Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

With the narrative focus shifting from Ralph and Helen Chang to their daughters Mona and Callie, an antic ethos replaces the mood of melancholy that informed Typical American. Living now in the prosperous New York suburb of Scarshill (based on Jen’s childhood home, Scarsdale), the Changs are initially delighted with all of the cultural and social elements of a multiethnic community.

Mona’s unexpected infatuation with Judiasm is presented with a high-spirited satirical style which sweeps over everything the Changs encounter. This is Jen’s way of dealing with the serious issues of the 1960’s and 1970’s—the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. Without being didactic, Jen addresses the racial, religious, and aesthetic questions that her characters encounter as an aspect of cross-cultural transformations.

Seth Mandel, Mona’s Jewish boyfriend, wears a dashiki to show his commitment to Black Pride. Callie studies Mandarin at Harvard and eats rice with everything, while her parents prefer organic and health food. Ralph discovers that the black and Mexican employees he regards as unimaginative can contribute significantly to the operation of his restaurant. When the Changs become concerned that Mona is losing her heritage, the local rabbi suggests paradoxically, “the more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you’ll be.” Compounding the ethnic mix is a Japanese student (who Mona at first assumes is Chinese) undergoing continuous identity alterations which confound everyone’s expectations.

The narrative structure of the novel tends toward the episodic, but Seth and Mona’s relationship, which distresses Helen, is a controlling thread, leading to a marriage ceremony which concludes the novel on a very positive note, resulting in a reconciliation of opposing viewpoints epitomized by Mona suggesting Changowitz as a surname emblematic of their new Chinese/Jewish fusion. Nonetheless, the future is open-ended and uncertain. Callie now seems more “Chinese” than her parents; Mona might not be as committed to her new identity as she seems; and Ralph and Helen continue to try to balance their increasing material prosperity with a lingering concern about their responsibilities to their Asian heritage. Jen’s continuing investigation of the determinants of individual identity is designed to resist any kind of preconception about a person, regardless of his or her place of origin, appearance, or current life pattern.