On the day Obama was being announced as the Democratic choice for the next U.S. President, I swooped down on Barnes & Noble, figuring it was already really late for me to have picked up a copy of The Audacity of Hope and that I wasn’t really a part of this generation until I owned a copy in my personal library. (What I later realized is that I’ll probably be more interested in Dreams from My Father than in Audacity, but oh well. I should give our scholarly President a shot with Audacity first. I’m just more interested in cultural stories than in political ones.)
En route to the more topical, current events bookstands, I saw a little Asian girl looking at me from the cover of Typical American. It gave me pause. I should have known what would follow, stories of the disappointment of human nature, expertly crafted by one of the best modern writers I have read in years.
Film buffs and people who travel through film will probably tell you that different countries have different styles of story telling. If no one has ever told you “Oh, I love French film!”, you apparently do not live in San Francisco. Film is a modern version of folklore, and though you’ll always have artists carving their own niches, you’ll generally be able to differentiate one cinematic syntax from another based on the country of origin.
Chinese American diaspora who have been brought up watching Chinese films on the weekends with parents and grandparents have a good inkling of two countries’ different styles. I sum it up in four words, “Chinese films are depressing.” Since I’m assuming most American readers have not seen Eat Drink Man Woman or To Live, the most popular American literary piece that I can allude to is The Good Earth, with its adult relationships, starvation, gambling addictions, and infant deaths. This seems to be the stuff that Chinese dramas are made of: someone always dies (and it is often a child), there is often a phase of famine or starvation somewhere, adultery rips apart couples, yadda yadda yadda. Aside from martial arts films, most of the Chinese imports that make it to American arthouse screens are more tragic than any American dramas. (This is to say that in American film, there tends to be more resolution and overall tones of positivity. American films that don’t have closing chapters are usually categorized as “independent.”)
I bring up all this theory on Chinese film because it seems to have colored Gish Jen‘s story in Typical American. I can’t say for sure that Jen’s writing was influenced by Chinese VHS tapes, but much of the complications in Typical American certainly took me back to those movies. Typical American is very similar to American Beauty with its story centered around a middle-class family. The Changs, though, have the uphill struggle of being considered a part of American society, of deciding their own paths, and of being essentially orphaned from their roots. (They become estranged from their parents during all the political upheaval overseas.) These complications make Ralph and Theresa’s lives all the more difficult and sad. The family dysfunction in American Beauty is sad, but at least Annette Bening’s family is allowed to even be perceived as upper-middle class. The Changs are usually confronted with the typical “Are you a gook/Jap/[what]?” introduction.
When I consider the situation of racial prejudice, I envision it as entrapping a group of people in an acrylic box. While sexism describes a glass ceiling prohibiting vertical advances, racial prejudice, I feel, prohibits lateral movement as well. Plus it’s just more difficult to crack acrylic than to crack glass.
The book itself is a quick read. It was pretty depressing to read about falling short of the American Dream at the side of the pool in Cabo, but I couldn’t put it down. I will definitely be reading more by this Harvard grad in the future, and not just because I feel a bond with her for having gone through Chinese hospitals as an “Overseas Chinese:”
We found ourselves, therefore, in a hospital unlike any other we had ever experienced. There was no elevator; a doctor carried my sister upstairs on his back. The halls were full of watermelon rinds. The IV needles were rusty. When my mother pulled a Band-Aid from her purse, a group of nurses gathered to ooh and ah.
One day I’ll commemorate breaking my leg in China. For now, you can read more about what it’s like to be an ABC in Jen’s Time piece, “Racial Profiling.” To have a work named one of The Best American Short Stories of The Century by the late John Updike is pretty hot shit. For those who enjoy a different point of view, I highly recommend Gish Jen. Snippet after the cut.
FYI: Ang Lee has more of an American directorial style than Chinese. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is not a classic Chinese film. (And neither are Brokeback Mountain or The Hulk.)
Once she’d gotten used to the idea of leaving the house, of going outside to work – after all these years in America, she still envisioned a wall between her home and the world – she did not particularly mind the work involved. Neither did she mind that the family now ate at the restaurant every night, one fried chicken part after another. She just found it hard to be owned by customers; men especially thought nothing of appraising her through her clothes. Cross-examining her. “You Chinese? Japanese?” They’d squint. “Filipino?” Sometimes adding, “I once had a little, ah, woman like you. In the War.” They patted her when they felt like it, grasped her hand. She tried to smile. “How do you like the chicken?” she’d say, pulling away. Or, “Thank you, please come again.” It was her penance for having taken those lilacs in from the mailbox. “Please come again.” One day a bum grabbed her. “You’re my dragon lady,” he insisted, in a drunken slur. He thrust his face into hers, forcing her to breathe his rancid breath; his untrimmed nails bit into her arms.