Gendered Home and Space for the Diaspora: Gish Jen’s Typical American
Lan Dong

The contemporary literary field reveals a plurality of ways within the narrative form that diaspora writers can explore modes to reflect their experiences as well as represent their disrupted dwelling spaces and identities. Hence, literature of migration is by no means monolithic: instead of uniformity there is multiplicity; rather than fixity there is flux; and instead of stabilization there are continually new understandings and foci. For those authors who are particularly concerned with spatiality, finding a voice for rootless people involves the act of inventing a dwelling space in different locations. This invention in turn incurs a conceptualization of home for the diaspora. As we shall examine below, the notion of home as a trope appears at both internal and external levels. For diasporic people, the dwelling space in the U.S. that one creates does not simply mimic that of one’s original homeland or of one’s adopted American life, but rather reflects a sense of being “in-between”. To this degree, diaspora writers’ discursive reconstruction is wrought through physical places as well as mental spaces. That is, the diaspora’s literary configuration involves using various processes and practices to configure persons and groups in assorted sites that account for how they may define themselves by way of reconstructing, and at times deconstructing, certain dwelling places. Thus as a conceptual understanding as well as an ideological practice, diaspora writing investigates the tensions and complications of fitting into one’s “host society” as well as redefining one’s identity.

Due to the diversity of literature on migration, the critical responses to this body of work are varied. Following the theoretical framework that geographer Edward Soja proposed in his influential work entitled, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (1996), the German critic Heike Paul explicates the relevance of space in the context of immigrant women’s writing and thereby suggests “a ‘spatial turn’ in literary studies, a turn which already has been articulated for a number of disciplines and fields of cultural inquiry” (2). According to Paul, “immigrant writing usually has at its core a change of place, a dislocation, and displacement” (35).[1] Therefore immigrants need to interrogate “where we are” before they can solve the problem of “who we are” (2). In this sense, the exploration of dwelling space in the literature of migration belongs to the “poetics of location” (2). Dwelling space, a topic like food, sexuality,[2] and “talk-stories,” has become another semiotic in diasporic writing, through which issues of gender relations can be explored in terms of how they work continuously but differently across homelessness and how space is shaped, subverted, and reshaped within a gendered context. The spatial metaphor of the room and, by extension, of the apartment and the house as well as of different loci within and around it, have been noted and re-imagined in immigrant women’s writing, “a literature which by definition implies a change of house and home” (Paul 35).

Along this trajectory, I intend to explore the spatial negotiation through a gendered lens in the characters’ process of seeking a dwelling space that could make them feel at home by way of examining a particular text: Gish Jen’s debut novel, Typical American (1991). The protagonists of this book, Ralph, Helen, and Theresa Chang, linked by either blood or marriage, are educated first-generation immigrants from China who live in the U.S. from the late 1930s through the 1960s. Being away from their homeland exacerbates their sense of homelessness, a fact that motivates the diasporic Changs’ constant efforts to reconstruct their home in various dwelling places. As a familial unit and as individuals, they attempt to build within their adopted life in America a space both within and outside their family residence. Their “homing” process is intertwined with a course of negotiating gender relations with one another. In Jen’s work, the Changs’ spatial agenda has its central setting in their family, a particular social unit. Furthermore, their continuous search for a dwelling space is exemplified though the trope of home. Admittedly, home is a complex notion that embraces geographical and relational components while connoting a sense of belonging.[3] On one level, home is, like locality, “a site which is variably constituted in relation to ‘stretched’ social relations and flows of all sorts” (Jones, Nast, and Roberts 401). Yet, on another level, home can also be viewed as a permeable nexus, able to be reassessed (Jones, Nast, and Roberts 401).

The Changs’ familial residence serves as the central venue of the book, while the outer loci are either its spatial extensions or its social counterparts. At first glance, their “homing” process appears to be along an “upward mobility”: their family habitation changes from basement to a cramped apartment to a more spacious apartment, and then to a private suburban house. A closer reading, nonetheless, suggests a constant deconstruction that subverts the tale of the propertied progress of this Chinese American family. The wall in their apartment eventually causes the corner of the building to fall off; Helen’s affair with Grover Ding, a Chinese American proprietor, at the nook of the kitchen turns the Changs’ cozy house into a site of betrayal and intensifies the family’s falling apart; the addition constructed to Ralph’s Chicken House leads to the closure of the family business and a disastrous financial crisis for the Changs. All these vignettes frequently dismiss the characters’ feeling of “being at home” and therefore makes it impossible for any family residence to be the destination of their “homing” process. Through tracing the various ups and downs in the Changs’ family and personal lives, I shall map the complicated course of their reconstructing a dwelling space (both familial and individual) in the U.S. that is anything but stable and secure. Moreover, this complex “homing” development is portrayed particularly through conflicts and negotiations between men and women. That is to say, the Changs’ respective spatiality is crisscrossed with a continual adjustment of gender relations as husband and wife (Ralph and Helen), brother and sister (Ralph and Theresa).

The house (and the apartment), as the interior family space, as well as the university, restaurant, and hospital as the exterior social sites, become crucial settings for the gendered “homing” process in the Changs’ stories. Home – extending to, reflecting, and reflected by various dwelling spaces – is not fixed but always being constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. In particular, each character employs a distinctive strategy for adopting his or her own space in response to the anxiety of being homeless. The trajectories they undergo in finding their own dwelling space are interrelated and at times even contradictory. Ralph’s obsession with taking control of the familial and social space is more or less incurred by his anxiety over securing his position as the father of the family. The female characters’ “homing” devices function in two ways. On the one hand, Helen and Theresa continue to compromise in order to ease Ralph’s angst and to confirm for him his patriarchal domination at home and his professional progress in American society; on the other hand, the sisters-in-law also struggle to claim their respective female space in the household and in social circles. As the Asian American critic Elaine H. Kim has pointed out, “[f]or many Asian American women writers, then, claiming America for Asian Americans is inseparable from the claim on female self and subjectivity” (81). Here, Jen’s discursive reconstruction of a dwelling space for her diasporic female characters is empowered by the concern of female agency. The two women characters’ process of perceiving their Chinese Americanness[4] and of reconstructing their own space is tightly interwoven with their efforts to pursue their female subjectivity in addition to balancing their gender relations to Ralph.

