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Typical American

3.42  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,153 Ratings  ·  98 Reviews

From the beloved author of Mona in the Promised Land and The Love Wife comes this comic masterpiece, an insightful novel of immigrants experiencing the triumphs and trials of American life.

Gish Jen reinvents the American immigrant story through the Chang family, who first come to the United States with no intention of staying. When the Communists assume control of China i

Paperback, 304 pages
Published May 14th 1998 by Granta Books (first published 1991)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,286)
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This book should be required reading at my office.*

I have long wondered how my Chinese clients pick their Americanized name. How does Xiangxin become John? And Wenxia become Sara? The book solves the mystery! They have the secretary at their college’s office of international education pick it for them. Said secretary rolls through a mental list of all her ex-boyfriends. It’s like spinning the wheel of fortune. Voila, Yifeng becomes Ralph! Even Ralph seems letdown by this process:

Walking home, t
Omnipotent Dystopian Now
This is an absolutely fantastic story! Gish Jen is a masterful storyteller. I'm a bit surprised by some of these low ratings, especially by readers who honestly declare that they didn't even get far with the book. How do you review a book you didn't even read? Anyway, I disagree with them. Gish Jen's stories will transcend future generations. If you haven't tried her work, Typical American is a great read.
Wow. Gish Jen certainly does not give the Chinese immigrant experience a typical treatment. Her story just gets more and more outrageous as it goes on; I was like, "WTFrankfurters" the whole time. Ralph, who at the beginning is naive and endearing, towards the end becomes such a comical character that we become very distanced from him (or at least, that was how I felt). It was amusing and apalling (mostly appalling), especially the antagonist Grover. I knew he was coming back. Booo.

Having said t
Feb 25, 2008 Nian rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: deep fans of chinese american stories
Shelves: 2008
So I didn’t technically finish the book, but I did get up to page 90. And although I had break time to finish it—or at least get halfway through, as that’s how I’ve always judged books—I didn’t feel like it at all.

Usually, I love stories about Chinese Americans—because that’s me. I can totally relate to that. Anyway, that’s what this book is about: a boy called Ralph Chang who makes his way to America to study and get a degree. He later marries Helen and his sister Theresa comes to live with hi
Emi Bevacqua
This was not a joy to read. Up until the last 12 pages it all just kept plodding along heavily, the characters didn't make me laugh and I usually find Asian immigrants HILARIOUS.

Yifeng (Ralph) Chang comes to the US from China to study engineering. He starts out proud of his virtuous ethical ideals and then they disappear. Same thing happens to his sister Theresa and eventual wife Helen. Ralph befriends a Chinese-American named Grover Ding, a millionaire with questionable morals of his own, and
Priscilla Herrington
Gish Jin is an acclaimed Chinese-American author, yet until now I had not read any of her books. After reading Typical American, I will definitely read more!

In telling the story of Ralph Chang's journey from his youth in China through his emigration to the U.S., Jin tells a sort of every-immigrant story. There are all of Ralph's conflicts as the son of the family who is not a superstar; there are his difficulties with the English language; there is his failure to register his alien status and hi
Omnipotent Dystopian Now
This is an absolutely fantastic story! Gish Jen is a masterful storyteller. I'm a bit surprised by some of these low ratings, especially by readers who honestly declare that they didn't even get far with the book. How do you review a book you didn't even read? Anyway, I disagree with them. Gish Jen's stories will transcend future generations. If you haven't tried her work, Typical American is a great read.
Feb 17, 2011 Jennifer rated it liked it
3.5 stars. Loved the writing - Gish Jen is a great storyteller w/ a real way w/ words. That said, this was the kind of book that gets more and more depressing by the minute w/ people making terrible decisions left and right. I often really like books like that, but this time it just made me sad. Still, worth the read.
Bookend 451
Nov 19, 2015 Bookend 451 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015-reads
3.5 stars [Review to come]
Jun 29, 2015 Jeff rated it liked it
Though closer to a beach read than a deeply literary piece, this novel is a great example of the problems with assimilation into American culture. Jen seems to point the novel's antagonism at the dangers of American culture; specifically, the undying affection for and motivation toward the acquisition of money. The protagonist, Ralph (nee Yifeng) only ever aspires upward, ignoring his success and family for even higher inspirations of the false consciousness of America: that somehow hard work re ...more
Jun 13, 2015 Travis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A coming-to-America novel that knocks the gilded edges off of the American Dream. No heroes here, but complicated and deeply imagined characters struggling against themselves as much as their lives in a new country. Takes place in NE in about a decade of the 1950s and 1960s. sets up but doesn't carry out an interesting relationship between narrator who early on directly addresses and translates for an American audience.

