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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

Typical American by Gish Jen is the story of three Chinese immigrants and how they function in America.

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The novel opens with Yifeng Chang—later renamed Ralph in America—growing up with his family in China. He moves to the United States to pursue a college degree and loses contact with his family when the Communist Party takes over China in 1947. He also forgets to renew his Visa and is in danger of being expelled from the country. He has to move from place to place to avoid being deported.

This sends him into a spiral of despair, and he continues to go downhill until he's found by his sister Theresa on a park bench in New York. She's moved to the United States as well and is rooming with another Chinese immigrant named Helen.

Helen, Theresa, and Ralph form a new family together; it's even more solidified as Helen and Ralph marry and have children. While they work hard, they also fall victim to American consumerism and greed. The more they earn, the more they want things like large homes, fancy shoes, and other material possessions. They turn away from their roots and instead decide to chase things that they wouldn't have considered important in their earlier lives in China.

Theresa involves herself in an affair with a friend of Ralph's. Ralph and Helen are affected by a conman named Grover, who begins an affair with Helen and sets Ralph on the path to financial ruin. Ralph purchases a chicken restaurant that he later finds out was not as valuable as he'd been led to believe. Theresa moves out because of Ralph's cruelty over her affair. Ralph pushes Helen through a window after a fight where she calls him a failure, and she ends up in the hospital but they stay together.

Ralph ends up lying on his tax forms. The fight between Helen and Ralph leaves Theresa in a coma due to an accident where he hits her with his car. To pay her medical bills, they have to sell many of the things they've acquired. While everything is dark for awhile, the characters never forget that they love each other and that they're a family. In the end, they recognize that they're not just Chinese or American; rather, they're both blended together.

All of them move to the city and get an apartment, rejecting some of the rampant consumerism that brought them so close to ruin. Theresa wakes up from her coma. They also adopt a dog and name it Grover.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

Typical American is a novel about three Chinese immigrants and how they are inspired, seduced, and betrayed by the promise of the American Dream. The book is divided into five parts: “Sweet Rebellion,” “The House Holds,” “This New Life,” “Structural Weakening,” and “A Man to Sit at Supper and Never Eat.” The titles roughly sketch the protagonists’ journey through the novel, from rebellion to prosperity to deterioration and alienation. The parts are further divided into short chapters with cleverly appropriate titles such as “A Boy with His Hands Over His Ears,” “Love Animates,” and “A Brand of Alchemy, Indeed.”

In “Sweet Rebellion,” Jen follows Yifeng Chang from his native village in China to the United States, detailing his immigration difficulties, his choice of the American name Ralph, and his entry into American academia as a mechanical engineer. Ralph struggles to learn the nuances of English and has his first brushes with romance. His newly arrived sister, now called Theresa, joins him in New York, and Ralph marries her best friend, Helen, another Chinese immigrant.

In “The House Holds,” the three set up house together. Ralph continues to ascend the academic ladder, under the tutelage of a fellow immigrant nicknamed Old Chao, and Helen begins her medical studies. Relations in the little family shift under...

(The entire section contains 1080 words.)

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