The geographical shift and the consequent social and cultural change enable new possibilitites for the immigrant women to construct their own space beyond and within the household. Scholars of feminist geography note:

One of the key concerns of feminism has been to draw attention to the contrast between the lives of women, centered upon the ‘personal’ or ‘private’ sphere of home, family and domestic concerns, and the lives of men which are centered upon the ‘public’ sphere of waged work and formal political activity. The identification of these two spheres with women and men respectively generally tends to be interpreted as meaning that men and women are equal but different. (Women and Geography Study Group 24)

Such early perceptions of women as primarily suited to fulfill certain “female” functions within the familial space and the justification of the monopoly by men of the whole outside world has been reconsidered. Contemporary feminist scholarship has challenged the conflation of public/private with male/female. Stereotypical notions of women’s spatiality have been questioned by feminist geographers (see, for example, Valentine 22-29), as well as the dichotomy between the private and the public (McDowell 1999, 73-74). I consider Jen’s novel a fictional account on this track. In the Changs’ “homing” process, Ralph has periods of time staying home and doing nothing but lying on the couch like “an oversized pillow,” while the women play the roles of breadwinner and housekeeper. Moreover, Theresa’s success in public space as a woman professional and the nuances in Helen’s activities in private realm as a housewife show new possibilities of a woman’s place.

In Typical American, the spaces of the female figures are expanded from the kitchen and the family business portrayed in many Chinese American texts to a variety of places, including the family residence, neighbourhood, and other American social loci.[5] The narrative and depiction of Helen’s American life as a housewife provide a window to the complexities and possibilities within the “private” or domestic sphere. To put it in another way, the readers see distinctions of “staying home” for Ralph and Helen in Typical American, which we shall analyze below. Moreover, the story about Theresa represents women’s efforts to seek out a space in the professional world. Compared to the husband-wife model of Ralph and Helen, the continuously adjusted sibling relations between Ralph and Theresa extend the narrative to a broader American social location. Acting on his fantasy of becoming a success story, Ralph tries and fails to mold an “American can-do type” of self, while Theresa pursues her career as a doctor and in the meantime attempts to save her brother’s face (155).[6] Yet, all their activities in the social loci are oriented around the axis of home, a reconstructed dwelling space for this diasporic family. Thus Jen’s fictional investment, set from the immigrants’ perspective, not only destabilizes the traditional conception of home as a site of security and steadiness through centering her narrative around the displaced people’s dynamic “homing” process, but also addresses the conceptual supplement and revision of home in a gendered context.

In Jen’s novel, home is excavated as a repository of layers of functions, purposes, and spheres of gendered dynamics. First of all, the family house, with its social and spatial connotations, serves as a symbol for the private self. To be at home for the Changs is to be protected and stationed, and also to enjoy the security of belonging to a certain space, even though only temporarily. Moreover, Jen’s literary representation of home and “homing” challenges any assumption that views the family residence as a private sphere beyond the public purview. Helen’s passion for hiding things, both in physical and psychological senses, exemplifies the irresolvable need to create her privacy and dwelling space even “at home.” All the ups and downs within and outside their family thus force the Changs to face the reality of their spatial negotiations, with gains and losses, pleasure and pain, all of which complicate the possibilities and directions for their American life. At once irreducibly private, intensely communicative, and fraught with public implications, spatiality is invoked and aptly adjusted in Jen’s novel to enact a number of conflicts not peculiar to diasporic subjects but certainly exacerbated by their precarious economic, social, and cultural situations.

What is particularly notable in Jen’s work is how the Changs’ familial and individual space derives from the ways in which home and other localities are relationally dislocated and relocated. Consequently, the Changs’ “homing” development turns out to be a process of construction, subversion, and reconstruction. Not only do assorted sites appear as gendered, but gender is also allocated to certain spaces along the storyline. This fiction, in my view, belongs to the “scripts of relational positionality.”[7] Thus, my study of the diasporic Changs’ home and space frames the dwelling space as mutually constitutive with identity and subjectivity.

The Changs from China to America: So It Begins

In their sociological study, Peter Chua and Diane Fujino suggest a long-lasting struggle for Asian American men to balance their “contradictory positions as members of a privileged gender group and subordinate racial group” (392). According to their argument, U.S. institutional practices have historically rendered Asian American men as either hyper-masculine or emasculated, while the more recent model minority ideology and asexual media representations have stressed the feminized images of the Asian American male (Chua and Fujino 391). In the past decades, Asian American men have explored new forms and expressions of their masculinities (Chin 1981; Cheng 1996; Chan 1998). Frank Chin’s Donald Duk (1991), for instance, is an explicit attempt to generate a positive Asian American masculinity, where “[t]he political agenda is obvious: food becomes a discourse of a masculine culture which reinscribes male aggression and domination” (Fung 259). Narrated around the protagonist Ralph and his newly constructed Chinese American family, Typical American is, in my view, another literary reflection of such a struggle and balancing encoded by both race and gender. In fictional form, Jen’s work adds a spatial dimension into the discursive engagement of Asian American masculinity. Different from Frank Chin’s pursuit to emphasize Asian American masculinity, Jen’s novel relates the perspectives of both immigrant men and women through the interplay between the anxiety over masculine control and the endeavour to acquire female agency in the Changs’ household space.

