- Who's Irish by Gish Jen
Granta, 209 pp, £9.99, July 1999, ISBN 1 86207 276 0
Ever since her first novel Typical American appeared in 1991, the Chinese American writer Gish Jen has been acclaimed as the new Amy Tan. Amy Tan herself acclaims her on the cover of Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Jen’s second novel; and again on this collection of short stories. Jen has a lot going for her: she is witty, perceptive, penetrating, sharp on motives and a great mimic. She can do Black American, Jewish American (including the puns) and, of course, Chinese American: ‘When I first come to the United States, I also had to hide-and-seek with those deportation guys. If people did not helping me, I am not here today.’ Jen is affectionate towards her characters and impeccably well-intentioned. And so are nearly all of them, even when they appear to be up to no good. It almost always turns out that someone who has betrayed someone else, or stolen their silver flask, didn’t really do any such thing. Above all else, Gish Jen is charming; immensely charming; charming verging on cute.
Typical American is a first-generation immigrant novel, and Mona in the Promised Land is its sequel, with the second generation occupying the foreground. The family saga begins in the late Forties, when Yifeng Chang arrives at an American East Coast college to study engineering. He is soon called Ralph; his older sister, a medical student, is already called Theresa, because in China she went to a convent school. The subject of religion never comes up, but they are presumably Catholics, because they carry rosaries. In every other way they are typically Chinese, and the plot – a sentimental comedy with a happy ending – is the story of their adaptation to life in America, with Theresa always a step ahead of Ralph. He marries a Chinese friend of hers called Hailan, who becomes Helen. Helen is very young, and was brought up rich and sheltered in China, so she starts several steps behind Ralph (in adaptability, that is), but soon overtakes him. The Revolution cuts them all off from their families: letters and gift parcels get no replies. Jen tells us that the immigrants grieve, but we don’t see them doing it much. Exile is not a tragedy.
In due course Ralph is promoted from research student to junior lecturer; then he gets tenure. By now the Changs have two little daughters, quiet, studious Callie and merry, mischievous Mona, both of them as bright as can be. They move from a slum tenement to a ‘Dutch colonial’ in a suburb called Scarshill. Jen herself, we learn from the book’s jacket, was brought up in Scarsdale. Both hill and dale have very good schools, lots of delis, and lots of Jewish residents. But then the Chinese are ‘the New Jews, after all, a model minority and a Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.’ Mona jokes about changing the family name to Changowitz. Helen shops for must-have furnishings and joins the country club; Ralph buys a car and learns to drive (in that order). Theresa qualifies and has an affair with a professor. Helen is shocked because Chinese women don’t behave like that. Then she, too, has an affair. Ralph gives up academia, preferring to make money in the restaurant business. There are upheavals – dramatic and threatening – both in the restaurants and in the marriage; but all ends happily.
Mona is the central character in Mona in the Promised Land. This in itself is a sign of Americanisation, you might say, because in the first novel the whole family is the protagonist, whereas in the second the now teenage Mona measures her own identity against the family’s, and even rebels a bit and takes off on her own – as Theresa has already done by moving to California with her professor. But Chinese families cohere and live according to the maxim that ‘one generation is supposed to build on the last, ascending and ascending like the steps on a baby bamboo shoot.’ So after a bit Mona follows her more docile elder sister to Harvard (‘How nice indeed for the parents to be able to say: “The girls go to Harvard!” Mona realises this herself, the misty elegance of the sound – it lingers in the air like something out of a perfume spritzer.’) A Chinese family never goes dysfunctional, and in the end they are all reunited. The ones who have run off and lived in sin get married, Theresa to the professor, Mona to her drop-out Jewish boyfriend Seth; even her Jewish girlfriend Evie marries her working-class black boyfriend, who used to be second chef in one of Ralph’s restaurants. A new generation with plenty of mixed-race members is on the way or in some cases already toddling about underfoot.
All earlier misdemeanours by the second generation are forgiven by the first. Seth decides to go to college after all – mainly because of the understanding and liberal attitude of his ultra-trendy but fundamentally wise stepmother. It’s all too optimistic for words, and maybe that’s why Seth’s hands talk in Blair-speak: ‘He likes to make a kind of cage with them as he listens, each fingertip lightly touching its comrade on the other hand. When he talks, the cage opens, as if to let the truth flap out.’
