What Was Mine
Typical American, Gish Jen’s poised, unsentimental novel about a Chinese immigrant’s life in the United States, is as preoccupied with the notion of pairs, doubles, and the interplay of possibility and limitation as the famous Chinese book of divination, the I Ching, or Book of Changes. Even the typical American of Jen’s title is a Chinese immigrant, a man of two names, two cultures, and two languages.
When we meet Jen’s hero, “Yifeng—Intent on the Peak,” as a boy of modest academic talent, his goal in China is “struggling to grow up his father’s son.” When he arrives in America after “the Anti-Japanese War” as an engineering student, only to be trapped by the Communist victory in China, permanently separated from his family, his goal becomes simply to grow up. In America, Yifeng discovers romantic individualism, that raft on which both immigrants and the native-born shoot the white rapids of American life, through the works of Norman Vincent Peale. It seems no accident that the name Yifeng is given on his US papers is Ralph, a name shared with Emerson, whose ideas he is living out, with mixed success and disaster.
Although his parents disappear, never to be heard from again, Ralph is not alone in America for long. Jen quickly sets beside him his contrasting partner in the form of his older sister, Theresa, who has escaped to America in the company of a school friend, and finds Ralph just in time to save him from suicidal despair over his lost country and family. Even in the incident of their chance encounter in a New York park, Jen subtly provides two versions. Ralph responds to the coincidence with dual vision, both American and Chinese. The American version has a comical, rags-to-riches, complete reversal-of-fortune quality: “‘Was miracle’…anyone could…hear in his voice all that the word meant to him—rocks burst into blossom, the black rinsed from the night sky. Life itself unfurled. As he apparently, finally, deserved.” The Chinese version is less absolute, more like the delicate metamorphoses of line drawings, in which the original line is present and preserved even as it curves into a new shape: “But what earthly luck could have produced this black coat, made it stop—could have made it talk Shanghainese, no less, could have turned it right before his eyes into a sister, his sister?”
Theresa’s reappearance is both a grace and a curse. She saves Ralph from suicide and restores him to family life, sharing a flat with him and her school friend, Helen, whom he marries, but she also inadvertently renews family jealousies and quarrels. As a boy, Ralph called her “Know-It-All,” irritated by her superior intellectual gifts and the way the family held her up as an example. It is as if one of Frank Capra’s amateurish angels settles down with the family it rescues. Ralph discovers how chafing it can be when divine agents don’t disappear after their …