Going abroad with the support of his family, Ralph’s American adventure begins with a bachelor’s life. Registered in a university, he boards in a rooming house in a square brick apartment building together with other Chinese students (29-30). Difficult as his new life is, Ralph at least has the companionship of his fellow compatriots and holds his family’s dream for his prosperous future in the promised land. That is, until things start to go downhill. Firstly, he loses contact with his family in war-torn China because of the Japanese invasion and then the civil war. As the Communists gradually take over China, Ralph’s way back to his home country is hindered. Most importantly, he forgets to renew his visa and ignores the notices received from the International Office, thus leaving him in a “no status” liminal space that dismisses the legitimacy of his temporary home in America. Given the problem of his expired visa, Ralph flees from one place to another in order to hide himself from the immigration officials and to avoid being deported to revolutionary China. From March to August in the year 1948, he moves nine times, running between a construction site with fleas, a former hotel, a dilapidated building squatted in by all sorts of characters, and a basement, among other odd places.

Ralph lives in each location for only a short while before moving on. Apart from his psychological trauma of not belonging and being homeless, even in the material sense, no residence can provide shelter to him any longer. Every place serves him only as a temporary site within which to sojourn, a springboard for his next fugitive experience that seems to be part of an endless series of escapes. Ralph has no address, no telephone number, and almost no other trace of his location and existence. In his “non-life,” Ralph understandably misses his home; he misses having a place that is home. For Ralph the central issue here is lack: “Lacking what? Something, everything, he didn’t know exactly” (33). He lacks a space that acts as home, namely, a dwelling place with a certain fixity and safety to accommodate him and to make him feel at home, even if temporarily.

Ralph’s gloomy period with his expired visa and the frequent change of his living place, culminates in his social abjection. Disconnected from school and his fellow students from China, he works in a butcher’s shop after being rejected from various odd jobs. In the basement by the light of a yellow forty-watt bulb and surrounded by the crates of animals, his job is to deal with the victims’ necks, jugulars, feathers, and bodies with speed and authority, an activity which composes part of his homeless non-life. “At dawn he would get up, wash, put on his bloody clothes … he would kill and clean and pluck hours upon hours of chickens” (34). In his working space, there are no people, no human society; it is even devoid of enough air and light.

Ralph’s dismal life ends with his “deliverance” by his sister Theresa: sitting on a wet-snow-covered bench in a park, he has fallen into the bottom of abysmal misery and homelessness, with three dollars and sixteen cents in his pocket, no job, no family, no visa, and no hope (45). This reunion of brother and sister leads to Ralph’s first rendezvous with Helen, Theresa’s best friend and roommate at the time. This pivotal meeting quickly transforms Ralph into a family man and also marks the beginning of the Changs’ “homing” journey as a family unit.

Sociological research has suggested that a central masculinity issue for Asian American men is a conflict “about who one is and how one relates to family and relatives, loved ones, emotional partners, close friends, and acquaintances. It is also related to the ways one presents oneself to the world at the workplace, at school, in leisure situations, and other public gatherings” (Chua and Fujino 393). Jen’s fiction demonstrates a spatial twist of the protagonist Ralph’s masculinity pursuit through tracing the ways he presents himself in different places: the story begins with domestic relations and then extends to public occasions instead of the other way around. That is to say, Ralph struggles to establish a masculine order of power in his family as well as social life. His spatial construction is portrayed with more emphasis on his relations to his wife and sister than through his relations in the public sphere. As Rachel Lee has noted, in the Chang household “[d]omestic tranquility, seemingly inherent in that product called ‘home,’ is forged by women’s labor, specifically their accommodating to the rule of the patriarch” (50).

The point of departure for the Changs’ “homing” process – their first family dwelling in the U.S. – is a “women’s residence” in “Theresa’s building” (55). It is through the launching board established by women that Ralph is able to get back to constructing his American life. After his “deliverance” by Theresa, Ralph is happy to find a job “in an airy room” (57) and makes the acquaintance of Helen, his bride-to-be. Even better, with the fall of the Nationalists and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, overseas Chinese students collectively acquire the label of “no status” that paradoxically gives Ralph an opportunity to straighten out his visa problem, to return to school, and to finish his Ph.D. (58).

Staying Home: Husband and Wife

Within the Changs’ family residence, the mutual modulation between feelings of homelessness and of hominess becomes entangled with gender relations. It is dramatized mainly by the spatial negotiation between husband and wife (Ralph and Helen), as well as by sibling rivalry (Ralph and Theresa). Compared to her husband and sister-in-law, who study and then work outside domestic sphere, Helen’s process of creating a home in the U.S. is more linked to household space. In feminist theory in general and feminist geography in particular, the everyday practices of women are never unimportant (Spring Rice 1981; Rose 1993; McDowell 1995, 12-21; McDowell 1999). The seemingly banal and trivial events of daily life are bound into the power structures which confine women because “the limits on women’s everyday activities are structured by what society expects women to be and therefore to do” (Rose 17). Nonetheless, in fictional form, Typical American reflects how “patriarchy” is contested, how traditional husband-wife structure is reconsidered, and how the female position in the family is redefined in such a prescribed site. In Jen’s narrative, the routine work of domesticity provides Helen an opportunity to create her own space at home. As described in the novel, the residential space does not proffer her enough safety and comfort. Even within their apartment or house, she still favours various secret places. Helen’s affection for the secret sites inside their family apartment is elucidated in Typical American – “she was not at home enough” (63). Her feeling of homelessness even within the family house drives her to search for her own space. “It was as if, once she’d resigned herself to her new world, something had taken her over – a drive to make it hers” (76). Given the innate connection to secrecy and intimacy, the family space is the focal point for Helen’s efforts to “make herself as at home in her exile as she could” (63).

