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Gish Jen, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Gish Jen is an American female writer of Asian origin whose works are inspired by her own experiences growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in multicultural America. Although many of her writings are about Asian Americans and their problems while adapting to the American society, she resists labeling by incorporating many other themes and writing about many other minorities, apart from Chinese Americans. Jen wrote both short fiction and novels, and regardless of their length, her works always comprise more complex conflicts that they first appear to, and their messages also have the power to cross the racial and class gap, and to become inherently American. Thus, whereas Jen attacks many different topics and creates a wide array of characters, what unites her writings is the depiction of multiculturalism in America, with its problems and beauty. No other country in the world is as multicultural as America, and where it is best reflected is in the family. Jen therefore resists being labeled as an Asian writer, and instead, tries to speak for the entire America by writing about multicultural families. Therefore, while she does not neglect her Chinese roots, Gish Jen tries to cross the limits of her own ancestry, and to write about American multiculturalism and interracial relationships in the community and in the family. By doing so, the present paper argues, Jen tries to send a message concerning the meaning of being American in present –day America and the difficulties encountered by immigrants’ descendents to define their own American identity.

Gish Jen’s concern with multiculturalism and the way it affects family life comes from her own experience growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in multicultural America. Born in 1955 in New York, Jen moved in a Jewish suburb with her family as a young girl (Lee 217).  A Chinese girl growing up in America, she was therefore early in her life subject to a third influence, that of Jewish culture. However, Jen was raised a typical Chinese daughter, who was expected to make her family proud by being not only by being obeisant, but also   by succeeding in life and having a successful career. According to Don Lee (218), being Chinese already marked her future by drawing a line between what she could, and what she could not do. She was supposed to pick a practical career, and becoming a writer was something that she could not hope to achieve without ruining her relationship with her parents.  However, despite trying her best to satisfy their wishes, Jen finally gave up trying to become business women and followed her writing passion instead.  As expected, her parents did not react well: they cut her funds and her mother refused to talk to her for a year (Lee 218). The Asian American Jen married Irish American David O’Conner after graduation, thus creating her own multicultural family. From their marriage, two children resulted, who carry a double heritage, but who are in essence, Americans. Therefore, it is easy to understand Jen’s preoccupation with racial identity, and also, with American identity. What it means to be American in a society of so many different influences, and if there even exists such thing as an ‘American identity’ is explored by Jen in many of her works, in which family, as the ‘ground zero’ of the identity, interracial and generational conflicts, is the constant theme.  While many of her works are inspired by her own experiences with multiculturalism and interracial and generational conflict, two works are particularly relevant in this respect, namely the novel “Mona in the Promised Land” and the short story “Who’s Irish?”.

In “Mona in the Promised Land”, Jen explores the difficulty of finding one’s own identity in the diverse American society, and challenges readers to question whether identity is something that we acquire at birth, or we can assume at will. In the novel, the Chang family composed of middle-class Chinese parents and two teenage daughters, Mona and Callie, move to the Jewish neighborhood of Scarshill, modeled after Jen’s own neighbourhood. Both daughters have to come at terms with what it means for them to be American, and to be of Chinese origin. For this reason, Mona assumes a powerful Chinese identity early in her adolescence, so as to demonstrate her racial pride, and to have a sense of identity. This means acting in a way that highlights her Chinese roots so as to perform, as Fu-Jen Chen argues, “stereotyped, exotic and mythic Chinese types” (59). However, later she tries to redefine herself by becoming Jewish.  Mona’s incursion into the Jewish culture and faith is in fact a statement and a challenge to her parents who would like to see her as a typical Chinese girl. Mona however, is American, which is such a fluid concepts that Mona has to explore it by undertaking a new and much more complex identity. Thus, according to her, “Jewish is American…American means whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish” (Jen “Mona” 49). Her new identity is confirmed at the end of the novel, when Mona changes her name into “Changowitz”. This name that humorously suggests Chinese and Jewish heritage is also a message sent by the author concerning her own understanding of American identity as not being necessarily tied to one’s racial background but rather, to the sum of experiences one has growing up in America. This novel is concerned with what it means to be American, and how people of different races living in the same community influence each other, being obviously inspired by Jen’s own childhood as a Chinese girl in a Jewish community. However, Jen’ experiences with racial clash in the context of multicultural America do not stop here, because she marries an Irish American man, and forms a mixed family. This experience inspires one of her most acclaimed short stories, “Who’s Irish?”.

Jen’s “Who’s Irish” is narrated by an unnamed grandmother, in whose commentary upon her daughter’s mix marriage provides an innocent account of the stereotypes that also exist among minorities , and of the necessity to overcome them. In the story, the Chinese grandmother observes and comments upon her successful daughter’s marriage with an Irish American man, John Shea, who fails to secure employment. Particularly important in the story is her view of her granddaughter, who inherits her father’s ‘wild’ Irish nature, thereby, being very unusual for a Chinese girl, which is emphasized throughout the story, and causes her to declare, “I am not exaggerate,  millions of children in China and not one acts like this” (Jen “Who’s Irish” 12). The little girl’s shocks the old woman, who does not know how to react, except for spanking her, which is the customary Chinese way of disciplining children. Her daughter and her son-in-law however do not approve of this behavior, thus suggesting the gap not only between generations, but between cultures as well: the grandmother is Chinese, whereas her daughter is American. Also important in the story is the gap between the Chinese and the Irish cultures, both of which having prejudicial views of each other. As Rachel Lee explains, “even  as  she  renders  the  dramatic  center  of  her  story  a  struggle  between mother  and  a  daughter  (and granddaughter),  Jen  mines  a buried intercultural  history  of  travel,  contact  and labor competition between  the  Chinese  and  Irish  diasporas in  the  United  States”(13).  Thus, according to Lee, the Irish workers were favorably compared with the Chinese ones, and started to favor the latter on the work market. This competition is reflected in the story, in which the narrator openly disapproves of the four Shea boys’ inability to find work.   From the Irish side too,   racism is also felt in John’s eternal threat that he will send the narrator back to China. Also, his mother declares that, “I never thought John was marrying down. I always thought Nattie was just as good as white” (7), which suggests that she could have, although Natalie is vice president of a bank, while her own son is unemployed. Finally, in the middle of all this interracial tension, there is little Sophie who unites them all. She has her own identity, which is suggested by her brown skin, which cannot be attributed to either Irish or Chinese heritage. Although she cares so much about her Chinese heritage, the narrator is forced by the circumstances to adopt a new identity. Thus, similarly to the way in which Mona becomes “Changowitz”, the Chinese grandmother becomes an “honorary Irish”, which actually suggests that she becomes American because, as: “Jew means American”. Irish means American as well.