If the conclusion is too saccharine to swallow, the rest of Mona in the Promised Land is as funny as a Marx Brothers film, which it sometimes resembles. The load-bearing joke in the second novel is that at the age of 13 Mona converts to Judaism. This is because Rabbi Brian Horowitz has ‘nice laugh lines’ and lots of charisma, besides being liberal to the point of letting the kids do their bar mitzvah barefoot. (Later on he gets the sack for excessive permissiveness, defrocks himself, and enrols as a research student. However, by the time of the happy Californian grand finale, he has gone back to being a rabbi and married a cosy Californian female rabbi.) During his time at Scarshill, though, Mona becomes a pillar of the TYG (Temple Youth Group), then a TYG counsellor. This means taking her turn at manning the TYG Hot Line. Here is an extract from her entry in its logbook:
Japanese (?) male calling for (is this prejudiced?) somewhat inscrutable but probably profound reasons. Although who knows, maybe also/just for language practice (English). Good vibes established despite long silences and short sentences. More attention should probably have been paid to drug education. Given caller’s depressed state of mind, probably ought also to have explored caller attitude towards hari-kari, even if that’s a stereotype.
In fact, the caller is Seth, to whom Mona has given the brush-off: he is trying to get back in touch by impersonating Mona’s first crush, a Japanese boy at her school who went back to Japan. Actually, the caller isn’t really Seth either, because Seth can’t do a Japanese accent – so he’s enlisted a Chinese friend of his who can.
One of the oddest things about Jen’s work is that there are no Wasps in it at all. In ‘House, House, Home’, the last and longest story in Who’s Irish?, a Chinese American art history student called Pammie marries her white professor. Even he isn’t Anglo-Saxon, though, being of Swedish descent and called Sven. Pammie and Sven stay together for ten years and have two children; but when Pammie gets pregnant again, the marriage breaks up. Although old enough to be Pammie’s father, Sven is a perpetual adolescent and doesn’t like the idea of settling down. ‘I do not want to lie on my deathbed full of regret,’ he announces on his 60th birthday. And so he drives off in his Volvo, never to return.
Meanwhile, at the ‘children of color’ lunch which she organises, Pammie has met Carver, who came to help out: ‘Graceful; gentle; possibly a Pacific Islander. He has a face like a monk’s, with a certain look of wise forbearance that involved the deliberate settling of the eyebrows; and he wore an earring – betokening, in his case, mostly youth, Pammie guessed. His monumentality was far more striking, especially when he knelt to better hear his small supplicants.’ After Sven’s departure, Pammie and Carver meet again under circumstances too corny to be described. And that’s it: her prince has come. Jen’s plots are so brazenly unlikely that occasionally one can’t help wondering whether she isn’t sending up the ideal of racial harmony, which seems to be the underlying theme – message, even – in all of them. But no one who wasn’t sincere could have concocted the embarrassing last paragraphs of ‘House, House, Home’.
One short story, though, stands out from the rest – and also explains why they all end as they do. ‘Duncan in China’ is about a middle-class Chinese American drop-out who gets a job teaching English at a coalmining institute deep in the Chinese provinces. There is an element of travel-writing, and it’s all to the good. The scenery – geographical and human – makes a welcome change from chirpy suburbia, though the language jokes are just as funny and the characters just as solidly established as the Chang family and their neighbours. Jen evokes the grim atmosphere of suspicion and austerity in the Chinese Republic, but something else as well: in Duncan’s classroom, former Red Guards sit side by side with the former ‘struggled against’, people who had perhaps been tortured and seen their brothers and sisters and parents tortured and killed. ‘Duncan was amazed and touched by the fantastic restraint that held his classroom together. Wasn’t this related to what he had come to China to see? He had not expected that it would be so tinged with sad realism, though – all anyone wanted anymore was to be left alone, that’s what the students said.’ In the final paragraph, Duncan reflects that ‘being an American’ had given him ‘not so much an unshakable conviction as a habit of believing in the happiest possibility. Truly, it was a form of blindness. He understood why denizens of the Old World laughed at him. Yet he saw now, finally, that it was as incurably his as any faith.’