Before she fled China in the 1930s as the youngest, spoiled daughter of a well-to-do family, Helen’s life ambition was “to stay home forever” (61). As an adult, her experience of becoming a housewife in their Chinese American family explicates the varied possibilities of staying home. It is of particular significance when Helen’s activities at home are read in comparison and contrast with those of Ralph. Shortly after Ralph and Helen get married, due to their economic situation, the Changs move to “a run-down walk-up north of 125th Street, whose air smelled of mildew and dog” (65). As they first move in, they face the “plumbing problems,” “ceiling problems,” and serious wall cracks in the back bedroom, for which Ralph only complains, shaking his head. It is Helen who explores various sites of the building in order to solve their housing problems. Watching the roof leak, “she’d even climbed through the trap door into the roof, to have a look around” before she fixed it (75). By way of a “wall-unit” arrangement adopted from an American magazine to sort out different things and to hide the cracked wall, Helen turns the tired, rundown apartment in a dilapidated building into a suitable dwelling space for the family. When their landlord mysteriously disappears and the radiator stops working in cold weather, Ralph only “doubled up his blankets and slept to one side of the bed,” complaining and cursing (78). In contrast, despite her pregnancy “Helen clopped down to the basement in wonder” (79), where she has the furnace refilled following the instructions on the top. The flames, rods, tubes, circles, and paradise of bulbs of every size and wattage “paint” this scenario of Helen’s spatial adventure with fantastic colour.

The emphasis of the staying home story is not actually on Helen’s activities in the apartment, but rather on her secret pleasure in working. Whether groping her way up and down to improve their living condition or taking charge of the daily chores as a wife and mother, Helen is full of joy. Cooking pancakes and red bean paste, making curtains and bedspreads, and rewiring Ralph’s old lamp, “she’d discovered, by herself, a secret – that working was enjoyable” (76). Helen’s pleasure, in my view, explicates her feeling of acquiring power in manipulating things at home. For her, plenty of possibility and privacy underlie the everyday trivialities. Thus staying home in this novel does not necessarily lead to confinement and limitation for women; rather, home can be a pleasant site where women employ adventure and creativity. It is the residential area that provides Helen a stage upon which to construct a space for herself. Thus staying home becomes a way of making herself at home,[8] a peculiar device for her “homing” process.

In fact, Helen feels quite at ease when she stays home by herself. “There were the hours in which she sang a little; breathed however she wanted; and simply kept quiet” (77). Behind the veil of “doing nothing” at home, Helen manipulates the household and claims her own space within their family residence, as the Changs’ move forward and upward in their “homing” development in America as an immigrant family. On the one hand, she gains insights into “American home life” through popular culture. She enjoys her secret pleasure of being indoctrinated by assorted embodiments of American style in her daydreaming and improving her English. Gradually, she develops “a liking for American magazines, American newspapers” (163); she covertly pores over American women’s fashion magazines and hides them under her mattress (63, 77). She listens to the faddish radio programs when she is alone in the apartment, keeping “her Pilco in the corner of the living room nearest the bedroom,” so that she could listen nonstop and sing along “the corn is as high as an el-e-phant’s eyyye…” (63). On the other hand, Helen takes charge of the family life in conspiracy with her sister-in-law, Theresa, to accommodate Ralph’s position as the “father” and extends her space outside the domestic sphere through contacting other Chinese American contemporaries.[9]

Helen’s “homing” device of constructing a place of her own is particularly embodied by her passion for hiding, on both physical and mental levels. Since the very beginning of their marriage, Ralph has discovered that Helen is fond of hiding things in every possible corner: she hides keys, batteries, and letters. Ralph views Helen’s behaviour as a kind of disease. “Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house” (Bachelard 136). The reason why the corner always seems a secure place is partly its immobility. The relatively fixed locus at the corner enables a person to appreciate his or her imagination with solitude and privacy in a temporarily stable state. A corner, both as a material space and mental locality, serves as an important code to account for Helen’s passion in creating her own space within the family house, especially in relation to her husband, Ralph. It is through exploring corners in and around their familial space that Helen is able to employ her spatial construction without jeopardizing Ralph’s feeling of being in control.

Mentally, Helen develops the tendency to keep things in her head that annoys Ralph because he “wishes to make Helen part of his domain” (Rachel Lee 51). At first sight, Ralph draws his conclusion that Helen is shy, a person of “the considering type” (56). Indeed she is not a talker in their family life, but she is “not a listener either, so much as something else” (56). Sometimes she is so quiet that Ralph cannot help but worry. “[H]e wondered whether she kept words like that among the other secrets of her drawers” (72). Obviously, the enormous possibility and space underneath Helen’s speechlessness leads to Ralph’s deep anxiety over losing control of the family space. The secrecy behind Helen’s silence evokes Ralph’s restlessness, which he expresses particularly through his yelling. He fiercely knocks at Helen’s skull, shouting “[t]here are things you don’t tell me.” “Say something. I want you to say something… Nothing to say? Anybody there? Come on, open up” (73; italics added). His desire to open her head but ignore his residence – for example, curling under layers of blankets in emergency without taking action to solve the problem – is portrayed in pointed contrast to her desire to survey their apartment building but keep the secrets of the residential space inside her head. The gender relations and power struggle between this immigrant couple are also reflected in their different responses to staying home. Ralph doesn’t know what exactly exists in Helen’s mind, but he is certain that there is something out of his control. His irresolvable anxiety results from his position of being “so powerless in his power” (74).

To Ralph, Helen is making an outrageous clamour in his mind when she is quiet, maybe especially when she is quiet. The couple’s routine quarrel usually begins with Ralph’s seemingly irrational anger and ends with his apologetic retreat. It almost becomes a habitualized kernel of their marriage. Ralph’s yell – “I’m the father of this family! Do you hear me? The father, not the son” (74) and his tender apology in the aftermath reinforce the power structure between the spouses. Jen’s omniscient narrator observes: “how central Helen felt then, how naturally indispensable” (74). Ostensibly, Helen’s silence versus Ralph’s speech supports the latter’s claim to be the father of the house. Her silence turns out, however, to be more powerful than Ralph’s aggressive gesture of yelling.

