(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Gish Jen’s Typical American tells the story of a Chinese family’s transformation from struggling immigrants into prosperous middle-class Americans. The family’s growing desire to assimilate into American society nearly destroys them as they struggle against the language barrier and against racist attitudes. Most destructive, however, is the pain they inflict on one another as they pursue individual ambitions.

At the outset of the novel, Ralph Chang and his sister Theresa are sent to the United States by their affluent parents to escape political turmoil in China during the late 1940’s. The two siblings, along with another Chinese transplant, Helen, whom Ralph eventually marries, form a tight family unit. Through difficult college years and a series of substandard apartments, the trio survives and even flourishes by their collective efforts. They are content with the modest tangible rewards their efforts earn in the United States—a television set or a used automobile. Holding up the Chinese values of their youth, they vow not to be changed by their new permissive, decadent environment. They use such derisive expressions as “typical American don’t-know-how-to-get-along” and “typical American no-morals” to describe the Americans they meet.

Over time, however, and despite lip service to ancestral tradition, the Changs, who compete and excel in America and are driven to acquire proof of their status—Ralph as an...

(The entire section is 449 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 strains of life in America, but advances are made: Theresa becomes a doctor, Ralph completes his Ph.D., and Helen gives birth to two daughters. Meanwhile, Ralph begins reading and dreaming about wealth and success. One...

(The entire section is 656 words.)