Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lit Crit: Typical American by Gish Jen

“The Husband Would Command, The Wife Obey”

Ostensibly Jen Gish’s Typical American is a typical immigrant’s tale: Shortly after World War II, Yifeng Chang journeys around the world from China to America, the land of golden opportunity, to become Ralph Chang and uncover his true destiny — but no one’s life is so simple, including Ralph’s. He leaves his natal lands behind but brings Yifeng’s traditional values and gender illusions with him to this adopted American home. It is not the cross-cultural traveler’s travails that wreck Ralph’s life so much as his obdurate, oppressive sexist nature toward the very women who love, nurture and repeatedly save him. In the face of their persistent largess Ralph methodically elects to destroy everything he has rather than embrace a life that might include sexual equality in this allegedly egalitarian new homeland.
Ralph Chang’s eventual moral, familial, and financial collapse, and the physical injuries he inflicts his wife and the more the even serious injuries he subsequently inflicts on Theresa, his accomplished ‘Older Sister,’ reflects the female author’s depiction of a male world that is pathological, irrational, violent, and sexist. In the scenes Ms. Jen creates, men are important and empowered, irrespective of their flaws, and women are not, irrespective of their attributes. Women must subordinate their goals and lives to appease their men, which inevitably results in terrible destructive and avoidable ‘life lessons.’ More so than her characters’ status as naïve strangers in a strange land, there is an underlying, pregnant male violence that infuses Jen’s narrative.

Early in this novel we are warned women are temptresses — treacherous, duplicitous, overtly sexual creatures whose sole purpose is to destroy men’s lives. For example, the author has Yifeng, ‘Intent on the Peak,’ tell us almost immediately: “Girls, he knew, were what happened to even the cleverest, most diligent, most upright of scholars; the scholars kissed, got syphilis, and died without getting their degrees.” (Jen. 7). While this is not an atypical pre-adolescent perspective on male-female relations, we are told Yifeng is “more or less grown up” (4), and this tone and these warnings are repeated throughout the novel.
Consider yet another example, the first female non-familial character described by the older, Americanized Ralph, speaking in retrospect: “‘She was some — what you call? — tart,’ he said” (8). On the surface he is simply regaling his young daughters with tales of the life he experienced upon first reaching the storied shores of the New World, but the covert and clear message he attempts to inculcate upon his impressionable young daughters is one of caution: ‘If you’re not very careful, you, too, could be judged as both wanton and wanting by any insignificant man you might meet!’ Lest we take this passage too lightly, examine the definition of ‘tart’ from “a prostitute, or a woman considered to be sexually promiscuous.” Note that even in our current culture, linguistically, this usage informs us that a prostitute and a ‘sexually promiscuous’ woman are one and the same! This judgment, identifying ‘Cammy’ as a ‘tart,’ comes from a man who was at the time powerless and insignificant — a ‘foreign’ student who lacked housing, income, status, and even basic communication skills; yet he was a man, thus entitled to make such a sweeping thoughtless and casual denunciation.
Within weeks of meeting Cammy, the college’s Foreign Student Affairs secretary and a co-participant in the most modest and seemly of flirtations, Ralph elevates her from mere tart to mythological man-eater/destroyer, referring to her as “Yang Guifei incarnate —a Tang Dynasty courtesan for whom an emperor went to ruin” (Jen. 16).
But translating his Asian sexual archetypes to America required a conscious confirmation process, Ralph found his necessary emotional translator one day in a random unnamed older man at a luncheonette who instilled him with the perceived wisdom of the New World; everything wrong could be blamed on ‘Dames.’ This fellow informs us “what was wrong with politics (dames); what was wrong with the Yankees (dames); and what was wrong with America”(17). Ralph reveres these ‘truths’ and uses this power to condemn his accomplished older sister when he discovers she is having an affair with ‘Uncle Henry’ Chao, a married family friend.
Ralph repeatedly humiliates his sister in public, including in front of her young nieces for this failing, while ignoring the numerous faults of males, including his own. At one point, during a family dinner Ralph tells his daughters that their aunt is a ‘Rotten Egg.’ His sister explains: “‘Chinese expression,’ said Theresa evenly. ‘Meaning a woman of no virtue.” It is not ‘Uncle’ Henry who has violated the social trust, but their aunt who is held accountable. Theresa is even held up for public ridicule when Ralph’s immoral friend Grover Ding ‘mashes’ Theresa, forcing a kiss upon her. ‘Uncle’ Grover gets a pass for his egregious behavior while Theresa becomes scornable. At this point in the story Ralph doesn’t know that his own wife has been an enthralled recipient of ‘Uncle’ Glover’s sexual overtures as well. Even after Ralph discovers evidence of his wife’s affair, Grover is not held accountable for this sexual indiscretion, only Ralph’s wife. Thus we are repeatedly instructed that the distaff half of our nation’s population is the source of our sexual failings, and of all else that ails us.