Not only is Helen an indispensable facilitator for Ralph’s need to feel being the center of the family, but she can also perform the role of a submissive wife to balance her relation to Ralph when tension arises. Even though Helen shows extraordinary strength and “know-how” in the way she manages the Changs’ family life and arranges their domestic space, she still acts submissive to her husband in order to accommodate Ralph’s desire of a “patriarchal” structure and consequently to keep the family structure in balance. It is in the corners that she enacts a counterpart to the role of an obedient wife in front of her husband. In reality, her staying home does not necessarily mean she is immobilized, fixed, nor stabilized. Rather, Helen is creating a space for herself while staying in the family house and serving as a support for her husband. She is supposed to be a rock for Ralph’s adventure in academic and social American life, but his plan backfires: her own “homing” device breaks away from Ralph’s expectations and discovers a dwelling space of its own. To some degree, Helen’s “homing” process subverts Ralph’s pursuit for a masculine order in a patriarchal “home.” In this sense, “homing” is both created and subverted in this novel.

After Ralph receives his Ph.D., the Changs move to a larger apartment in Washington Heights with solid ceilings and separated rooms for the couple Ralph and Helen, their daughters Callie and Mona, and aunt Theresa (120). Simply put, the Changs – as an entity of kinship – are “moving on up” to a more affluent residential space. Yet the power struggle over domestic space has not ceased. In the following scene, the reader finds the most revealing performance within the family space that reinforces the aforementioned power relations between the couple. Ralph trains Helen to breathe in the “right” way: his way. In this scenario, the household space provides a stage for the negotiation of power between husband and wife; namely, who is in charge “at home”:

This way,” Ralph demonstrated, inhaling, exhaling. “Even. Do you see? You should breathe this way.”
Helen mimicked him, timidly. “That one right?
Right,” pronounced Ralph. “Again.”
Helen did it again.
Again,” he commanded. “Again.”
Helen thought a moment, then experimentally let her breath catch.
No,” said Ralph. “That wasn’t right.
Show me once more?” She tilted her head, and was pleased to see the pleasure with which Ralph authoritatively obliged.
So it went, back and forth, Ralph playing as husband, Helen as wife. (71; italics in the original)

Here we see an interesting example that exposes the dynamics between active and passive. For Ralph, “childish love turned into adolescent embarrassment turned into manly tyranny” (71). He constantly tests Helen’s breathing in order to confirm that “[a]t home, the husband would command, the wife obey” (69). The subtext shows, however, Helen is actually manipulating this husband-wife performance. It is Ralph who is pressed to repeat it from time to time in order to convince his “patriarchal” position in the family. Helen can breathe either in Ralph’s way to please her husband or in her own way. She has the “power in pliancy” (214). Complementarily, Ralph’s monodrama at night serves as an appendix to the couple’s breathing performance:

He fingered the hem of her pillowcase…then gently picked up her head…. Ahh; her breathing again; better…. He would count to ten, then move, he decided. One, he started, two. But when eleven came he was still poised, waiting – holding his breath when she did, letting it go as she let hers. (70)

In this “breathing exercise” the imitating and imitated relations between husband and wife are ironically reversed before Ralph realizes it. These scenes of Ralph “regulating Helen’s breathing,” and those of his “toppling Theresa” that we shall examine below, allow the readers “to see plainly Ralph’s anxieties about female agency and his tyrannical attempts to head the household” (Rachel Lee 63). On the one hand, Ralph’s pursuit of his patriarchal position at home is inseparable from his relations to the female characters. On the other hand, Helen and Theresa’ “homing” devices are complicated by the need to accommodate to the rule of the father.

At Home, At Work: Negotiated Space between Brother and Sister

The elaboration of home and space particular to Typical American is permitted and reinforced by the unusual family structure of the Changs, which impels them to move beyond the range of their home. The common family structure of father, mother, and children is complicated by the sister and aunt Theresa, a smart, career-oriented, single woman. Her character adds a brother-sister narrative into the storyline, which is seldom addressed by immigrant writers. Her story plays an important role in Jen’s novel and serves as a significant code through which to explore the Chang’s gendered spatial negotiation. Consciously or unconsciously, the relationship between the siblings Theresa and Ralph is part-and-parcel of the reshaping process of immigrant men and women’s space in the network of American social life. Through their conflict and compromise, competition and support, and tension and love, the reader sees how gender intersects with this Chinese American family’s “homing” struggle.

While Ralph and Theresa adjust to American life, they also need to balance their relationship as brother and sister. The sibling’s stories, since the remote beginning, flow from the sad truth that “as much as Ralph, growing up, should have been her, she should have been him. It was as if in some prenatal rush, they had been dressed in one another’s clothes” (47). As an elder sister, Theresa is so smart, so upright, and almost a model for Ralph. When they were children living with their parents in China, Ralph coined the name “Bai Xiao” (Know-It-All) for Theresa. Years pass by and now they are living in the U.S.; many things have changed, but still, “this was how Callie (Ralph and Helen’s first-born daughter) knew herself to be clever, like Theresa. Everyone said so” (124; notes added).

The sibling competition is revealed through their spatial negotiation in their household as well as in the social space – “at home” and by extension “at work.” Achieving a professorship in academia is Ralph’s way of achieving decent status in American society, a position that also confirms his power of domination at home as a respected scholarly father. In the novel, the university acts as the site where the tension between the siblings is at first intensified and then defused. In early stage of the novel, Theresa’s diligence and intelligence in studying for medical school and her success in a scholarship application incur Ralph’s complaints. “He began to call her Know-It-All again, first behind her back, then to her face” (75). At this moment, his anxiety of losing the power game of controlling the home over his competitive sister surpasses his love for her. Ironically, his repulsion towards her is tightly entangled with his admiration for her. Ralph’s response towards the scholarship letter Theresa gets is: “you are glad” (78; italics in the original). Moreover, Ralph’s consequent action – moving from the couch to his bed – exposes his refusal to actualize his duty as the “father” of the family. Instead, his staying home doing nothing demonstrates his intense power struggle with his sister as well as his anxiety of his possible defeat in their race for a career in American society. By opting out of the rivalry, he is at least able to save himself from losing it.

