Go west young man; that is, go so far west you find the opportunity for employment and pursue the promise of prosperity which is thought to be at the heart of the American Dream. For many recent graduates, that journey might now begin in China: American Graduates Finding Jobs in China: “Shanghai and Beijing are becoming new lands of opportunity for recent American college graduates who face unemployment nearing double digits at home.”
Such are the ironies of life, a reversal of immigrants flocking to American shores in pursuit of employment and a richer, happier life.
For years Gish Jen’s Typical American (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) had sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I first heard about the novel from a PBS program NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM, but it was the recent extended stay of my son, Jonathan, in Shanghai that led me to finally read the novel, and to better understand the Chinese, and their assimilation into American culture. Also, I did business with the China National Publications Import Export Corporation and was impressed by their selection and importation of books we published over the years so I was curious about Jen’s novel.
I expected a story about what it means to be a foreigner in a foreign land, especially the vicissitudes of being Asian in America soon after WW II, and while there are those elements, it reminded me more about the misinterpretation of the American dream, the illusion of prosperity being the definition of a meaningful life.
What does it mean to be, or become a “typical American?” The Chang family is at first derisive of their concept of the “typical American” until they begin to desert their traditional work ethic, moral groundings, and family loyalty as they become “typical Americans” themselves, enduring a tragedy to bring their values back into balance.
This is not a conventional story about immigrants, but, instead, is a very well written novel about what freedom and responsibility mean in relation to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in a land that “promises” no limits. Or as Ralph Chang discovers: “What escape was possible? It seemed to him…that a man was as doomed here as he was in China….He was not what he made up his mind to be. A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so. America was no America.”
And the writing is wonderful: “And then there was another pain too, quieter, weightier, its roots in what everybody knows – that one day a person looks back more than forward, that one day he’ll have achieved as much as he was going to, loved as much as he was going to, been as happy as it was granted him to be. And that day, won’t he have to wonder – was it enough, what he’s lived? Can he call that a life and be satisfied?”
And isn’t that the essence of the dream, and of any culture?