Ralph is the first protagonist Jen introduces. He is a likeable, innocent young man who, in striving for success and an American identity, becomes ambitious, irresponsible, moody, and insensitive. He is a dreamer whose imagination often runs unfettered, but he lacks the circumspection and caution that will keep him and his family out of trouble. It is his fascination with success formulas and his adulation of Grover that wreak havoc on the family.
Theresa is a foil to Ralph, a large, straitlaced woman who survives on reserve and caution. Her story “curls from this sad truth: that as much as Ralph, growing up, should have been her, she should have been him.” Innately a leader, she is relegated to third-wheel status in the family. She represents the traditional Chinese value of family devotion, a value that she abandons but to which she ultimately returns. At the same time, she is American, and her puzzled and illicit love for Old Chao is a source of liberation and identity.
Helen, conversely, is a slight, delicate woman with a surprising resourcefulness and knack for adaptation. At first, she is the grounded force that anchors Ralph’s moods and dreams. Yet if she begins her life in America with images from fashion magazines and dreams of suburbia, she ends with an alienation and hopelessness that lead to her corruption. For Helen, marrying Ralph meant “officially accepting what seemed already true—that she had indeed crossed a violent, black ocean; and that it was time to make herself as at home in her exile as she could.” The task turns out to be more difficult than imagined.
Old Chao is portrayed as a generous and well-meaning friend to the family whose involvement in their troubles comes from very human, if not wholly honorable, impulses. Grover Ding, on the other hand, is never fully revealed, to either the Changs or the reader, beyond the fact that he is the charming “imagineer” he appears to be. The other characters, such as Chao’s long-suffering wife Janis, are treated with respect and distance, and the Changs’ daughters Callie and Mona are ever-present reminders of the innocence that their parents are slowly, unwittingly losing.