Typical American by Gish Jen is the story of three Chinese immigrants and how they function in America.
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.
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 overall tone is tinged with melancholy registering the sense of loss inevitable as “China” recedes. Even Ralph’s “American” name, given to him casually by a young woman he romanticizes...
(The entire section is 2,041 words.)