Weak, insecure and often pitiable, Ralph Chang - the novel's wonderfully human anti-hero - is hard not to like. With ears that stick out like side mirrors on a taxi and skin as soft as a peach, this great baby of a man arrives fresh off the boat from postwar Shanghai, the letters "Ph.D" whirring slot-machine-like before his eyes.
Enrolled as an engineering student at Columbia, and looking irresistibly goofy in panama hat and double-breasted suit, Ralph takes New York (especially its ginger-haired "dames") by storm. But then 1948 rolls in, Manchuria falls to the Communists, and Ralph fails to fill out his immigration forms in time. Stuck in America without a visa, he ends up hiding from the authorities in a succession of roach-infested boarding houses.
Redemption arrives in the person of Theresa, Ralph's long-lost "Know- It-All" older sister. Whisking her brother off his lonely park bench, and uptown to an apartment fragrant with cooking smells of home, she introduces him to Helen - her best friend and Ralph's soon-to-be wife.
The dynamics of this tightly-knit household lie at the novel's heart. Living together as a good Chinese family should, tricksy tensions arise as brother, sister and sister-in-law attempt not only to adapt to life in exile, but life with each other. The faults of the "Typical American" (pot-bellied, dumb, wasteful) may the butt of their in-jokes, but really it is each other's company they can't stand.
As good at describing the hardships of immigrant life as she is wilting perms or chocolate milk-shakes, Gish Jen beautifully translates what it is to see the world through Chinese eyes. Frequently funny and a pacy story-teller, she never wheels in steamed dumplings or Confucian wise words to lend her work an extra veneer. Her characters, like their menus, are authentic enough already.
When fortune does eventually smile on the industrious Changs (you will have to read the book to find out how), and the "Typical American" of their jokes becomes a figure of respect and admiration, Ralph, Theresa and Helen suddenly feel free to test their own individual limits in some very un-Chinese ways. But, as each discovers, and Jen delights in telling us, there's nothing like a dose of freedom to show just how limited you really are.Reuse content