Typical American By Gish Gen Essay, Research Paper
Gish Jen’s Typical American – To what extend did Ralph Chang become a typical American?
According to the dictionary:
If something is typical it shows all the characteristics that you would expect from a stated person, thing or group. Something which is typical might also show all the bad characteristics that you expect from someone or something, often in a way that is annoying. (Dictionary)
Ralph, Theresa and Helen, the main characters of Gish Jen’s novel Typical American came to America to seek the American Dream. They were convinced that everyone in the US had a chance to become happy, rich and successful if they worked hard. They yearned for being Americanized; however, there was not their desire to become “typical Americans”. In their perception a term”typical American” had a pejorative meaning:
“Typical American no-good”, …, “typical American don’t-know-how-to-get-along”[,] …, “typical American just-want-to-be-the-center-of-things”[,] …, “typical American no-morals”[,] …, “typical American use-brute-force”[.] (Typical American, 67)
In my opinion all of them followed the myth of the American Dream and became, to some extend, typical Americans.
When Ralph came to the US he certainly was a Chinese. He did not understand the Americans, he did not have an English name. He asked the secretary of the Foreign Student Affairs to give him the name. “‘Ralph,’ she said finally. She wrote it down. R-A-L-P-H. ‘Do you like it?’ ‘Sure!’ He beamed.” (Typical American, 11) The American name was the first step to his Americanization. Even though Ralf came to America to study engineering and was supposed to return to China afterwords, things went differently. When, in 1948, China collapsed and the Nationalists were fighting the Communists, Ralph was not allowed to go back there. However, he was not really sure if he would like to go back. He wondered if he “[w]ould … have gone back if he could have[.] He wished he knew that he would have risked his life for his family and country – that he loved them the right way.” (Typical American, 23)
For the next few years Ralph was successful. He did what he was supposed to do according to the Chinese culture. He studied hard, he married a Chinese girl, his sister’s friend and they lived together. Then the Americanization came. They did what other American families did: they watched TV, they read American newspapers, they bought a car and then a bargain house in the suburbs. They were happy to have their first baby, a girl.
Theresa didn’t mind, but Helen and Ralph were disappointed until they held her, and saw the way she nestled her plump cheek into her shoulder, as though she had no neck. And then they could not imagine how parents drowned their daughters, as they knew farmers in China often did – bathing the baby, it was called. (Typical American, 116)
Ralph got his Ph.D. and was working as a scholar. Even though it was what he wanted to do when he came to America, he discovered that it was not enough, that he wanted something more. His dreams seemed to come true when he met the embodiement of his perception of the American Dream – Grover. Under his influence he changed from a proffesor into a businessman making money in fast food. When Theresa went to his room, she was terrified.
There were books everywhere. Making Money. Be Your Own Boss! Ninety Days to Power and Success. Theresa pictured her brother, feet up on the desk like Pete the super, thumbing through these. Where was the Ph.D. he’d worked so hard for? Helen had taken it to a special place to have it framed, Theresa recalled. Now it languished on a high shelf, under a box full of cash register tapes. (Typical American, 199)
Ralph was satisfied with his American life. He bought all the things that were symbols of American family life: “[t]hey bought a barbecue, and a secondhand piano for the girls. … They bought a big picture book, Scenic Wonders of America, and talked about making trip to the Grand Canyon.” (Typical American, 202)
Unfortunately, not everything went successfully. Ralph made his sister move out although it was a Chinese tradition for the whole family to live together. His business also started to fall apart and Grover Ding, who was a master and a friend to him let him down, having an affair with Ralph’s wife. Even though Ralph perceived himself as an American, he could not understand the reason the bad things were happening to him. “In China, one lived in one’s family’s house. In America, one could always name whose house one was in; and to live in a house not one’s own was to be less than a man.” (Typical American, 283)
In my opinion Ralph became what we can call a typical American to a large extend. Although he never wanted to become one as he perceived the term as something bad, he almost rejected his Chinese origins seeking the American Dream. I believe that the title of the novel is ironic and it is related to all three main characters, especially Ralph. I think that Jen wanted to show the readers that Ralf, who often criticized typical Americans paradoxically became one and did everything he tried to avoid so much.