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Flexible identities

For author Gish Jen, Chinese-Americans have gone from misfits to regular suburban teenagers to fully assimilated locals.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2006 17:13 IST

By Min Lee

For author Gish Jen, Chinese-Americans have gone from misfits to regular suburban teenagers to fully assimilated locals who don't speak Mandarin and who marry whites, and in the process, redefined the meaning of identity.

A major theme in Jen's work is that identity is fluid and that traditional definitions of identity based on skin colour and geographical origin no longer apply in today's America. Jen, who recently finished a writer's residency at the University of Hong Kong, says America has evolved from a society in which minorities try to bury their ethnic traits to one where they display their customs proudly.

"You have your holiday. You have your food. You are American," she told The Associated Press in a recent interview. Jen herself is part of a multi-racial family. Her husband is Irish-American. They have two children.

In her first novel, Typical American, published in 1991, the Changs are outsiders manipulated by a suave businessman. Years later, Mona is part of a tight group of mainly white suburban teenagers in Mona in the Promised Land. By The Love Wife, released two years ago, Jen's concept of community is all-inclusive. Within a single family, Blondie, the Irish-American wife, speaks Chinese; Carnegie, the Chinese-American husband, doesn't. Their children are Asian but adopted.

 
 Cover of Gish Jen's Typical American

Another message, however, is that, with diversity comes inevitable tension.

Referring to the end of the book where the entire family rallies around an ill Carnegie, Jen says, "The peace that they have sitting there in that waiting room, you do have a feeling of both how earned it is, and how difficult it has been to get to that place for them."

English literature scholar Jeffrey Partridge calls The Love Wife "post-multicultural" because not only does it present a picture of diversity, but it also demonstrates the futility of defining individuals with ethnic labels.

In a review published in the summer 2005 edition of MELUS, a journal on multiethnic literature, Partridge points out the lack of meaning in Carnegie's ethnic bond to his Chinese relative Lan, the absurdity of "Carnegie's desire to find himself through genealogy instead of looking for his identity in the family he and Blondie made."

Others believe Jen may be overly optimistic about the state of race relations in America.

"I like Jen's vision but find that she sometimes paints a bit too rosy a picture," said Daniel Kim, associate professor of English at Brown University.

Jen's vision is partly shaped by a positive upbringing. Born to Chinese students who were studying in the United States, she was raised in Yonkers, New York, and upscale Scarsdale, New York - a "classic" pattern of immigrant upward mobility, she says - then educated at Harvard University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.

She has particularly fond memories of Scarsdale, a New York City suburb.

"If you were going to be like my family, the only Chinese family in town, you couldn't have picked a more congenial place than Scarsdale," Jen said. "It was extremely welcoming and extremely open."

Jen was named after silent screen star Lillian Gish. The 50-year-old Jen's only giveaway to her age is her greying hair. She laughs frequently and speaks at a rapid pace and throws in teenage speech patterns like "you know" and "you know what I mean." Another prominent Chinese-American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior, calls Jen a kindred spirit. "We're both literary pioneers, and more alike than different - in our ear for Chinese and American voices, in our telling of true-to-life stories, in our humour," she told the AP. While Boston-based Jen has explored Chinese-American identity in the context of the United States, she has also examined her Chinese identity, spending stints teaching in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong more than 20 years ago and more recently in Beijing in 2003, besides her recent residency at the University of Hong Kong. A distant relative of Chinese writer Mao Dun, Jen said she speaks and reads a little Chinese and has found in China the same outlook of resourcefulness with which she was raised.

Dressed in a flowery shirt, grey pants and sandals, no makeup, with a pair of sunglasses holding her greying hair, Jen said she's amused by the high fashion of cosmopolitan Hong Kong professional women, who are always impeccably made-up and dressed. "I'm just not sure I'd survive in Hong Kong. I just don't think I could wear high heels all the time," she said.