As it was shown throughout this paper, Gish Jen’s works are inspired by her own experiences growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in America. Jen’s writings also depict the difficulties of maintaining the harmony in a multiracial family, the cultural differences between Chinese parents and their Americanized children, and the challenges of defining what it means to be American in multicultural America. Ultimately, her works aim to challenge strict labels based only on race or ethnic heritage particularly since one is subject to so many different cultural influences and may also posses multiple ethnic or racial backgrounds. The author’s message therefore is that there are no Chinese Americans, or Irish Americans, but rather, that in America, there are only Americans.

Annotated Bibliography

Chen, Fu-Jen. Performing Identity in Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land. The international Fiction Review 34 (2007): 57-68. Web.

The author tries to analyze the instances of identity performance and sweeping in Gish Jen’s “Mona in the Promised Land”. The author reviews the way in which each major character ‘performs’ identities in the novel, by undertaking new identities. The author tries to explain what this means and how it relates to the larger issues of class and politics of identity in the contemporary American society. The article’s strength consists in the closes analysis of the Chang daughters’ identity switching. In addition, he analyses the manner in which Seth, Mona’s boyfriend performs identities, by undertaking different identities , while in the same time declaring that he is for complete genuineness.

Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Knopf. 1996. Print

The novel debates the problem of identity through the story of Mona and Callie Chang, the daughters of Chinese immigrants who move into a Jewish neighborhood. Both girls cross several stages of self-discovery but Mona’s development is most interesting, as she first exaggerates her Chinese identity first by acting as exotically and typically Asian as possible. However, later, she tries other identities as well, and finally discovers the Jewish culture, which she adopts, to the dismay of her parents, who try to explain to her that she must not forget who she is. Mona however, knows who she is, she is an American. The only problem is to discover what that means for her. The solution is in the end to embrace all the influences that shaped her, which s suggested by her name change.

Jen, Gish. “Who’s Irish” Who’s Irish. New York: A.A. Knopf. 1999. Print.

This is the first story in the volume with the same name, written by Gish Jen. The story depicts the relationship between an unnamed Chinese grandmother and her Chinese-Irish granddaughter, whom she finds difficult to care for, due to her Irish traits. The grandmother’s dilemma however crosses her babysitting duties, and reflects inflexibility that stops her to adjust to the American culture.  The grandmother has her own stereotypes concerning Irish people, whom she sees as wild and lazy. However, forced by circumstances to move out from her daughter’s home, she becomes influenced by the mother of her son-in-law, who gives her the title of “honorary Irish”.

Lee, Don. “About Gish Jen: A Profile”. Ploughshares 26.2 (2000): 217-222. Web.

His article is concerned with Gish Jen’s persona, as an individual and as a writer. The author outlines Jen;s life and the development of her career, pointing out towards the most relevant experiences that shaped her identity as an American writer. The article begins by telling the story of how she became a writer, and the difficulties she had to overcome, some of which were determined by her ethnicity, which determined publishers to expect certain types of writings from her.  The author then proceeds to present three of her most important works, “Typical American”, “Mona in the Promised Land” and “Who’s Irish”, and explains the circumstances in which they were written and how they were received by the public.  The author lastly makes a very important point, that Jen did not want to be labeled as an Asian American writer, but as an American one.

Lee, Rachel. “Who’s Chinese? Gish Jen’s Stories Explore the Terms of Our Traveling Cultures”. The Women’s Reviews of Books. 19. 5. (2002):13-14. Web.

In her article, Rachel Lee analyzes the manner in which the topic of dislocation is treated in Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?”. In her article, the author particularly focuses on the unnamed narrator, who suffers various degrees of dislocation, first from her country of origin, and then from her daughter’s home. Lee explains the fragility of the narrator’s situation, as a woman who has no place of her own in her country of adoption and is constantly threatened with being sent back in China. However, her situation changes, as the result of the bond she form when she I invited to become a ‘permanent resident’ in the house of the mother of her son-in-law. In addition, the article analyses the two cultures depicted in the story, the Irish and the Chinese one, as two traveling cultures, because both migrated in order to find better work opportunities and found themselves in competition once in America.

Works Cited

Chen, Fu-Jen. Performing Identity in Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land. The international Fiction Review 34 (2007): 57-68. Web.

Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Knopf. 1996. Print

Jen, Gish. “Who’s Irish” Who’s Irish. New York: A.A. Knopf. 1999. Print.

Lee, Don. “About Gish Jen: A Profile”. Ploughshares 26.2 (2000): 217-222. Web.

Lee, Rachel. “Who’s Chinese? Gish Jen’s Stories Explore the Terms of Our Traveling Cultures”. The Women’s Reviews of Books. 19. 5. (2002):13-14. Web.

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