In Who’s Irish?, Gish Jen, acclaimed author of Typical American (1991) and Mona in the Promised Land (1996), continues her exploration of the immigrant experience, writing from a multifaceted ethnic viewpoint. While various writers, past and present, draw on their native origins to formulate novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, and such, Jen sets herself apart by consolidating and intermingling her own Chinese roots with those of other cultures. The result is not only a greater understanding of the Chinese immigrants experience but also a deeper discernment that no one ethnic group has a monopoly on the bewilderment inherent in the alienation and assimilation associated with American mainstream culture"the immigrant experience is universal. This realization, to go one step further, instills in the consciousness of the reader harmonious feelings of identification with other cultural groups. For instance, in the first and title story, “Who’s Irish?”, the narrator, an elderly immigrant Chinese woman whose daughter, a bank vice president, has married into an Irish American family, feels baffled by modern American mores. Depressed and isolated, she stands with one foot in America and the other in China until she finds solidarity and refuge with the childs other grandmother, Bess, an Irish immigrant she earlier criticized for being lazy. Jen prompts the reader to develop an understanding that both grandmothers have similar needs and longings.
Who’s Irish? is Jens debut collection of eight emotionally penetrating and enlightening short stories. These superbly crafted narratives are not, however, by any means neat little tales of initial confusion, intermediate cataclysm, and ultimate reconciliation in the formation of a new American identity. Indeed, the individual stories are complex, many-sided, and oftentimes contradictory, simultaneously, as it were, light and dark. The title story is a tale of acute tension—generational, gender-bound, and cultural. The Chinese immigrant grandmother lives with her first-generation daughter, a modern Chinese American woman, who is married to a depressed, unemployed Irish American man. To her mothers great consternation, the daughter accepts complete financial responsibility for the family. The Irish, after all, are lazy, reasons the older woman when her son-in-law fails to keep a job. Narrating in a somewhat musical, pidgin dialect, the widowed grandmother blames her grandchilds negative traits on her Irish genes. She is contemptuous of her son-in-law, who is too proud to care for his daughter Sophie. Of particular concern, it seems, is the three-year-olds penchant for removing her clothes in public. Although the grandmother is the childs primary caregiver, the parents have clear ideas of their own regarding child rearing. In particular, they do not believe in physical discipline. This belief causes cultural bedlam. On one hand, the readers heart goes out to the elderly narrator, so emphatic regarding her Chinese ways of bringing up children—spare the rod and spoil the child, she philosophizes. On the other hand, the reader is angry because in her attempts to instill obedience, the narrator brutalizes her granddaughter, beating the child in secret despite the parents strenuous objections. It is her duty, she rationalizes, to beat the child into submission for the childs own good; after all, millions of Chinese children, all obedient, are disciplined in this manner. Also, the narrators superior tone and racist attitudes concerning other ethnic groups, in particular the Irish, make her at times hard to relish. The reader is relieved when the desperately unhappy woman finds a safe harbor with her son-in-laws mother after her daughter and son ask her to leave their home. In this win-win resolution, Chinese and Irish grandmothers share the mutual enjoyment of their American granddaughter.
Jen reverses the bicultural Chinese American dilemma in her fourth story, “Duncan in China”. Here, second-generation Chinese American protagonist and underachiever Duncan Hsu, thirty-seven and still suffering sibling rivalry and maternal strife, escapes America (and his brother Arnie, who drives a BMW convertible) by returning to mainland China to examine his heritage. In China he believes he will discover a country of old nobility and philosophic sages. Tension and anxiety also permeate this dim tale of the American English teacher or “foreign expert”, as the Chinese call him, and his various quixotic encounters with students and coworkers in a Chinese mining town. Culturally naïve, nothing in his American life prepares Duncan for post-Cultural Revolution China. His colleagues smile out of one side of their mouths and criticize him out of the other. On a trip, he comes to realize his favorite students are spies. His poverty-stricken, tubercular...
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