Combining a wary respect for the traditional ways of being, which her parents tried to maintain, with a delight in the emerging new identity that second-and third-generation Chinese Americans were developing, Jen’s work examines the ways in which her characters attempt to retain aspects of their Asian heritage while joining and refashioning American society, which for them is a puzzle, a treat, a threat, and ultimately their home ground.
“In the American Society,” published in 1986, isan introduction to the Chang family. Its hilarious conclusion involves the usually reserved Ralph Chang exploding with justified anger—to the delight of his daughters. This offbeat triumph is characteristic of the ways in which Jen’s Chinese Americans retain their dignity in the face of boorish and bigoted oafs. “The Water-Faucet Vision” (1988) offers an earlier version of Callie Chang as a Catholic-school student, mixing a youthful desire for the miraculous with a reflective meditation on the role of religion to provide solace in times of stress.
“Birthmates,” which John Updike included in his collection of The Best American Short Stories of the Century, proceeds from the perspective of omniscient narration, progressively unfolding the layers of Art Woo’s soul, gradually revealing the sources of his sadness. “Chin,” another compressed narrative, is an unusually grim story about a young boy, an outcast at home and in school, who epitomizes the plight of violent rejection which racism engenders.
Two of the stories in the collection are novellas. “Duncan in China,” fifty pages in length, follows a Chinese American man teaching in China in a search for some nebulous idea of “heritage.” He discovers that both he and his idea of a...
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