By Bayan al Hadhrami
‘Typical American’, first published in 1991 by the second generation Chinese American immigrant author Gish Jen, tells the story of a Chinese family that immigrated to the USA in the midst of communist intervention in China. The novel, based in the 1940s, illustrates the struggle Chinese Americans endured at the time; as the conflict intensified in China, the more persecuted and oppressed was the minority group in the USA. Gish Jen through this novel introduces to her readers the harsh realities of immigration and assimilation. Through her characters, Ralph Chang, his wife Helen and sister Theresa, indulges the reader in a narrative of struggle, love, loss and cultural misunderstanding.
The Chang family, while initially struggling to fit in the American community, slowly navigates its way and shifts its mindset from a traditional Chinese to that of a typical American. While Ralph Chang’s assimilation becomes evident in his chase of the American dream of wealth and success, his wife Helen gradually finds a voice of her own and grows opinionated, and Theresa, in her search for love and acceptance, adopts new ideals and values. The author also paves the way through this novel to a discussion on the intergenerational dynamics of an immigrant household. As Ralph and Helen raise their two daughters, Callie and Mona, they discuss what language they should teach their daughters first and what cultural values they should raise their daughters upon. This narrative inspires Gish Jen’s later novel ‘Mona in the Promised Land’, in which cultural identities clash, as Mona, a Chinese American, converts to Judaism. Despite Gish Jen’s work representing such complex themes and issues, she fills her work with much irony, engaging her readers through thought-provoking humour. The comic personality of Ralph delivers much of the humour and irony in the novel ‘Typical American’ and alongside Jen’s brilliant dialogues, descriptions and plot the work is thoroughly amusing and entertaining.
Additionally, ‘Typical American’, Jen’s debut novel, was nominated for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and marks the beginning of Jen’s successful career as a writer. Gish Jen, through her writing, contributed immensely to her Chinese American community. By spreading awareness and overcoming misconceptions resulting in prejudice and racism, Jen is helping her community stand up for itself. She had so far published nine works of fiction and non-fiction and had been nominated and awarded several times throughout her career.
Her latest publications include; the novel ‘The Resisters’, released 2020, and the short story collection ‘Thank you, Nixon’, published in 2022, both starring Asian American characters making their way through a life of prejudice and misconception, the latter particularly inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic. Gish Jen continues to speak on behalf of her Asian American community, shouldering the responsibility of raising awareness about her community’s struggles that had stretched from WW2 to this day.