983.
Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.
Schüssler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “Feminist Spirituality, Christian Identity and Catholic Vision.” Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. Ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979. 136-48.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Stoll, David. I, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2500
SOURCE: Lee, Rachel. “Who's Chinese?” Women's Review of Books 19, no. 5 (February 2002): 13-14.
[In the following review, Lee analyzes Jen's representation of gender, travel, and the immigrant experience in the title story of Who's Irish?]
I hang onto “travel” as a term of cultural comparison, precisely because of its historical taintedness, its associations with gendered, racial bodies, class privilege … frontiers … and the like. I prefer it to the more apparently neutral, and “theoretical,” terms such as “displacement,” which can make the drawing of equivalences across historical experiences too easy.
Engaging the topic of travel means first wrestling with the elasticity of the term. “Travel” risks trying to accomplish too much, flattening distinctions between types of migrants—between refugees and tourists, daily commuters and students on fellowship, cosmopolitan flâneurs and religious pilgrims. In this epic wrestling with the term, I follow a well-worn path. James Clifford, in his essay “Traveling Cultures,” writes that the very notion that people such as Western anthropologists “are cosmopolitan (travelers) while the rest are local (natives)” reflects “the ideology of one (very powerful) traveling culture.”
Asian American critics have, similarly, been concerned with the politics of naming, but from a slightly different perspective. They have inquired into the politics of renaming Asians in the US as longterm settlers against the more common belief that they have been sojourners—perpetual aliens whose origin and destiny lie in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and so forth. They also have a distinct preference for terms other than the globe-trotting “traveler” to describe their subjects' immigrant, ethnic, minority and refugee experiences. Is the term “travel” elastic enough to stretch from the field of cultural anthropology to that of Asian American studies, and can we learn from those stretch marks? How fat can the term become, and can we see any gendered significance to the way those stretch marks have been configured thus far and the way they might be reconfigured in the future?
Gish Jen's exquisite comic depictions of several intercultural contact zones include not only expected places such as Manhattan and Shandong, but less cosmopolitan centers such as surburban Connecticut. Typical American, her first novel, explores the social mobility and decline of the immigrant Chang family, using Gatsbyesque allusions to evoke America's violent love affair with movement and speed. In her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, an American-born Chinese girl becomes unsettled romantically, physically and psychically by a Japanese foreign student whose family's journey to New York is itself a testament to the wider networks of transnational capital. Taking an opposite trajectory, in Jen's latest book, the story collection Who's Irish, “Duncan in China” presents the pilgrimage of an “overseas Chinese” to the homeland. The title story features a Chinese immigrant matriarch's displacement from her daughter's home. And in “Birthmates,” Art Woo encounters the denizens of a welfare hotel, an underclass of urban American society whose immobility makes starkly visible Woo's own contrastive business travel.
Jen's work is simultaneously a literature of travel, an Asian American portraiture and a cultural record of migration and displacement, in terms of both its transpacific production and its (multicultural) reception in diaspora-crossed venues such as New York. The rich itineraries of her fiction require us once again to wrestle with what counts as travel and to think comparatively across different textures of transit, mobility and dwelling.
Obviously, the short space of this forum does not allow me to address all of Jen's works. Allow me instead to focus on the title story from this recent collection. This story confronts a localized form of feminine displacement which, I will argue, requires us to examine the gendered presumptions of our traveling theories. It appears on the surface to be a humorous narrative of geographic displacement, but Jen hides a brutishness inside its wit.
In “Who's Irish,” Jen turns to metropolitan ethnography. The field is the Shea household somewhere on the eastern seaboard of the United States (likely Boston or New York), a site of overlapping levels of migration. The plot builds toward the dramatic ouster of a Chinese matriarch from her grown daughter's house—the most localized displacement in the narrative. Notably, transpacific immigration to the US forms the larger context of this parental displacement, and transpacific as well as transatlantic migration (particularly Irish immigration to the US) set in motion the struggle over norms of femininity and maternal care that provide the ostensible rationale for the matriarch's ouster.
The unnamed first-person narrator of the story, a Chinese grandmother, lives with her daughter Natalie, vice-president of a bank, and Natalie's unemployed Irish American husband, John Shea. Struggling with the “wild” behavior of her toddler-age granddaughter, Sophie, the narrator blames the child's Irish heritage, claiming that “I am not exaggerate: millions of children in China, not one act like this.” The narrator spanks Sophie, against the explicit wishes of her parents, and is asked to leave the household. She moves in with Bess Shea, John's mother, who is eager for “some female company,” having been surrounded all her life by boys (she has four sons and no daughters).
