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A Chinese family struggles to be American

Typical American by Gish Hen Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence 296 pp., $19.95

OUT of the common clay of one man's sojourn - leaving his home for a strange land, educating himself, finding a job, reuniting with a sister on foreign soil, marrying her friend, raising a family - Gish Jen presents cross-cultural perceptions of family life. Her story of a young Chinese family's adjustment to post-World War II America redefines the word "typical." What is typical for Jen must also be unique and endearing.

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"Typical American" is Jen's first book. Inescapably, it will be compared with Amy Tan's novel, "The Joy Luck Club," a publishing sensation last year. Such a comparison is fair to a point. Each is the other's peer when it comes to original use of metaphor.

But where Amy Tan compresses incredible amounts of plot, character, drama, and West-Coast Asian-American atmosphere into her narrative, Gish Jen renders the struggles of immigrants much more intensely, narrowly, and therefore intimately. She focuses on only three individuals - Ralph Chang; his older sister, Theresa; and her friend (from China), Helen, who is Ralph's American-wed wife.

The action in "Typical American" takes place almost exclusively in the United States, within the small, circumscribed world of three new arrivals who find themselves doubly alienated: first, by being cut off from sustaining elders because of a civil war in their own homeland; and second, by the aggressively individualistic culture of New York City.

Like an open window on a windy day, Jen exposes the Chang family to cultural currents and shifting values that sometimes freshen but often buffet relations. Each member must live in two worlds: the old one growing fainter and fainter with time; the new one still alien. The Changs' plight is that they must continuously assert their individuality, a phenomenon in America they quickly learn will never end even as it threatens the collective core of their values.

Jen's stylistic forte is the wry non sequitur. Her dignified, yet elliptical, portrayal of each member of her central trio, in isolation as well as in relation to each other, accents their collective values of loyalty and honor, their dependence on family. The clear social norms that would hold them together in China are absent in America, forcing them to rely on bonds less visible, more emotional and psychologically dense in their newfound land.

Jen exploits her characters' relative youth and innocence to heighten the inherent irony of looking at a common event from a different cultural vantage point. There is much play with names, old and new. As national circumstances change in the post-Kennedy era, so to do familial ones for the "Chang-kees" (their pun for themselves acquired when they rent an apartment in Manhattan. Like most Americans they want to be winners, identifying as such with the world-champion New York Yankees).

When her protagonist, Y. F. Chang, first learns the meaning of his new American name, "Ralph" (given him by a bubbling, buxom American secretary in the foreign-student affairs office when he incorrectly fills out the admissions form with initials instead of the required full name), it understandably deflates the high expectations he has for himself: "He looked it up in a book he had. 'Means wolf,' he said, then looked that up in a dictionary. 'A kind of dog, he translated."

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The first name of the sole villain of the story, third-generation Chinese-American Grover Ding, plays on the word "rover." Ding has been assimilated so totally that he has lost his Chinese roots. "The way Americans in general like to move around, the Chinese love to hold still; removal is a fall and an exile," aptly describes his fate, one the Changs' stoutly resist.

Ralph earns a PhD in mechanical engineering and secures tenure on a college faculty. He is predisposed to live in a world where everything fits. And yet, so much doesn't and never will in his adopted and adoptive country.

The 19th-century scientific processes that make up the body of knowledge he teaches - precise calculations for load factors in foundations, structural stress in building materials - seem antiquated when compared with what the other engineers in his department teach. The sputnik era heralds the dawn of space travel. His Chinese values, compared with the American ones he must learn, appear as dated as the Newtonian principles he teaches.

Jen deftly links the Changs' driving exploits with varying emotional and psychological states. Ralph's love affair with the great American automobile, a 1950s Detroit behemoth, a convertible, is as apt a symbol of assimilated and assimilating America as one can find. Not un- typically, he drives differently when he is alone than when he is with his family.

At the book's conclusion, an automobile accident presents the Changs with their greatest crisis. We know they will prevail. In the face of tragedy, their strength lies not so much in any individual "I" - rather, in a familial "we."

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