Jen’s first novel, Typical American, follows Ralph (born Yfeng) Chang from his boyhood in China to a turbulent but ultimately successful adjustment to life in the United States in the decades following World War II. With Ralph’s sister Theresa, and eventually, Theresa’s friend Helen (born Hailan; “Sea Blue”), whom Ralph marries, the Changs gradually reconstitute a new family (as in the chapter “The House Holds”) in a country whose social patterns they find strange and confusing, but eventually curiously comfortable, recapitulating a journey familiar to many generations of new Americans, here told from the less familiar perspective of an Asian cultural matrix.
The title of the novel is indicative of Jen’s realistic but archly comic presentation of the Changs’ efforts to reconcile their sense of a Chinese identity with the demands and challenges of life in the United States. The Changs use the phrase “typical American” at first to dismiss behavior they disdain, then gradually begin to describe themselves that way as they learn how to negotiate the complex culture that offers opportunity but is rife with bigotry and social barriers.
Ralph’s initial awkwardness in everything, his need to retain a sense of dignity as the traditional head of the family, and his feelings of depression at various failures are forcefully evoked. Jen’s comic sensibility casts the Changs’ journey in an optimistic aura, while the...
(The entire section is 512 words.)