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Typical American

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  1,360 Ratings  ·  117 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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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
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
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
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.
Alex Klimkewicz
Mar 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, eng331
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
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
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.
Bookend 451
Oct 24, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015-reads
3.5 stars [Review to come]
Kellyn Brooks
Jun 22, 2018 rated it did not like it
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
As always, I enjoyed this author’s style, character development and storytelling
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.
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.
Jun 08, 2018 rated it did not like it
Although Jen Gish typically ranks very highly among my authors whom I like to read, this book did not please me like her others.
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
Tina Dalton
Jan 27, 2008 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.
Scott Houston
Dec 01, 2013 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
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
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
Oct 22, 2007 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
Sep 29, 2007 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
Dec 14, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: school, china
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
Jun 29, 2015 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
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500 Great Books B...: Typical American - Gish Jen 1 3 Jul 27, 2014 01:53PM  
  • China Men
  • Bone
  • Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction
  • American Knees
  • China Boy
  • Eat A Bowl Of Tea
  • Monkey Bridge
  • The Floating World
  • Blu's Hanging
  • Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology
  • Hunger: A Novella and Stories
  • Comfort Woman
  • This Is a Bust
  • Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans
  • No-No Boy
  • Her Wild American Self
  • A Gesture Life
  • Fifth Chinese Daughter
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
“A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so.” 4 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
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