In Gish Jen's In the American Society, Jen explores more than Callie's father's assimilation to American society by splitting the story into two parts. She also, inadvertently, shows the reluctance American society has to take others in, and the humiliating effect assimilation can have on a person from a patriarchal society.
In the first part of the story, "His Own Society" she shows Ralph's old world patriarchy coming to terms with American culture. Ralph felt as if he was at the head of the hierarchical chain. The pancake house was his business, and he ran it as he saw fit. Ralph saw himself, as Callie relates, likened to his grandfather who was head of a village.
Ralph started out fine, his business was successful and he saw himself as a good boss, and a generous benefactor. Eventually, power corrupted Him, and he began treating his employees poorly. As a result, they quit.
Although Jen never gives a time line for Ralph's arrival to the United States, she does give a hint that he is an immigrant in the story's first couple of paragraphs. He references to "Those Americans," and speaks of times when his family would give out bags of rice to the poor on holidays.
Ralph did not understand the American worker. He felt that he was the boss, and like his grandfather, deserved the respect his authority dictated. At one point, Ralph's wife says to the girls, "Your father doesn't believe in joining the American society," and then adds, "He wants his own society." This was obviously the way Ralph was taught, but these ways were ruining his business. When he found Booker and Cedric, this actually worked out great for Ralph, at first. They, being illegal immigrants and needing work, would gladly lend their subservience.
Now, with Booker and Cedric working for him, he felt worthy of his grandfather, but this was America, and even if Ralph felt like a village lord with his two "boys," the other workers were not so pleased and eventually called immigration.
After Immigration problems, Ralph found himself without his servants anymore, and lost interest in reigning over the restaurant. He started hanging around the house and paying loads of attention to his wife. Ralph's American dream was not turning out the way he had hoped.
The second part of the story deals with American society. The family goes to a pool party in order for Mrs. Chang to make an impression on people from a club she wishes to join. Ralph makes an attempt at assimilation here in order to appease his wife. For Ralph, this has to be a major adjustment. Not only is he, the head of the family, going to this party he has no desire to go to, his wife is dressing him up in a suit he does not want. At this point, he seems to have given up on his old world ways, the assimilation continues.
A woman named Mrs. Lardner is throwing the party. Very different from the male dominated society of his grandfather, Ralph tries awkwardly to fit in, burning himself helping Mr. Lardner with the cooking, while the women got drunk on Mrs. Lardner's "magic punch." It should be noted that a bit of cultural bias seems to takes place here, as Mrs. Lardner asks Callie to serve food, as she suddenly finds herself with a shortage of servers.
The man the party is thrown for, Jeremy Brothers, in the meantime, has approached Ralph. Jeremy is drunk and the two exchange words, which lead to Ralph throwing his coat in the pool in anger. Ralph has now had enough of the American experience. He gets his family together and they leave. As his family is congratulating him on putting up a good show at the pool, Ralph admits that he left his keys in the coat's pocket. They decide they will go to the restaurant and call Mrs. Lardner later as they walk off. Mona states that when they go back for the keys, they are going to have to dive for them with his family following its head, stating to the girls at the end "You girls are good swimmers," and in an admission that he no longer cares to fit into American society, "Not like me."
In her story, Jen uses humor to relate the experience of a different culture trying to assimilate in America. The scene in the kitchen, when Cedric is promoted and Fernando accuses him of being a crook shows a clash of cultures trying to make it in a different country than their own, and hints at sarcasm when Cedric replies, "Cook, you mean." This happens when Ralph is in his own element, and Cedric, also being Chinese, uses this fact to his advantage.
When the Changs' go to Mrs. Lardner's, Ralph stands out in the crowd, not only by being the only Chinese man there, but also overdressed for a pool party. This allows Jeremy, the picture of American arrogance, the opportunity to have his fun with Ralph. Mrs. Lardner seems to have her own agenda for having the Changs' there as well, as indicated by her whispers to Jeremy at the pool, and having Callie serve food.
Ralph struggled to hold on to his old world ways. Eventually, he found that his ways would not work in this country and felt defeated. Only after the altercation at the party, did he come to the realization that he will not fit in. He found American society to be trying to humiliate him and almost had him defeated until he threw that symbol of social cuckoldry into the pool. His "you girls are good swimmers" statement at the end of the story summed up the difference between immigrants, and their children. Ralph regained his focus, and his self-esteem when he stopped trying to be someone he wasn't, as is evident in the last line of the story when his family follows him home.
Anon1 on September 21, 2016:
I found this article very helpful, however the title is misleading. This is more of an in-depth summary than an analysis.
emilyliuxiaodan on June 09, 2011:
I like your artical.Thank you