Even as she renders the dramatic center of her story a struggle between a mother and a daughter (and granddaughter), Jen mines a buried intercultural history of travel, contact and labor competition between the Chinese and Irish diasporas in the United States. According to historian Robert Lee, “More than other groups, Irish workers perceived themselves directly threatened by the Chinese in California. Driven out of mining, railroad building, and agriculture, Chinese in California often displaced Irish immigrant workers in manufacturing, laundering, and domestic occupations. As Chinese entered the manufacturing labor market, employers directly and often favorably compared them to Irish immigrant workers,” a comparison that Jen's narrator repeats:
I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish. Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family … My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that … I just happen to mention about the Shea family, an interesting fact: four brothers in the family, and not one of them work.
Residues of the Irish-Chinese history of labor competition come to light also in offhand remarks, attributed to the Shea boys, wondering when Natalie's mother will be “go[ing] home” or John Shea's habit of ending arguments with his mother-in-law by suggesting she be sent “back to China.”
The narrator's displacement from her daughter's home, on the one hand, allegorizes the fragility of her national status as a Chinese in America: throughout the story, Natalie's mother speaks her mind but at the risk of being deported. On the other hand, there is the risk of interpreting too strenuously the national significance of the narrator's displacement, for she is displaced not only as a Chinese but also as a Chinese woman. Jen's story compels us to interrogate what counts as travel, and what counts as the most traumatic of identificatory dislocations. What scale of territorial or communal dwelling matters most for female immigrants or for women in diaspora?
The removal of the narrator from her daughter's home—the flouting of codes of filial duty and extended family—may be in itself the most traumatic of dislocations, more violent perhaps than another transpacific crossing. It is worth recollecting that the first few sentences of the story, in which the narrator is introduced to the reader, identify the narrator in terms of her kin relations, first to her granddaughter, then to her daughter and finally to her husband. The narrator also evokes her connections to China, but here Chineseness, I would argue, signifies less a single territorial homeland than an extended familial network of customary ranks—appropriate gendered and generational behaviors. Examining longstanding transnational networks of Chinese across the Pacific, Aihwa Ong suggests that “[Chinese] subjectivity is at once deterritorialized in relation to a particular country, though highly localized in relation to family.” Home is any place where one's family resides: thus dwelling in multiple countries—simultaneously, a dislocation from any one national territory—is not altogether unusual or tragic for the Chinese. The real threat is the prospect of dwelling not outside the nation but outside one's clan or extended kin. “A crazy idea,” the narrator says, to “go to live with someone else's family.”
The displacement of Natalie's mother is preceded by a new vocabulary of gendered familial relations. She remarks on American idioms that reconstruct social relations so that elderly mothers must take care of their grown daughters instead of the reverse: “In China, daughter take care of mother. Here it is the other way around. Mother help daughter … otherwise daughter complain mother is not supportive. I tell daughter, We do not have this word in Chinese, supportive.” The narrator battles with both this one word and the restructured Chinese family it implies. Her fiercest resistance is to the maternal disrespect expressed by Sophie's acquisition of a bodily language of kicking and slinging mud at mommies. Ironically, Natalie—a mother herself—tacitly sanctions such attacks on mommies, by expelling her own mother from the household and resettling her with Bess Shea, John's mother.
A skilled adapter of classic American myths, Jen breathes new life into that timeworn melodrama of beset manhood by creating a quasi-utopian frontier of female horizontal comradeship, once the narrator's moves into Bess's household—formerly a wilderness of unemployed Irish American men. The two elderly women bond through their shared retorts to Bess's grown sons, who “hang around all the time, asking when will I go home.” Bess's reply that her Chinese in-law is “a permanent resident … She isn't going anywhere” evokes an idiom of the Immigration and Naturalization Service—a state institution that regulates even as it creates new national subjects. Jen enlists the idioms of national regulation (belonging) to suggest their power to rewrite vertical, antagonistic female relations (daughters struggling against wicked mothers and grandmothers) into egalitarian sororal bonds. The narrator remarks that Bess's “talk just stick. I don't know how Bess Shea learn to use her words, but sometimes I hear what she say a long time later. Permanent resident. Not going anywhere. Over and over I hear it, the voice of Bess.” These—the final words of the story—return the reader to the power of a discourse, a talk that sticks, a talk that repositions the subject in a national territory and in utopian horizontal terms.