themes: Chinese immigrants in America, patriarchy, violence against and abus
Tina Dalton
Jan 29, 2008 Tina Dalton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Tina by: Prof. Dong
Shelves: read-for-school
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 23, 2012 S. rated it really liked it
Shelves: dutchess
Gish Jen's Typical American surveys a broad range of immigrant Chinese American experience, and is populated by round, psychologically complex characters interacting in believable and striking ways. Jen's flaw as an author might only be a flaw of the Chinese American community itself, a tendency to presume "too much democracy" and too much equality in a country that has a bit more complex melding of Western tradition, class division and attachment to its roots than appears at first sight. Variou ...more
Scott Houston
Dec 01, 2013 Scott Houston rated it really liked it
Reading Like a Writer Review:

Since my family has lived in America for generations, I am always interested in the plight of newcomers to our nation. When I look at current struggles immigrants face, along with those my Irish ancestors faced, it makes me feel guilty for having a less stressful experience. I enjoyed reading this book because it shows the plight of Yifeng, an optimistic and somewhat naive newcomer to America. I enjoyed the character development he goes to, from changing his name to
Apr 30, 2016 Rebecca rated it liked it
I'm not sure how I feel about this book. To me, it was odd but it kept my interest to keep reading it and I have the second book Mona in the promised land to read tomorrow. That being said I do believe the book was perfect in the imperfection of the characters..showing them as true complicated people and I was glad to see a book that doesn't really have a rounded up ending because in truth life is never like that. It just continues and this was a refreshing change from "they all resolved issues ...more
Mar 30, 2014 Chris rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 17, 2015 Justin rated it liked it
At its most basic, this is a story of the 'Americanization' of Chinese immigrants. In the case of the Changs, becoming 'American' is a rough and bumpy road, filled with successes and failures, happiness and heartbreak. The Changs and their circle of immigrant friends take different approaches to their new lives: after initial success, Ralph becomes money hungry and gets duped; Theresa finds career success but little happiness; Helen struggles with her role as housewife; while Old Chao and Janis ...more
Oct 30, 2014 Melanie rated it liked it
This was an easy read, however, it felt like I was being told a story rather than feel a story. I really didn't connect with any of the characters. I disagreed with their view of a "typical American." I read this as part of a series on immigrants and touching on their experiences in the States. Much of the time I thought why did he or she do this. Maybe I had a high expectation. Maybe it was a cultural difference. Just didn't connect.
I read Gish Jen's "Mona in the Promised Land" in college and loooooved it, so when I saw this at a used book store I picked it up. I didn't connect with this book quite as much -- and was so frustrated by the main character that I often found myself shaking the book -- but it was an interesting look into immigrant life, and definitely worth the time.
Nov 08, 2007 Elyssa rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
This is an excellent novel about the immigration and assimilation of a Chinese family. It has some very dark elements and unusual characters, but this is effective in telling the story. Without summarizing or giving away the plot, I think the best part of this novel is the family's attempt to aspire to their perception of "The Amercian Dream" and finding that it ultimately doesn't provide the meaning and satisfaction they had expected. Also, that in trying to attain success they take short cuts, ...more
Dec 31, 2009 Zhuoshi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china, school
Jen's every word is action packed, leading you from sentence to sentence. Every description is necessary; nothing is superfluous. For me, that's a huge change from the "flowery language" that I'm used to and came with the 19th century writing like Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn or Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