When we contrast this carefully crafted image of woman as a destructive, sexually rapacious predator with the actual descriptive behaviors of the primary female characters, the reader gets the opportunity to see more clearly the heroic (or should I was heroinic?) diligence and effort each woman exerts to improve her life against nearly insurmountable obstacles. A subtle example of the exemplary role played by these women is contained in Ralph’s never-named father’s instructions early in the tale: “Yifeng will please study his Older Sister. He will please observe everything she does, and simply copy her” (4).
If Ralph had done so Jen’s Typical American might have been more like Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and less a debacle. Instead Ralph reduces his ‘Older Sister’ to Bai Xiao, ‘Know-It-All,’ and bumbles from one self-destructive impulse to the next.
Theresa is more than an idealized role-model, at five foot seven inches she is a large woman, taller than Yifeng, a notable athlete, independent and forthright, yet willing, even eager to sacrifice her life to better the lives of her family and friends.
When Theresa’s younger sister Meimei (which translates as Girlgirl) wishes to marry, Theresa allows herself to be sent to care for an invalid girl in Shanghai rather than embarrass her family with her unwedded-elder-sister-status. This auspicious, self-sacrificing decision introduces Hailan (Helen), Ralph’s future wife, and brings the family, Theresa, Helen and Ralph, together again in America after Theresa rescues Ralph from the desperate circumstances that led him to consider crime and suicide. Penniless, hungry, homeless, and destitute of spirit, Ralph allows Theresa (despite an injured ankle, the result of Ralph’s over enthusiastic welcoming embrace) to nurture him back to physical and emotional health.
Under Theresa and Helen’s tutelage Ralph recovers his self-esteem, gains employment, reenters college, and passively finds ‘love and marriage’ with Helen.
When he begins to flounder again in college and spends all his time in a depressed state, sleeping, Theresa tells him “my scholarship has been cancelled” (80), a lie so that he might not feel so worthless by comparison. The lie works and Helen reports “he’s studying again” (83).
Lan Dong tell us in “Gendered Home and Space for the Diaspora: Gish Jens Typical American” that Theresa’s efforts to both pursue “her career as a doctor and in the meantime attempt to save her brother’s face” is an artifact of her Chinese culture, but the reality of feminine sacrifice is also an artifact of American culture, and perhaps a direct result of hundreds if not thousands of year of nearly global patriarchal domination.
When the heat in their apartment building ceases, it is invalid Helen, not manly Ralph, who descends into the basement and remedies the situation (Jen. 81).
When the new apartment they rent is too small without enough bedrooms for all, Theresa willingly converts a dining area into her semi-private bedroom.
When the family buys a new home, it is Theresa’s income as a doctor that makes it possible.
Again Dong informs us because they are Chinese, “Helen and Theresa continue to compromise in order to ease Ralph’s angst and to confirm for him his patriarchal domination at home and his professional progress in American society,” but these feminine accommodations are also an intrinsic aspect of American culture.
When Ralph’s impetuous decision to resign his secure and reliable job as a professor to open a chicken restaurant reduces their income precipitously, Helen steps up and takes over running the cash register.
When Ralph’s chicken restaurant business collapses, rather than blaming him for the failure, Helen draws herself closer to him.
The author tells us: “If being married was a matter of becoming one, they had finally achieved what in better times they could not (Jen. 249).
When the inevitable reconciliation occurs, it is Theresa’s salary that allows them to make those initial moves toward emotional and financial recovery.