Yet at the story's conclusion, Bess and Natalie's mother are far from floating away on a raft, new symbols of the interracial bonding that can happen once women get outside the constraints of “sivilization.” The talk that sticks in the end—and which clears a space out from under the encircling demands of the boys—is that of permanent resident, of territorial rootedness, of placement and dwelling. Travel may not be the sign of freedom one expects. And it is questionable whether Bess and the narrator have conquered the deep-seated gendered divisions of labor and devaluation of domestic/maternal care. Without having addressed key gendered conundrums—why it is that the role of babysitting is assigned “naturally” to the Chinese grandmother when there is also an available parent, John Shea, to take on that job—and without having addressed the strictures of femininity (of impossible womanhood) that punish both Sophie and her grandmother for acting fierce, wild, or physically combative, the women of “Who's Irish” would seem to be stuck in, at best, a hazardous freedom, permanent residents as allowed under national laws but confronted by the menace implied by the boys “surround[ing] you after a while.”
The story suggests that familial bonds are not adequate to combating the fragile status of Chinese (women) in America. The narrator's biological links and cultural bonds to her daughter do not defeat the threats to expel her (to send her back). By contrast, Bess successfully rebuts her sons' suggestions that the narrator is only a sojourner by renaming her a permanent resident. The narrator is transformed by territorial modes of identification: she becomes “honorary Irish.”
In answering the question of why the Irish found “a place in American society while the Chinese did not,” Robert Lee calls attention to the status of the Irish as “free white persons” that made them “eligible for naturalization [thus providing] access to the legal and political systems.” Becoming Irish, then, is not only a learning of the legal and political terminology of the US nation-state but also a refiguring of the rights of the immigrant laborer. When Natalie's mother adjusts to her new identity as a permanent resident, her reidentification in Irish terms, she is also no longer subject to implicit demands continually to prove herself economically useful to her hosts (working as their babysitter for nothing) in order to earn her right to dwell. Territorial identity disrupts familial identity by incorporating those who dwell in the US republic as political (national) subjects regardless of how hard they work—or so goes the liberal rhetoric of American nationalism. The good feelings produced at the conclusion of “Who's Irish” are a function of our believing in that American (national) liberalism, in the face of the entire structure of the narrative that emphasizes the Chinese woman's successive exclusions from her daughter's household. Will we be seduced by such American habits and convictions?
One of the many kinds of travel Jen engages in her stories is the unsettling of home implied not only in literal leave-takings of members from households but also in reconfigurations of the family structure following intercultural pressures. It may seem like an ugly stretch to call the latter “travel,” but as feminist geographers have noted, unless we also take into account dwelling and placement, and the way in which mobility has far-reaching effects even for those who've never been outside their hometowns, we unwittingly sustain a focus on privileged forms of travel, the kind undertaken most often by white men, at the risk of missing how a gendered and Third World lens reformulates the kinds of questions and narratives we find appropriate to our very discussion of displacement, immigration and our modes of engagement with other cultures.
The lexicon learned in “Who's Irish” is not just that of “permanent resident” but also the vocabulary of “supportive” and “attack on mommies”—a language that simultaneously restructures relations between women and solidifies inequivalences between women and men. How do we translate terms such as “travel” to a gendered terrain? What do we do when the phrase “lady travelers” doesn't fit our Chinese matriarch's tale of being forced out of the home or when “we do not have … words” to speak a Chinese woman's form of displacement even as she stays in one place? These are the issues toward which Jen's fiction stretches our imaginations, and these are the issues around which we orbit today.
A longer version of this essay was presented at a conference on “Traveling Cultures” held at Barnard College/Columbia University in April 2000.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3718
SOURCE: Lin, Erika T. “Mona on the Phone: The Performative Body and Racial Identity in Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS 28, no. 2 (summer 2003): 47-57.
[In the following essay, Lin draws on the gender theories of Judith Butler to argue that Jen's Mona in the Promised Land deconstructs the dominant discourse of the racialized body.]
When the teenage title character in Mona in the Promised Land realizes
how in the popular conception Orientals are supposed to be exotically erotic, … all she'll want to say is, But what about my areolaless hubs? Not to say my sturdy short legs—have you ever seen a calf so hammy? And no billowy, Brillo-y bush, alas. How should she have one when she does not even need to shave her legs? This last a convenience of sorts.