But not only does the writing flower just the right amount, being succinct and to-the-point, Jen knows what she's talking about, too. Unlike certain other Chinese-related books
Gail Jeidy
Aug 23, 2009 Gail Jeidy rated it liked it
Jen's book follows the story of Yifend who becomes Ralph upon entering America. Ralph strives to distinguish himself from the contentious relationship he left behind in China with his father and other family members. But political events in China change everything and Ralph's plan falls apart and only comes together again when his sister shows up in America. This story is about the connection and disconnections of Ralph with his Chinese family and heritage. I wanted to read one of Gish Jen's nov ...more
Nov 30, 2015 Mary rated it it was ok
Shelves: recommended
This started out being funny, but much like "Mona in the Promised Land", lost its humor and became depressing. Initially I was pulling for Ralph's success, but unfortunately I grew to dislike him and then was hoping his sister Teresa would achieve what she was seeking.
Idea Smith
Jun 21, 2014 Idea Smith rated it did not like it
Very slow moving. I gave up, bored, by Page 27. It's possible that it's a really great book, just written in a different style from the American writers I'm used to. But I couldn't bear to spend another week trudging through past/present mixed tense writing.
Sep 02, 2012 Marvin rated it it was ok
There's no accounting for taste. I recommended Gish Jen's World & Town to a reading friend for whom it seemed just right, and she wondered why in the world I thought she'd like it. She, in turn, gave me a copy of Typical American, which she thought was much better. Well, not so much. It has some of the wit & style of World & Town, but mostly seems like a pretty typical tale of an immigrant couple in post-WWII America chasing (not very successfully) the American dream. Perhaps if I'd ...more
Tom Leland
Mar 01, 2016 Tom Leland rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exceptional writing, wonderful mastery of language. Reads like she sat down and wrote it straight through without a stop. I can only imagine how even more enjoyable it would be for Chinese-Americans who similarly came to the U.S. in the 40s/50s.
Mar 28, 2014 Jendi rated it liked it
Trenchant observations of human nature, poetic writing, but very bleak. It's painfully obvious that Ralph will never be the big man he dreams of becoming, nor does he really deserve to be. This plus the characters' self-centeredness gave the book a claustrophobic feeling at times, though it was also quite funny and had a few moments of revelatory beauty. Reminded me of Sinclair Lewis.
Sharon Stetter
May 06, 2015 Sharon Stetter rated it really liked it
Great beach read! As a matter of fact, that's where I found it - someone had left it behind in the dresser drawer of our vacation condo. It was funny and tragic and often hard to follow but I couldn't put it down. Good book!
Feb 27, 2014 Mara rated it liked it
Shelves: love-hate
I can't say that I enjoyed reading this book. However I read it over ten years ago and I still think about it. I often compare it to my expereince and to other books I have read. So I can't say that I disliked it either.
Demisty Bellinger
I really enjoyed this book! Obviously, it makes you consider what a typical American is, but it does so much more. It's one of those American dream books that explores aspirations of wealth and power and what those dreams can do to you and make you do. This is told from Ralph Chang's point-of-view mostly, but we also get his sister and wife's perspectives at times. All three characters are immigrants from Chinese and all three strive to create some respectable grounding--both from their heritage ...more
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500 Great Books B...: Typical American - Gish Jen 1 1 Jul 27, 2014 01:53PM  
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Gish Jen grew up in New York, where she spoke more Yiddish than Chinese. She has been featured in a PBS American Masters program on the American novel. Her distinctions also include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship, and a Radcliffe Institute fellowship. She was awarded a Lannan Literary Prize in 1999 and received a Harold and Mildred Str ...more
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“A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so.” 2 likes
“He was like a nation in crisis, looking back, and back and back — its history might be ugly, but its past shone perfect.” 1 likes
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