Nobody writes about the immigrant experience like Gish Jen. What sets her apart from other ethnic writers is the wide-angle lens she turns not only on her own Chinese American ethnic group, but on Jewish Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, and just about any other hyphenate you'd care to name. Though her tales are filtered through an Asian experience, they are, at heart, the quintessential American story of immigration, assimilation, and occasional tensions with other ethnic communities. The title story, for example, is a neat variation on a time-worn theme: mothers and daughters. The narrator is an elderly Chinese woman whose thoroughly assimilated daughter, Natalie, has married into an Irish American family. Natalie is successful; her husband, John, is not. Natalie's mother comments early on:
I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish. Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family, of course not. My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that.
The narrator has other thoughts on the Irish question as well, including the connection between national diet and world view: "Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking," she says of John, then adds that "because I grew up with black bean sauce and hoisin sauce and garlic sauce, I always feel something is missing when my son-in-law talk." But it soon becomes apparent that the problems between the narrator and her daughter's family are less cultural than generational, and in the end the mother forms a surprising alliance.
Jen comes at the question of identity from another angle in "Duncan in China," in which a second-generation Chinese American man returns to Mainland China to teach English. Here she manages to delicately suggest the enormity of the differences between the very American Duncan and his Chinese students, coworkers, and relatives. And in "Birthmates" she places her computer programmer protagonist, Art Woo, in close proximity to the low-income, mostly black residents of a welfare hotel that he's accidentally checked into. Class, race, gender, and job security all figure into this brilliant, subtle story that looks at the dark side of the American dream and finds that failure comes in all colors. These eight stories are sharply written, filled with humor, pathos, and more than a few surprising twists and turns. Quite simply, Who's Irish? is a delight. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
The Chinese-American author (Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land) is a known quantity by now, though her sometimes uproarious but just as often compassionate tales of culture clash always manage to find some new and surprising angles from which to ambush the reader. There are two novella-length tales in this breezy, assured collection: Duncan in China tells of a young man, a dropout at home, who achieves a certain bizarre status on a prolonged visit to contemporary China, and of the perplexing choices he has to make when all his usual assumptions are turned on their heads. House, House, Home is the account of Pammies two marriages, to wry, eccentric Scandinavian Sven and, later, to massively laid-back Carver from Hawaii, and the sorts of space these very different men give her to move in. As always with Jen, a multitude of details, domestic and behavioral, are acutely observed, and the impact, in barely 80 pages, is that of a much longer work. The title story is a delightfully rueful account of a Chinese grandmother trying to come to terms with her spoiled Irish grandchild, Birthmates is a cunningly woven mixture of farce and pathos about a born loser looking for a job at a convention and In the American Society portrays the mixed dignity and foolishness of a traditional Chinese man trying, and failing, to adapt to our odd mores.
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