Not too surprisingly, Mona's adolescent angst takes the form of anxiety about her body, but what distinguishes this anxiety is its intimate relationship to issues of race:
this whole train of thought will one day prove not her own train at all, but a train set on track by racist sexist imperialists. She will one day discover that it is great to be nonhairy, and what's more that not all Asians are areolaless, just her and some others. Plus that she is yellow and beautiful—baby boobs, hammy calves, and all. She will ask for an extra print when people take her picture. She will come to recognize, with a little squinting, her goddess within.
Throughout Gish Jen's book, moments like these that focus on the body are inextricably entwined with the novel's treatment of the politics of racial identity. Mona in the Promised Land is universally acclaimed as funny,1 but the tongue-in-cheek irony of such passages complicates interpretation of the novel's racial politics. In this essay, I want to examine how the discourse of the racialized body is deconstructed through the device of Mona's telephone calls. When Mona works the temple hotline, the text explicitly calls into question the identity of her repeat caller. Is it Sherman Matsumoto, Mona's love interest from eighth grade, or is it one of her friends posing as Sherman? Mona's attempts to imagine a body for the disembodied voice are mapped onto discourses of racial identity. Judith Butler's notion of the performative body provides a useful context in which to explore the novel's rhetorical strategies and their effect on its politics of race.
In Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter Judith Butler argues that there is no “prediscursive anatomical facticity” (Gender Trouble 8). Rather, she suggests, bodies only become intelligible as bodies through the repetition of utterances that form the body even as they describe it. It is this process of citation, this “process of materialization” that “stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Bodies That Matter 9). Butler usefully suggests that the physical body cannot be imagined, cannot be understood, outside the realm of discourse, and that such discourses construct certain kinds of bodies as normative while marginalizing others. Although her discussion focuses primarily on gender, Butler's insights are particularly relevant for our purposes. Racial identity, like gender identity, is intimately inflected by—indeed, defined by—ideas about how the body signifies, and both operate in a contemporary social context that privileges certain kinds of bodies over others.
In Mona in the Promised Land Gish Jen repeatedly cites certain dominant tropes about race, but does she do so in a way that reinscribes normative notions or works against them? When Barbara has sex for the first time, Mona
finds that she does not see herself as old enough for sex.
How can this be? Mona was the first one in her entire grade to get her period. Plus she surmises by the population problems of the Far East that she is appropriately equipped. But she doesn't look like, say, Barbara. If her friend is a developed nation, Mona is, sure enough, the third world. Barbara's is the body Mona is still waiting to grow into: Her breasts, for example, are veritable colonies of herself, with a distinct tendency toward independence.
Jen's text focuses the reader's attention on the issue of teenage anxiety about sex. Is Mona ready for it? When did she get her period? Do her body's sexual functions operate properly? When Mona ponders her reproductive capabilities in relation to “the population problems of the Far East,” Jen cites a racialized discourse without critiquing it. She does not, for example, suggest how such problems are the legacy of a history of colonialism, nor does she point out how discussions of such problems in the contemporary US context often serve to underpin discourses of racial elitism that result in the policing of the bodies of people of color. When Mona compares her body to Barbara's normative one, she finds herself wanting. However, when Jen describes Barbara as the “developed nation” with breasts that are “veritable colonies of herself” and Mona as the “third world,” which is “waiting to grow into” the developed nation, Jen cites normative notions about race, but by using such incongruous and unexpected references to describe the processes of puberty, Jen draws attention to the very metaphors she is using. Rather than reiterating and reinscribing these notions in an uncritical way, she stretches racial discourse to the point of ludicrousness and applies it in an unconventional context. This rhetorical strategy is what makes the passage funny, but it also serves a more serious purpose.
Jen's text here enacts what Judith Butler describes as a hyperbolic citation. A hyperbolic citation reiterates a normative notion in an exaggerated way in order to simultaneously work against it. It exposes the assumptions that underlie that normative notion, assumptions that are mystified and naturalized in most citations of that notion. Drag, for example, is a hyperbolic citation when it “mimes and renders hyperbolic the discursive convention that it also reverses” (Bodies That Matter 232): a man wearing an elaborate wig and clothes that are outrageously feminine cites the conventions of gender identity in a hyperbolic way that simultaneously exposes and reverses those conventions. Hyperbolic citation can be powerful because it exposes the process by which certain categories or concepts are naturalized while others are marginalized. It promotes, in Marjorie Garber's terms, “the crisis of category itself” (17).
