Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
Typical American by Gish Jen is a story about three Chinese immigrants living in America and how navigating cultural issues and consumerism creates problems for them as they progress in their lives.
When Yifeng Chang—later renamed Ralph—has to choose a new name, he impulsively lets a government official choose one for him. She decides on Ralph. Jen writes, "Had he been too hasty? And sure enough, when he asked around later he found that the other Chinese students had all stuck with their initials, or picked names for themselves, carefully, or else had wise people help them." It's the first in a string of hasty, careless decisions Ralph makes, like not renewing his visa or leaving his job to open a restaurant that doesn't end up being viable.
As the Changs try to live the American dream, they become increasingly obsessed with material things. Driving through Connecticut, quiet, shy, kind Helen—Ralph's wife—admires the homes. She says, "It's so beautiful. It's so beautiful." For Helen, this is what starts her slide into consumerism and wanting things to be bigger, better, and shinier. This also leads to her eventual affair. But it isn't reflective of who Helen was before she came to America. Jen writes:
Her life ambition was to stay home forever. The way Americans in general like to move around, the Chinese love to hold still; removal is a fall and an exile. And for Helen, the general was particularly true. The one gnarl of her childhood was the knowledge that, if she did not die of one of her diseases, she would eventually have to marry and go live with in-laws.
When the Communists take over China, however, things change for Helen and she's forced to go to America with Theresa, where she meets Ralph.
Theresa—Ralph's sister—also falls victim to consumerism. She's a reserved and quiet doctor but finds and yearns for things she would never have wanted when she lived in China. Jen writes:
These shoes had snagged her—so vital, there in the store window, that they did not look like shoes so much as some highly adapted life form, mimicking shoes the way lizards mimicked desert rocks. Whereas the shoes she'd had on were plainly the real thing: worn out, dried up, cracking. Like their owner—her reflection in the window was spindly and stiff, separated just this way, by a pane of glass, from some more vibrant world. At the center of her image, the red shoes had seemed to pulse, like her own true heart.
She finds herself in the items she can buy in America. Discovering her true heart also makes her embark on an affair with a married man and friend of her family. This leads to discord between Ralph and Theresa and causes her to leave home.
Near the end of the book, Ralph accidentally hits Theresa with his car and she is gravely injured: "Now Theresa hung in a coma. Ralph asked her doctors to spell the word for him. 'C-O-M-A, coma,' he repeated carefully." It's difficult for him and his family to understand what's happening, but it ultimately removes them from their consumerism. They have to sell their expensive items to pay for her care. She does eventually wake up and rejoin the family, all of whom are stronger from the trials they've suffered.