Theresa is the representative of the diasporic woman who has stepped over the family threshold and has claimed her space in American social life through her education and career. In the novel, her spatial negotiation becomes interwoven with her continuous adjustment to the new environment as well as her compromise and tactics to save her brother’s face. Her activities outside their residential space are circled around, reflected by, and in turn influence the spatial relations at home. Theresa bears double duties: she is a considerate and devoted sister at home and a respectable doctor in the professional world. The more successful she becomes first as a graduate student and then a career-oriented woman, the more angst accumulates in Ralph’s mind. Before the siblings’ respective entrance to graduate schools, the reader sees a small conspiracy at home. It is not until Theresa pretends that her scholarship to medical school has been cancelled that Ralph comes to realize he has been sleeping so much that he is tired of sleeping and is now ready to get back to the university and work on his Ph.D. At the price of Theresa’s self-restraint, everything turns out to be all right, at least temporarily. Ralph is studying again and heading towards his academic goal to be an engineering scholar. His rise from the couch is not miracle but a result of his sister’s intentional compromise.

On several occasions Ralph is aware of his responsibility and has made efforts to support the family and to improve their home. “I’m the father of the family…. It’s my job, the house” (140). It would seem that, as he undertakes these actions, the novel begins to turn from one of immigrants’ homelessness into one of immigrants’ success in home construction, a transformation that is tragically arrested and suspended in the end. Earlier in the novel, Ralph fervently devotes himself to the pursuit of a Ph.D. in engineering and then a tenured professorship. Hand-shaking and backslapping, Ralph works hard. His progress towards a higher position in the academic pyramid makes him feel satisfied in the university and powerful in the household for a while. Only when he feels that he is doing better than his sister in their career fields, moving up the social ladder and taking charge of their family space, is Ralph willing to keep on going. Only after he has been granted with his degree and then a tenure-track job, does Theresa’s M.D. (which lands her a job in the hospital) not bother him at all. While in the ecstasy of his success, he even wishes his sister success in her work. In their immigrant world, a traditionally hierarchical relationship has become a competitive one. In the career-oriented but family-centered spatial competition, Ralph needs to feel that he is marching ahead of his sister.

After moving among several residences, the Changs finally achieve their American dream: moving into a private house in a suburb, which they could afford only because Theresa contributes financially. Initially the house creates plenty of enthusiasm. Their dream of having an American house finally comes true.

Enormous as the moving van seemed, the new house was more enormous still, a split-level, with an attached garage. No longer did they store their teacups on the windowsill. Now Mona and Callie had a room, Theresa had a room, Helen and Ralph had a room, and in addition they had a living room and a dining room both, and a closet that could be made into a study, and a basement that could become a playroom; not to say a kitchen, of course (with that nook Helen loved), and gold shag wall-to-wall carpeting, and their own half flight of stairs. (156)

The structure of the “enormous” house, the furniture arrangement within it, the lawn, the view outside the window, and the new neighbourhood all seem American. The Changs are transformed into the “Chang-kees.”[10] Nonetheless, the realization of the American dream, symbolized particularly by the house, later becomes a site that signifies the falling apart of the family.

Ralph is successively elated by his American-born daughters, by his Ph.D. project, by his academic job, and by managing his small restaurant. Dominated by his dream to be an entrepreneur, Ralph then takes a leave from his professorship and is devoted wholeheartedly to his Fried Chicken House with a loan from Grover Ding, a Chinese American businessman who was first introduced to Theresa on a blind date. The family business prospers for a short while, enabling Ralph to feel even more powerful in dominating the spaces at home and at work. In the meantime, Theresa’s affair with Old Chao, Ralph’s colleague, a married man, results in her becoming an outcast at home. When Grover drops by for dinner, “Theresa curl[s] up in her room by herself,” hearing the noise from downstairs (203). While Ralph’s control over the restaurant and family space grows, Theresa is left with no choice but exile. After Theresa moves out, Ralph is determined to expand his success story in America by adding an addition to the Chicken House, which he renames Ralph’s Chicken Palace (225).

Ralph’s dream of becoming a self-made man, however, turns out to be a complete failure. The land on which the Chicken House was built, has trees underground that have long since started to rot. The unstable land understandably leads to the building’s gradual falling down. The construction of an addition exacerbates the problem and speeds up the collapse. Ralph, however, did not know nor expect this chain of disastrous events. But Grover did: he cheated Ralph. Ralph at last finds himself trapped in a helpless position. The addition leads to the closure of the restaurant and serious financial crisis for the Changs. Another backfire further destabilizes the Changs’ newly established home in the suburban house – Helen’s short-termed affair with Grover on the love seat in the nook (221-25, 227-29). The unity of the Chang family, who used to work together to realize their American dream of “homing,” starts to collapse right within their house.

Without dealing with the urgent financial emergency the family confronts due to the failure of his Chicken Palace, Ralph returns to his life of staying home and doing nothing. His newly developed passion in training a stray dog whom he names Grover is portrayed to emphasize his nonchalance about the urgent problem: they are an unemployed family with various mortgages for their house, the Chicken House, the additional construction, and multiple bills. At last, Ralph “gave himself up to the country, and dreamt” (42). His “imagineering” as a matter of faith, just like the sign that says, “ACTUALIZE” tacked up on the wall, never becomes a successful reality for him. He fiercely tosses a brass vase out the living room picture window and even shoves Helen through the shattered glass down to the backyard. His violence, in my understanding, reveals his desire to be the boss of the household and demonstrates his anger over his failures.