Each step of the way Ralph is carefully chaperoned to his betterment by the women in his life, but as soon as he is on his feet he inevitably begins to chafe at sharing determinative authority. He goads himself with self-deprecatory thoughts: “At home, the husband would command, the wife obey” (69) and gives himself permission to behave badly, “for he was the father, and could do whatever he liked” (113). He does not need nor desire their opinions or involvement in the decision-making process. He will make all the family decisions and they will abide, he decides, but then he struggles with his inner fears, “he felt himself to be, not the head of the family, a scholar, but a child on a high wooden stool, helpless”(72).
“All his life, he’d known he would get married, and yet he’d never stopped to consider what it would be like” (69). His wife and sister are not responsible for his feelings of inadequacy, but Helen tells us “who could take it easy with Ralph home? … Everything he took badly” (77). Inevitably his feelings become intolerable and Ralph proceeds, as is his habit, destructively rather than collaboratively.
The first sign of this coming dénouement appears, as it often does, in the marriage bed or more precisely under their shared marital mattress. Ralph discovers American popular culture women’s magazines Helen has hidden there: “What else might she be keeping from him” (68) he wonders, what were “among the other secrets of her drawers” (72).
The author here subtly infers that what she might be hiding is linked to her gender and genitalia, foreshadowing the infidelities to come.
Distrust begins to poison the husband-and-wife relationship. Soon it is Helen’s very breath that Ralph insists he must control with ‘manly tyranny’(71): “You should breathe this way” (71), he tells Helen and deliberately shows her how he wants her to inhale and exhale. No long thereafter, although she was the acknowledged and beloved family cook, her cooking needed his instructions as well, and his wife begins to fear him: “As he stood in the doorway, homing to her presence, he thought he saw her shoulders rise with apprehension, her elbows draw in. ‘No more, no more,’ she said without turning around” (72). Ralph’s emotional bullying turns, as if often does in life, to battering “Ralph knocked at Helen’s skull … Knocking made Ralph feel fierce, but it made Helen go blank — which made him knock more… until she ran into another room.” (73). This foreshadows the extreme violence to come.
As Jen’s story winds toward its end, Ralph’s business is in ruins and his sister has abandoned him to live apart. Ralph acquires a powerful pit bull dog, which he fears but carefully trains to be even more threatening, allegedly for his daughters, “but the girls are terrified of the dog” (252).
The threat of imminent violence grows as Ralph, now out of work and facing increasing bills related to his failed business, trains and abuses the attack dog, making it ever more dangerous. At one point Helen discovers him swinging the tethered creature around and round by its neck. When she objects, saying that he’s strangling the animal he replies: “‘Yes, I could strangle someone,’ he said simply, continuing to swing. He approached her. ‘I am that cold.’”(259).
At the start of their marriage he worried about Helen’s breathing and instructed her in ‘proper’ breathing technique, now as their relationship has collapsed into hatred and rage he attempts to take her breath away: “Ralph’s thumbs hooked themselves around her windpipe. … he squeezed almost courteously, as if he only meant to be holding her breath for her, and just for a moment” (263).
When his ever forgiving wife negotiates with Henry Chao, the old family friend (and Theresa’s lover) to secure for Ralph his former teaching job at the university, instead of rejoicing and celebrating, he grabs one of Helen’s precious decorative items, and hurls it, “a brass vase out [through] the living room picture window” (260).
Ralph’s male violence is no longer pregnant, but now borne, real, inevitable and life threatening. Not long after the vase, small and delicate Chinese-born Helen herself “went sailing like a human version of their brass vase, out the bedroom window” (262). In “Cheap, On Sale, American Dream: Contemporary Asian American Women Writers’ Response to American Success Mythologies,” Phillipa Kafka tells us “the picture window is Jen’s metaphor for the collapse of the Chang’s ‘picture perfect’ marriage”(Kafka. 119) and alleges Ralph’s violence is in response to intimations of Helen’s adultery, but Jen’s narrative has not yet acknowledged Helen’s adultery, and even if it had, Ralph’s physical violence rises to near murderous proportions. Like physically violent acts of sexuality, Ralph and Helen are now in constant congress, throwing words, items and each other around with the most serious intention of causing each other grievous injury. Despite Ralph’s diminutive stature, Helen is far out of her weight-class, but the words, “a failure, a failure, a failure” (Jen. 263), shouted at Ralph score a direct hit, and his violent physical response puts Helen in the hospital.
Are Kafka and/or Jen condoning murderous rage because it’s motivated by sexual jealousy?
Why is it appropriate to attack Helen and not her lover, Glover Ding?
How is this violence ‘ethnically derived?
Is Henry Chao held to the same standards?
For that matter is Theresa held to the same standards?
In “Defining Asian American Realities Through Literature” Elaine H. Kim tells us “family relationships dominated political and economic activities and served as a primary tool for social control. An individual’s reputation was his family’s reputation and one’s personal affairs could not be strictly one’s own”(Kim, 102)
If this is the case than Ralph Chang is damaged as much by his sister’s extramarital affair as by his wife’s extramarital affair, but he verbal attacks the taller, athletic Theresa, not physically. That said, the novel’s male instigated violence doesn’t end until Theresa’s life itself hangs in the balance in a scene startlingly similar to the car crash scene from John Irving’s The World According to Garp.

The troubles of this family are not the struggles that result from changing cultures from one country to another. These difficulties are typical of an oppressive male culture dependent on violence for authority and control. Rather than negotiating a mutually beneficial relationship that could have easily accommodated their individual needs, the Changs engaged in the ancient war between physically powerful men, of any size and nationality or culture, and less physically powerful women living in a state of oppression.
For the most part, the women in this story were willing to endure almost anything life hurled at them, including infidelity, poverty, dangerous living conditions, relentless work, a near constant state of oppression, and violence, yet they survived admirably.
Ralph Chang did not suffer slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he carefully concocted an unnecessary catastrophe that was doomed to fail, for he depended too dearly on both the good will of strangers and the good luck of the gods. When both went against him, instead of retrenching and reassessing his options, instead of turning to the wisdom of his family he turned on them with blame, anger, and violence.
All of his travails were a direct result of this relentlessly destructively sexist perspective on life. Unfortunately, in light of his response to his previous failures, it seems quite unlikely that he actually learned anything from this, his latest catastrophe.

Dong, Lan. “Gendered Home and Space for the Diaspora: Gish Jen’s Typical American". ThirdSpace: a journal of feminist theory & culture, volume 4 issue 1 November 2004. Web. April 10, 2010.

Jen, Gish. Typical American. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.

Kafka, Phillipa. ‘Cheap, On Sale, American Dream’: Contemporary Asian American Women Writers’ Response to American Success Mythologies, pages 105-126, found in: American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature. Edited by William Blazek and Michael K. Glenday. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2005. Print

Kim, Elaine H. ‘Defining Asian American Realities Through Literature’. Cultural Critique 6 (1987): 87-112 Tart, a definition. Web. April 10, 2010

©May 10, 2010 Fred Dodsworth


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