Hyperbolic citation appears throughout Jen's novel, but in Mona's phone calls with “Sherman” it takes a particularly interesting form. These passages operate as hyperbolic citation not only in terms of their rhetoric but also in terms of the relationship they trace out between voice and the body. When Mona receives her first mysterious phone call, she writes in her logbook:
Japanese (?) male calling for (is this prejudiced?) somewhat Inscrutable but probably profound reasons. Although who knows, maybe also/just for language practice (English). … Given caller's depressed state of mind, probably ought also to have explored caller attitude toward hari-kari, even if that's a stereotype.
The humor of this passage lies in the way it calls attention to its own citation of dominant racist discourses. If the speaker is an Asian male, then he must be “inscrutable” and yet “profound.” He must need English practice, even though “his English pronunciation is now textbook clear” (69). He might commit hari-kari, “even if that's a stereotype.” Indeed, such phrases as “even if that's a stereotype” both draw attention to and undermine the very stereotypes being cited. Moreover, by having the caller's voice be the only indication of his identity, Jen sets up a situation where the racialization of the body is foregrounded. Mona cannot see the caller, but his racial identity is crucial to her understanding of his intent.
Jen does not merely cite such assumptions, however; she denaturalizes these interpretive strategies by drawing attention to their constructedness. The second sentence in the passage, for example, resonates with the first. When Jen uses the phrase “is this prejudiced?” she stresses how problematic it is to describe the caller's reasons as “inscrutable but probably profound.” The phrase “Although who knows” suggests that what follows will be different from what came before, that the second sentence will not cite a racist stereotype like the first. Mona's utterly prejudiced reference to “language practice,” then, is unexpected and funny. It is precisely this dynamic—the surprise reversal—that foregrounds the underlying assumptions of this statement. The text emphasizes Mona's dependence on the racialized body in order to determine her caller's intentions, and, in doing so, exposes the constructedness of both race as a concept and the racialized body.
When Barbara suspects that the caller is Andy Kaplan, the two girls attempt to verify her hypothesis by asking the caller a series of questions:
Ask him what professors wear in Japan, writes Barbara.
“What do professors wear in Japan?”
Ask him what he's wearing right now.
“What are you wearing?” Mona asks. “Right now.”
“Me? What am I wearing?”
Ask him if he's wearing blue jeans.
“Are you wearing blue jeans?”
How could he not know what he is wearing?
“I am wearing blue jeans,” he says finally.
This passage imagines clothing in specifically racialized terms. The identity of the speaker is linked to his racial/national identity through his ability to know what Japanese professors wear. Mona's question about “blue jeans” is simultaneously a reference to the most prototypically American garment and to the system of global capitalism that has made it so popular in other countries. The text here figures clothing as an extension of the racialized body while simultaneously highlighting both the girls' uncertainty about how the caller is actually dressed and how that clothing might signify race. Even while it cites normative notions about race, the novel exposes the racialized body as a performative construct. Indeed, at the end of the conversation, when Barbara jumps in and asks directly if the caller is Andy, the caller responds, “You will never be Japanese” (82). By repeating the real Sherman's original words, the text implies that the caller is in fact Sherman. By suggesting that the caller's inability to describe his physical reality doesn't necessarily correlate with his identity, Jen makes it clear that the caller's identity is performative, is constructed through speech via the citation of certain naturalized concepts about racial identity. It is not possible, she suggests, to think of bodies that do not have cultural meanings attached to them, and these culturally-inflected bodies are materialized only in and through practice.
When the body of Sherman seems to materialize in a literal sense, we assume that anomalies in earlier conversations were simply that, that the correlation between voice and the body is indeed one-to-one, that the caller was indeed Sherman himself:
Eloise finally stands and excuses herself—only to have her red-laced, Vibram-soled hiking boots replaced by the blue-laced, Vibram-soled hiking boots of someone who bears a distinct resemblance to Sherman Matsumoto.
“Sherman!” Mona says, looking up.
Sherman is so changed that Mona is not sure how she recognized him … it is his face most of all that has changed. Gone the baby-fat upholstery, and the poky pink flush. His face is kite-shaped, a bit pale, distinctly planar—a face that bespeaks testosterone. As for the old hole in his left eyebrow, that has grown over without a trace; his eyebrows are veritable slashes now.
