Rather than dwelling upon the issue of racism and idealizing the notion of ethnic heritage, Typical American offers a relentless critique of how the cultural “baggage” that immigrants bring with them to America can undermine their well-being.
Ralph is a perfect example of this baggage. Because of his Confucianist (pseudo-Confucian) upbringing in a functionary’s family in precommunist China, Ralph has a sense of self and other that does not fit in with the American environment. The Confucianist veneration for (and fear of) teachers has prevented him, early in the novel, from seeking help from Pinkus, the department chair, in a candid manner. His dissatisfaction with his teaching career can also be attributed to the frustration of his Confucianist precepts. In marriage, Ralph has not taken Helen seriously as a person; instead, he views her as potentially the first of many possible wives, as if he were in China. He even dictates the way she is supposed to breathe. The most deplorable aspect of his character that is a part of his pseudo-Confucian ethic is his attitude toward Theresa; in his eyes, the education of women is superfluous if done at all, and unacceptable if it is better than men’s. Sarcastically, Ralph often refers to Theresa as “Know-It-All,” and she succumbs to his denigration by pretending that her scholarship has been turned down so that he can feel better. More important, once he learns about Theresa’s affair with Henry, out of pseudo-Confucian morality Ralph calls her a “rotten egg” (whore) in front of his daughters. It hardly crosses Ralph’s mind that to her he owes not only his career but also his very life.
Theresa is also burdened with her cultural baggage—deference to male members of one’s family in particular. Reared to be “married off,” she has always subordinated her personal interests to those of her brother, despite her superior talents. She is more than self-effacing; her sense of self is deficient because of her patriarchal morals, as if it is through her brother that she has to define her own being. The marriage she arranges for her brother is in a sense also an arrangement that allows her to define herself; it reduplicates a family structure in which the male is the head of the...
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