By contrast, Theresa shows her strong flexibility in adjusting to the displacement, deconstruction, and reconstruction of various spaces, both exterior and interior to their family house. As an extremely dutiful sister and aunt among the Changs, Theresa shoulders the responsibility of supporting the family under various circumstances: delivering Ralph from his non-life, moonlighting in the emergency room in addition to her practice to pay for the mortgage for their private house, and returning back to rescue the family from the crisis resulting from Ralph’s unsuccessful business. Moreover, Theresa is always conscious that she needs to lead her life in such a way that her continual progress socially and professionally does not infuriate Ralph. During the period that the conflicts between the siblings become intensified, Theresa still has the ability to structure her own space, both professional and private, even in her exile outside the Changs’ family house. Ralph’s fear of losing power to control the home and outer space in the new environment causes him to reach out, yet reinforces his displacement from time to time.

The family emergency “results in a return to women – a literal return, in the case of Theresa’s homecoming. Her return to the Chang household, however, does not signify a recovered security in the home…. Rather, this return renders visible the hidden violence to them” (Rachel Lee 66). The deconstruction of a home stationed in their house unfolds in two ways. On the one hand, Ralph obviously loses his patriarch position and spatial control. He now understands the house “to be Theresa’s house, full of cat odors and cat hairs” (271), since she supports the whole family now. When Old Chao comes to visit, Ralph first shuts himself up in the bedroom, full of sorrow as an abandoned man and then takes to walking Grover. When Theresa’s cats and Ralph’s dog cannot get along with each other, it is finally settled that “the cats would have the run of the house, while the yard and driveway could be Grover’s [the dog’s] domain” (266). Thus Theresa’s pets control the indoor space while Ralph’s pet is literally driven out of the house. This may be taken as a metaphorical reflection of the complicated space negotiation between different genders. On the other hand, the saintly sister cannot be a pivot to entirely hold the family space together, even though she does financially, and cannot restore the Changs as a familial entity. That is to say, Theresa’s return does not lead to a stable construction of “home,” but generates further subversion.

A deconstructive closure ends the novel with tragedy that challenges the Changs’ “homing” process again. Near the end of the book, hurt by the sense of powerlessness in controlling both the family and business space, Ralph “kidnaps” Helen in the car and takes her on a crazy ride. On his way back towards their house, the car wheels quickly into the driveway, “too fast, clipping the corner”, and crushes Theresa in front of its headlights by accident (280). As the sister is suspended within a physical coma in the hospital, the brother seems to dive into a psychological coma and feels confused within all the spaces: the family house becomes empty without Theresa, the scholarly work in the university to which he returns as the last straw for the Changs to survive turns out to be valueless, and he becomes “a man to sit at supper and never eat” (286). Moreover, the couple, Ralph and Helen, becomes more and more distant from each other. Sadly, the family falls apart. The very last moment of the novel, the depiction of the Changs’ moving out of their house into “a garden apartment nearby” (288), not only marks a turning point in their home developing route – from moving upward to downward – but it also symbolizes the continuity of their “homing” process. That is to say, the Changs are not able to embrace the feeling of “being at home” even in their house; they have to resume their journey of searching after a short-term stay.

The Constructive and Deconstructive “Homing”

Along the Changs’ “homing” trajectory, the material conditions of their residence seem to become better and better, except for the closing moment. Their actual house is an important stop along the Changs’ route to realizing a place of their own in U.S. society. Yet in my view, the house is a climax rather than a destination for their “homing” process. For them, the house sometimes is no more than “[f]our walls and a roof,” something other than a home (154). The Changs’ familial clashes complicate the problem of home as well as the interpretations of the residential locations within the immigration context.[11] Their house is not safe enough to prevent Helen from continually seeking out her own privacy at home, nor Theresa’s fatal accident on the driveway, nor Ralph’s preoccupation with a stronger and stronger sense of homelessness. Near the end of the novel, Ralph realizes that he, like the dog Grover, has no place in the house and no place outside of it either (273). Thus their house is merely one of many sites, one of their residences; it is a temporary settlement, a part of their “homing” process, but not exactly a home. The house does not necessarily provide a safe haven and a peaceful respite in which these immigrants may dwell. Residents of the cozy house as they are, the Changs remain drifting and restless as estranged and alienated people. Nowhere can they find a fixed home: neither in their “home” country China, nor in their “host” society the U.S. As they change locations and reconstruct new homes, they become double outsiders and therefore have dual homelessness, going astray from both their childhood home in China and their adult home in the U.S. For them, home is a series of places but at “nowhere” in reality; home is a set of ideas but without definition. Even after they find a certain residence to accommodate themselves, the trauma of homelessness still haunts them. Their perceptions of themselves, their past, and their present, through a distinctive vision of space, enrich the conceptualization of home.

The locus which Jen sets for her diasporic characters is no longer a semi-city of China inside a city of America but instead a predominantly European American neighbourhood. The typical spatial setting in Chinese American texts – Chinatown – fades away.[12] The Changs’ living sphere is no longer limited to the Chinese and Chinese American community full of fellow villagers, kinsmen, and their offspring. Instead, a variety of living and working sites in the American suburban and urban areas occupy the central stage in Typical American. This emphasis shifts the main focus from recalling cultural memories along the temporal trajectory to investigating the spatial problem centered on dwelling space in Chinese diaspora’s present life in the U.S. Although connected to the earlier works of such writers as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, Jen’s book departs from a narrative paradigm of mother-daughter relationships[13] in its broadened focus on the Changs’ reconstructed dwelling space as a family and as individuals within a gendered context. Besides the bond between the couple, the sibling dynamic deployed in family life, education, and career further complicates the Chang’s “homing” process.