Seeing Sherman actualized in a body, we readers assume, as Mona does, that this is in fact the body. This understanding of the body carries over into how Mona understands “Sherman's” voice: “Mona finds that being able to picture Sherman makes for a whole different listening experience. How much sexier he sounds how much more like someone on whose account she would have to take eighty showers” (227). The irony is, of course, one that the reader does not pick up on until later: the voice belongs to Seth, whom Mona has already had sex with and who was the cause of the original so-called eighty showers that Barbara took (75). If the body is materialized through speech in the earlier chapters, here the sound of the voice—the “embodied” part of speech as opposed to its power of verbal signification—is materialized through the body. In other words, how we understand the voice, and its corollary identity, is affected by how we understand the body; seeing a racialized body that is clearly Asian, male, and physically mature, the identity we assign to the quality of the voice itself is, we assume, a function of that.
Gish Jen's coup is to make the reader believe what Mona believes, only to reveal later that this voice was Seth's and that the voice in the earlier chapters was in fact Andy Kaplan's. The statements Mona makes that are based on a racialized understanding of the body, of the body as signifier of identity, are undermined. The whole notion that “Sherman's English is so greatly improved that his voice itself seems somehow to have improved along with it” (227) becomes humorous because both the ostensible Sherman's English and his voice really have nothing to do with the racialized body of the “Sherman” that Mona sees in the school hallway, the boy who is later revealed to be a Hawaiian exchange student hired by Seth to fool Mona. Mona's assumption that this change in the ostensible Sherman's speech is a result of “immersion in another culture” (227) is a further irony because, of course, Seth is immersed in American culture but that culture is not to him “another” culture: it is simply the one he has always known. Jen's comic elements also point to larger and more serious issues: these very racialized understandings of the relationship between culture and body have been exemplified in attitudes that paint Asian Americans as foreign others who may be immersed in “American” culture but are never an inherent part of it. This irony, this humor, operates as a hyperbolic citation because it draws attention to assumptions about the body as racial signifier that might otherwise go unnoticed.
In a way similar to Mona's phone calls with Sherman/Andy/Seth, the use of voice in Chapter 13, “Mona's Life as Callie,” also breaks down the one-to-one correlation of body and identity. However, here it does so not as much in terms of racial identity as in terms of personal identity, with, as we shall see, important implications for the Epilogue. When Mona goes to stay with her sister and their mother unexpectedly calls, Mona ends up pretending she is Callie. By having Mona's mother say “Since when do you have such a big mouth too?” (264), Jen calls attention to the discrepancy in identities, that it is Mona on the phone with her mother, not Callie. Such a move highlights the constructedness of the body by suggesting that the performative enactment of personal identity, not just racial identity, happens through speech, that the construction of an identity as attached to a certain body is mediated, not transparent. By having Mona take over Callie's daily routine (walking around her campus, attending her classes, sleeping in her dorm room), Jen suggests the interchangeability of bodies/identities: “Which daughter is the good daughter now, which one the bad? And what would Helen think if she realized that Mona is no longer missing—that the one unaccounted for is her very own Harvard matriculate?” (265).
This connection between the way bodies signify racial identity and the way bodies signify personal identity comes together in the Epilogue when Mona marries Seth. The nuptial conclusion seems perfunctory, more for the sake of poetic justice than anything else. But by having Mona marry Seth, the plot line makes Sherman and Seth even more interchangeable: the engagement at the age of thirteen does hold true; Mona does, in fact, get married to “Sherman” after all. In doing so, however, the novel undermines a notion of personal identity as fixed in a stable, racially unitary body. Bodies and identities—and races, it seems—are interchangeable. The rhetorical force of having Mona and Seth marry each other outweighs the imperative of realism.
Why, then, do people assume that this book is autobiographical? The reviewer for the Washington Post remarks that this text “fairly trumpets its origins in the author's own experience” (Yardley). Jen is frequently asked if she's Jewish (see, for example, Gilbert). But, as the Chicago Sun-Times article notes:
Despite some surface similarities between herself and Mona—at the most basic, both were the daughters of Chinese immigrants, growing up in primarily Jewish neighborhoods—Jen, 40, says the book is far from autobiographical.
“My very oldest friend from Scarsdale just called me yesterday, and said people just would never understand—I mean, she completely knows that none of it happened,” Jen says, laughing. “It's all made up. I know it's hard to believe, but it's true.”
