Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Typical American” as Want to Read:
Typical American
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Typical American

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  1,515 ratings  ·  133 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

Paperback, 304 pages
Published May 14th 1998 by Granta Books (first published 1991)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Typical American, please sign up.
Recent Questions
This question contains spoilers… (view spoiler)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.42  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,515 ratings  ·  133 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Typical American
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
Feb 11, 2008 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
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
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.
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. ...more
Dec 23, 2012 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
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
Beatrice Gormley
This is probably the best book I've read about the immigrant experience. Three young Chinese come to New York at the beginning of the Communist revolution in China. They only intend to stay a few years, but Mao Zedong's takeover strands them in the United States permanently, as they gradually and reluctantly realize. Each of the three struggles in their own way to learn the language and customs of their new country, to earn a living, to come to terms with the ways they have changed. Poignantly, ...more
Iusvaldio R
Oct 11, 2017 rated it it was ok
The writing style drives me mad. The characters, especially Ralph, were obnoxiously unlikable (which is weird since I rarely mind unlikable characters)

The only good thing is that it gives me insight regarding Chinese experience.

I really dislike the writing style, too confusing. My head hurts because of sentences that won't make sense even I read them over and over again.

I read this for class fortunately, the teacher is great for triggering interesting discussion about Chinese experience, not abo
Apr 27, 2008 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.
Alex Klimkewicz
Mar 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: eng331, 2017
Chinese immigrants assimilate into America. Love, loss, and cultural (mis)understanding.
I read this for an online English course. What follows is my discussion board post covering this novel:

American Dream, Chinese Nightmare
Ralph Chang comes to the United States to get an education, vowing to keep his head down (hardly looking at the sights during his transcontinental train ride) and dedicate his spare time to cultivating virtue, honoring his family, and keeping away from girls (Gish 6). In tim
Jeannie L
Mar 13, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: for-school
read for school, did not enjoy it. Little explanation on how Ralph and Helen even have chemistry, storyline rushes forward. Unnecessary Chinese volcab inserted. Save ur time and souls ppl.
Sep 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Funny, sad, true, and incredibly entertaining, Typical American has remained near the top of my list of all-time favorite books ever since I first read it several years ago. There's a clear-eyed, generous, tough-minded heart at the center of this novel about a Chinese immigrant's experience of trying to make a life and a family for himself in our wonderful but profoundly complicated country. ...more
3.5 stars [Review to come]
Kellyn Brooks
Jun 22, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: hard-copy
The following is a discussion post I wrote for my Women and Gender Studies intro course regarding this book, which we were asked to read for our "big assignment":

I would like to take this opportunity to air some of my grievances about Typical American. I mean this as an opinionated response, and I don’t mean to offend anybody who enjoys this book at all.

I had been looking forward to starting to read this book, because I tend to enjoy books about immigrants and foreigners who experience American
Sep 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Typical American’s Typical Book Review
By Colin Eldred
The book Typical American by Gish Jen is about a Chinese family who sends their children to the United States for school and job opportunities. The children use the phrase typical American as a way of calling us dumb or stupid. By the end of the book the family changes their views on what the typical American really is because of all of their experiences in the United States. I found this book very interesting in the beginning, but the rest I
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
I couldn't finish this book. The writing style was suffocatingly bland and I didn't care about any of the characters: Ralph, Helen, Theresa. They represent a very narrow slice of the Chinese American experience: privileged, overeducated and smug, possibly like the author. I couldn't relate to any of them, and whatever racism they must have experienced coming to America in the 1950s is ridiculously minimized and glossed over. Chinese-Americans are still seen as "foreign" 50 years after WWII so to ...more
Aug 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
This is a dark, dark book. A newly immigrated group of Chinese students become family and take on the worst aspects of our culture during the 60’s and 70’s. I found the adoption of deadly sins hard to believe and the protagonist’s leaving academia for the tax fraud possibilities of a chicken franchise seemed absurd. The small lies and major deceptions seem also implausible but perhaps I don’t know the truth.

As to the characters, most are unlikable, even before their Faustian acts.

