Mona in the Promised Land
In her first novel, Typical American (1991), Gish Jen explored the ideals that different cultures impose upon their peoples as a means of regulating their behavior. Ralph, Helen, and Theresa, the three main characters of that novel, found refuge in the United States from the political and social upheavals in China in the 1950’s. Coming from a culture which seemed to believe in and even place value on having limits everywhere, they found themselves in a country where there seemed to be no limits whatsoever.
Mona in the Promised Land, Jen’s second novel, though standing on its own, continues to explore boundaries. Callie and Mona, Ralph and Helen’s American-born daughters, grow into adulthood at a prosperous moment in both their family’s history and in the history of the United States. The Changs have moved to Scarshill, a fictional suburb in New York, prosperous and heavily Jewish. It is 1968, when the Civil Rights movement has raised ethnic consciousness, along with a host of questions about the status quo.
At first, Mona is perfectly content to play along with the interest accorded to the only Asian person in the school. She indulges her classmates’ stereotyped but kindly fascination with the exotic Chinese who are credited with eating monkey brains from a live monkey and having first invented just about everything. Her ability to ad-lib her way through the eighth grade seems to come to an end when another Asian student arrives. In a sharp reversal of stereotypical roles, even Mona assumes he is Chinese until she hears his name, Sherman Matsumoto. This Japanese boy attaches himself to Mona for a while and then disappears from the neighborhood. Over the course of the next few years, he intrudes into Mona’s life with phone calls, claiming a modified ethnic identity each time: from Japanese to Hawaiian to American to Japanese American. That some of the calls are jokes played on Mona by her friends makes his identity all the more mysterious and uncertain. Along with other minor characters, he seems to symbolize other variations on ethnic fluidity in the novel.
Mona, who has herself constructed one kind of Chinese identity to suit her classmates, gradually finds that her daily routine with her best friend Barbara includes accompanying her to so many temple car washes, food drives, and other Jewish youth activities that she is named the official mascot for the Temple Youth Group. She starts considering becoming a Jew herself. She persuades a young rabbi that she is a natural for this religion and culture which is based, as she puts it, on “making a pain in the neck of themselves.” Already familiar with many of the rituals and customs, she starts studying Jewish history and gets a Jewish boyfriend, Seth Mandel. Meanwhile, her sister Callie, exhibiting more of a stereotypical “model minority” behavior, starts her education at Harvard University. There, Callie takes classes in a Chinese language and, in a sense, her ethnic consciousness raised, learns to be Chinese.
A long subplot concerns the domestic problems of the African American cook who works at the pancake restaurant owned by the Changs. Full of their own civil rights fervor and keenly conscious of their privileged positions, Barbara, Seth, and Mona conspire to help Alfred by hiding him in the luxurious home of Barbara’s parents, where they have discovered tunnels that they assume to have been part of the Underground Railway. The would-be gallant saviors also discover, however, that oppressed minorities are not so easily patronized. Alfred has a mind of his own and proceeds to invite his friends over to smoke, drink, watch television, and rap; he also has an affair with Barbara’s cousin. Thematically in tune with the novel’s emphasis on ethnic groups and the interactions among them, this section of the novel consists mainly of high jinks that end when a valuable piece of silver goes missing and the trio cannot help suspecting Alfred and his friends.
The stumbling progress of Mona and Seth’s romance provides the underpinning of a classic comedic pattern for the latter part of the novel. As in fitting for a modern sensibility, the obstacles that keep the young lovers apart are within themselves. A free thinker with antibourgeois values who hates his stepmother, Seth finds a relatively safe way to protest by dropping out of school and sleeping in a tepee on his parents’ lawn. Free spirit that he is as well, he is startled to discover that he misses Mona when she walks away from him. Their life together is confirmed, however, when Helen discovers them together in bed in Callie’s dorm room. Mona loses her mother but gains a common- law husband.
In the first novel, Mona’s parents and her aunt lost each other for a while when the illusory freedom of their new world led to family strife and bankruptcy, until the near-death of Ralph’s sister brought them back to the values of family togetherness. Here, mother and daughter are separated when Mona insists on making choices that are too free-spirited for the still- traditional Helen. It is not until Seth and Mona decide to get married,...
(The entire section is 2101 words.)