In fictional form, Gish Jen complicates the relations between immigrant men and women around the problem of home and identity, and casts new light upon their spatial negotiation through the concern about spatiality in Chinese American writing. Asian American cultural forms, including literary writing, are considered by the critic Lisa Lowe as “alternatives to national cultural forms and as sites for the emergence of subjects and practices that are not exhausted by the narrative of American citizenship” (x). Jen explores the promises and limits, gains and losses in the process of a Chinese American family’s “homing” process that is filled with reconstruction and deconstruction. Thus, Typical American marks a continuation as well as “a new departure in Asian American literature and adds a new voice to American fiction” (Zhou 162). Through the “homing” stories of the Changs, Jen’s novel signals new possibilities in structuring Chinese American “migrancy” (Chambers 5) by way of spatiality. According to Rosemary George, literary immigrant characters, both men and women, waver between a “yearning for the authentic home” and the realization of the “inauthenticity of all homes” (75). Viewed from a feminist perspective and within a gender-specific context, however, these two complementary dimensions are modified by, as well as modify, the notion of home. Focusing on both the physical structure and the spiritual as well as emotional aspects of inhabiting, my close reading of Jen’s text suggests a constant “homing” for the immigrant characters, because for them home seems to be nowhere. To put it in other words, as Chinese yet disconnected from China and as U.S. residents but aliens, the Changs’ notion of home has become ambivalent. They are continually in an ongoing “homing” process. Such a route has been shaped by traditional Chinese culture in the memory of immigrants abroad, by American culture, and by foreigners’ fantasies of American life, namely the American Dream.[14]


The author thanks Karen Dias, co-editor of thirdspace, and the anonymous reviewers of thirdspace for their comments on earlier versions of this essay. This piece is dedicated to Marianne, Melissa, and Jonathan.


1 Spatiality, rather than temporality, as a focus of creative writing and critical reading has been discussed by Susan S. Friedman to be particularly appropriate to women’s texts (1993, 12-23). back

2 Food and sexuality play important roles in Chinese American literature. They are used in metaphorical forms to structure the relations between self and other, male and female, subject and object, as well as oppression and resistance. See, for example, Wong 1992, 111-29 and Fung 1999, 255-74. back

3 The term “home” is one of the “most loaded words in English language” (McDowell 1999, 71). For a critical review of the conceptualization of home, see McDowell 1999, 71-95. Feminist geographers have theoretically questioned and reconsidered the notion of home as a site of security (Valentine 1992; Rose 1993; Bell and Valentine 1995; McDowell 1997, 12-21; McDowell 1999). In my view, Jen’s work adds a fictional account into this discussion. The understanding of home as a site of belonging I emphasize here is only one aspect and does not mean to exclude other experiences of home. For example, feminist scholars have contributed to literature and theory on home as spaces of resistance (hooks 33-38), of oppression (McDowell 1999, 79), of abuse and violence (Campbell). back

4 Critical responses towards Typical American since its publication are primarily concerned with the Changs’ Americanization; namely, how they claim Americanness in various ways and become Americans who migrated from China (Rachel Lee 44-72; Robert Lee 263-80; Samarth 88-101; Zhou 151-63). back

5 Kitchens and family businesses (particularly the laundry house) are set as typical spaces for first-generation immigrant women in several Chinese American texts. See, for example, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976), Frank Chin’s Railroad Standard Time (1988), Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), and Mei Ng’s Eating Chinese Food Naked (1998). back

6 Unless otherwise specified, all parenthetical page numbers without source of origin in the text refer to this edition: Gish Jen, Typical American (Boston: Plume, 1992).back

7 I borrowed the term from Susan Friedman (1995, 1-49). back

8 Rachel Lee has differentiated the subtle distinctions between “making home” and “making oneself at home” upon attending to gender and ethnicity. According to her, “[m]aking home signifies an investment in communal living space and the concessions one allows to ensure the stability of that shared space. By contrast, making oneself at home signals rendering the home comfortable for the self – in other words, building a place where each man can be king” (Rachel Lee 50-51). In the Changs’ “homing” process, while the family is “making home” in America, each character is also “making oneself at home” through their particular “homing” devices as individuals. back

9 For instance, through Janis Chao, another Chinese immigrant woman who is living in better material conditions compared with the Changs and works as a real estate agent, Helen’s knowledge about immigrant women and life in the U.S. is extended. back

10 The Changs call themselves “Chang-kee” (127) that is undoubtedly a hybrid of the Chinese last name, “Chang,” and the American expression, “Yankee.” It can be considered a “Sino-Americanized” norm for the immigrant family. For additional discussion on this, see Chu 122. back

11 The critic Hamid Naficy differentiates the two terms in the following way: “House is the literary object, the material place in which one lives, and it involves legal categories of rights, property, and possession and their opposites. Home is any place; it is temporary and it is moveable; it can be built, rebuilt, and carried in memory and by acts of imagination” (5-6). back

12 In many Chinese American literary works, Chinatown becomes a specific communal spatial image for the immigrants. It serves as a sedimented site of collective memories for the Chinese in America. For example, Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior has its location in Chinatown in Stockton and Fae Myenne Ng’s novel Bone (1993) is set around Chinatown in San Francisco. back

13 In early Chinese American writing, especially women’s literary works, a powerful mother in the immigrant family is usually reconstructing and reformulating a “China” through her “talk-stories” for her American-born daughter. The cultural memories remembered by both the mother’s and daughter’s generations, link the mother’s past life in China tightly with the daughter’s present life in the U.S. As a result, a variety of cultural ghosts from Chinese tradition, Chinatown, American life, as well as their clashes haunt the daughter. In this sense, Kingston’s renowned The Woman Warrior is a good example. The mother-daughter relationship is basically a narrative strategy for revealing the daughter’s sense of being split between two worlds and cultures. back

14 Here, I do not mean to demarcate the understanding of home in Chinese and American cultures. Actually, it is hard to draw a line between different cultures within the context of immigration because of the processes of assimilation and cultural amalgamation. The hybrid name “Chang-kee” is a good example. back


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