Gish Jen (b. 1955)
Contributing Editor: Bonnie TuSmith
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The father's patriarchal and feudal attitudes can easily arouse feminist ire. While such attitudes need to be acknowledged and discussed, it is important to point out the narrator's viewpoint toward her father. The narrator pulls no punches in pointing out Ralph Chang's sexist and domineering ways. Such information does not, however, trigger brooding resentment or a desire for vengeance. In addressing this issue in the classroom, the instructor can combine feminist and cultural theories to promote a richer understanding of difference.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A key theme found in Jen's work is the Asian immigrant's coming to terms with American society. For people who come from cultures that are significantly different from the hegemonic European one, the process of acculturation can be awkward and even destructive. Like the father's western suit, Asians who take on what they consider typically American culture often find that this does not fit well. The mother's statement "But this here is the U--S--of--A!" reveals the dis-ease with which non-white, non-Europeans attempt to assimilate into European American society. Historically excluded from the "good life," Americans of Asian descent necessarily exhibit ambivalence toward symbols of American success, such as the town country club that is about to be sued by a waiting black family.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The two-part structure of the story offers us a view of the father's feudal lord behavior in two different settings. In the first, treating his employees like servants--even if done magnanimously--simply does not work. In the second, the same arrogant impulse stands him in good stead when confronting racism. The structure gives us a clear picture of Ralph Chang's background and personality and enables us to consider the appropriateness of social behavior based on class and cultural differences.
The use of an observer/child narrator who is older and more reserved than the talkative younger sister Mona lends credibility to the narration and situates the story in a comfortable, firsthand point of view. The narrator's English fluency and assumption of her American birthright render her voice easily accessible to a white audience. In this story, at least, there are no barriers based on language.
Since the author is fairly new on the literary scene, her audience is comprised of contemporary readers as young as adolescents and older who are interested in multicultural literature.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Jen's stories are easily anthologized and can be compared to numerous American short stories-- immigrant, classic, and ethnic--that explore issues of Americanization and the tensions which exist among various American cultures.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
In teaching ethnic literature I use the approach of moving from the familiar--what Euro-American students already know about and have in common with all human beings as well as what they know about literature--to the unfamiliar. This strategy helps students and instructors get past their fear of what seems foreign or the "exotic other." Thus, questions such as the following might be helpful:
1. Describe the dynamics of this nuclear family. What is the relationship of each family member to the others, and how does this reflect or challenge your notions of family?
2. Identify the source of humor in this story. How does humor contribute to the tone, mood, and overall message of the work?
3. How does the two-part narrative structure of the story enable meaningful comparison/contrast between the father's own society and the rest of American society? Is there ironic contrast between the two sections?
4. Does the dialogue seem realistic? How does the writer use dialogue to convey the racist, sexist, and classist attitudes of the characters?