It feels like
Joanne Kelleher
Jun 04, 2017 rated it liked it
We read this for our library book club. It is the story of a family of Chinese Immigrants circa 1949. Ralph, the main character, comes to the USA as a university student. We watch him transform from a fearful student to the "typical American" that he mocked when he was first starting out. It was a tough read. Even though Ralph was hard to like, I felt for him as his world started to unravel. It was interesting to see what this Chinese family perceived as "typical" American behavior. ...more
Sep 24, 2018 rated it liked it
I'm fond of books with protagonists I like and this book had none. That said, everybody had foibles that I can relate to, but the number of cringe-worthy situations almost made me put this book down. How can bright people do stupid things? The story I should have - wanted to - absorb was the difficulties of being an immigrant, but the interpersonal drama mostly eclipsed that message. I'm conflicted about whether to pursue Jen's other books. ...more
David Velasco
This book presents a telling portrait of an immigrant chasing the American dream that is at times funny, grim, and depressingly real. Ralph and his family are the type of characters you root for even through their missteps and questionable decisions. I was a little bit underwhelmed by the ending, and the story carried a (sometimes) necessary awkwardness throughout, but overall Jen's writing was enjoyable, carrying the overarching theme of xiang banfa, to find a way. ...more
Sharon Falduto
I heard this author's name somewhere, so when I saw it on the shelf, I thought, "Oh. Right. I have heard of this person, which means they must be good." This is the story of a Chinese immigrant who comes to America and can't really find his place, deals with trying to assimilate into a new culture, and interacts with some unusual characters. I think I expected more from this book than I got; I never quite felt like I had any traction with the main character or liked him very much. ...more
Jarrett Neal
DNF-ed on page 177. I was thoroughly disappointed in this novel. Uninteresting, flat characters, a banal plot, dialogue like white noise, and Jen's erratic writing style made this the least successful immigrant story I've ever read. Jen has all the components for a daring, insightful immigrant story here, but she just doesn't deliver. Pity. ...more
Jan 16, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Sorry I didn’t like this book. I chose it to try and get an understanding but all it did was annoy me. It was slow and boring and Ralph is really annoying. The whole choosing a name thing is ok but after being to China I just don’t think they do it like that anymore. Our tour guide chose his name based on Wilson from castaway.
Danny Graham
Jul 07, 2020 rated it liked it
By the end of this book, I felt like I really enjoyed it, but when I started looking back through it for my class, I realized how insufferable most of the characters are and how much I did not like the early parts of the book. However, I did like some of the ideas it had about how powerful nostalgia can be and how it can warp our perceptions of the past.
The  Discerning  Reader

I enjoyed the first part more than the second half. The challenges faced by new immigrants, the resilience they demonstrated in overcoming them and the things they learnt along the way. Some parts felt like they were of a later era and not of when the book meant to place them in. The lAnguage was simple.
Dec 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wow. Sad and heartwarming, complicated and simple. This is a beautifully written and often surprising story of Chinese immigrants in America mid 20th century. But also it is a profoundly human story about hope and life and family. I loved the descriptive writing that was full of comparisons that were at once surprising and perfect. I also loved that I always knew something was coming but was often wrong on the what. Definitely would recommend!
Kathleen O'Nan
May 14, 2018 rated it liked it
While I enjoyed this very much, it did not measure up to her book of short stories, Who's Irish. This was her debut novel and for a first timer, very impressive. There were parts that were laugh out loud funny and other parts that nearly brought me to tears. I'll read more of Gish. ...more
Steve Williams
Sep 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
tight, funny, and totally engrossing mini epic. surprised that this isn't more widely read. ...more
Mar 21, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book gets a “C” from me: while the prose was technically masterful, the story never felt entirely compelling to me, and the ending seemed too rushed and abrupt.
« previous 1 3 4 5 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
500 Great Books B...: Typical American - Gish Jen 1 4 Jul 27, 2014 01:53PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • No-No Boy
  • Tropic of Orange
  • Native Speaker
  • A Gesture Life
  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
  • Middle Passage
  • Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood
  • Divide Me By Zero
  • Mumbo Jumbo
  • We Live in Water
  • Buck: A Memoir
  • The People of Paper
  • Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories
  • The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Two, 1912-1922
  • Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
  • The Good Terrorist
  • Letters Home
  • Making it Up
See similar books…
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

Related Articles

  Mateo Askaripour is a Brooklyn-based writer whose debut novel, Black Buck—which Colson Whitehead calls a “mesmerizing novel, executing a high...
71 likes · 8 comments
“A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so.” 5 likes
“One left; things shifted in one's absence; one returned to something else. Time frustrated all. There was no sneaking past its rough guard, even to get to one's own yard of intimacies.” 2 likes
More quotes…