It seems that the imperative to identify Asian American authors with their Asian American characters overrides the tendencies within the text itself that work against naturalism and against naturalizing the relationship between the body and identity, both personal and racial. Jen's own body, we might say, cannot avoid being materialized as Asian American. Her “voice” as an author becomes implicated by and in the body that signifies race.
Such tendencies are not only indicative of the “burden of representation” so often placed on Asian American writers. They also signal the ways in which an Asian American poetics employing hyperbolic citation is always in danger of being misread or appropriated. Hyperbolic citations meant to expose and undermine normative assumptions can come to seem like citations of those very ideas. Book reviews of Mona in the Promised Land, for example, often try to mitigate the politically progressive work performed by the novel. They see Jen's text as humorously reconciling racial differences under a “multicultural” umbrella. The LA Times reviewer says, for instance:
In a kind of joyful irony which, among other things, makes “Mona” a shining example of a multicultural message delivered with the wit and bite of art, it is Scarshill's Jewish families that represent for the Chinese girl the American Dream.
Eder seems to imply that only a multicultural message (whatever that's supposed to mean) that is expressed positively (with “joyful” irony) can be considered to have achieved the status of “art.” Such focus on the “multicultural” presents race relations as a matter of cultural exchange, not institutional power and the distribution of material resources. Reviewers also celebrate Jen's “political incorrectness,” a stance they see as integral to her humor. Sharan Gibson, writing for The Houston Chronicle, quotes Jen as saying “I don't know if there is a PC way to write about all the different groups reacting to each other and intermingling. … It would have to be like the U.N. Very boring.” Matthew Gilbert, for The Boston Globe, describes America as the place where “politically correct writers tiptoe on eggshells while the rest tell it like it is, the rest being irrepressible literary voices like that of Gish Jen.”
But in describing the relationship between her novel and social activism, Jen herself presents a more complicated argument than her reviewers: “Is this book un-p.c.? Yes. Is it anti-p.c.? Not exactly. The truth of the matter is, I think in some quarters it's gone too far, but in some quarters it hasn't gone far enough” (Hanis). The fact that reviewers appropriate Jen's work in such problematic ways foregrounds an important question: how do we talk about race in a way that does not naturalize race as a category but is still culturally intelligible? Indeed, it seems that, when we talk about race at all, we must cite because there is no discursive practice that does not include citation. In that citing, we do reinforce normative notions—we cannot avoid doing so—but we also circulate notions of identity because “[t]hat this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled” (Butler, Bodies That Matter 2).
By pointing out that it is impossible to see the body in a culturally neutral way, by suggesting that the body is always already immersed in culturally constructed meanings, Jen denaturalizes at least one of the assumptions on which racist discourses are founded. While Jen's text has in so many ways been massaged into alignment with the rhetoric of “assimilation” and “multiculturalism,” her use of hyperbolic citation in the device of Mona's phone calls foregrounds the body as non-unitary, as materializable and not “naturally” given. In doing so, this novel at least opens the door to thinking about the relationship between the body and racial identity as performative, a tendency which “classical realist” texts (Belsey 67) work against. A new Asian American poetics would do well to follow Jen's lead.
Reviewers repeatedly emphasize this aspect of the book. To note just a few of the many examples, Gibson considers it “undoubtedly one of the funniest books out this summer.” Goldberg describes it as “very amusing.” Eder characterizes the book as “witty” and thinks Mona is “terribly funny.”
Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. New York: Routledge, 1980.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.
———. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Eder, Richard. Rev. of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. Los Angeles Times 26 May 1996: Book Review 2.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Gibson, Sharan. “What's a Nice Catholic Chinese Jewish girl to Do?” Rev. of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. The Houston Chronicle 18 Aug. 1996: ZEST 20.
Gilbert, Matthew. “Gish Jen, All-American; The Cambridge Novelist Doesn't Like To Be Labeled—Except as a Bigmouth.” The Boston Globe 4 June 1996: 53.
Goldberg, Carole. “‘Mona's Gentle Jabs Land Telling Blows.” Rev. of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. The Denver Post 21 July 1996: D11.
———. “Teen Has Identity Angst in Funny Promised Land.” Rev. of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. The Hartford Courant 16 June 1996: G3.
Hanis, Andrea. “Heredity Crisis; Mona Takes Witty Look at Ethnicity.” Rev. of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. The Chicago Sun-Times 23 June 1996: SHO 3.
Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Some of Her Best Friends.” Rev. of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. The Washington Post 12 May 1996: X03.