Who's Irish? And Other Stories

Overview

In eight stories, the author of Mona in the Promised Land and Typical American chronicles Chinese and other Americans as they exuberantly win, lose, love, hate, overachieve, underachieve, and generally take on America - with sometimes comic, sometimes heart-breaking results. Life now is not what it was a generation ago, but is it any easier? A Chinese-American woman attempts to discipline her Chinese-Irish-American grandchild, only to come up against her daughter's state-of-the-art parenting. A grown man flees to...
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Overview

In eight stories, the author of Mona in the Promised Land and Typical American chronicles Chinese and other Americans as they exuberantly win, lose, love, hate, overachieve, underachieve, and generally take on America - with sometimes comic, sometimes heart-breaking results. Life now is not what it was a generation ago, but is it any easier? A Chinese-American woman attempts to discipline her Chinese-Irish-American grandchild, only to come up against her daughter's state-of-the-art parenting. A grown man flees to China to escape his disapproving mother, "who called every day, lest he forget she was not speaking to him." A computer expert accidentally books himself into a welfare hotel. A bohemian art student turned young mother finds herself entrenched in PTA meetings and soccer games when her WASP husband opts out and takes off for the woods. A family takes its first comically disastrous steps toward joining a country club.
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Editorial Reviews

BUST Magazine
Jen peoples her stories with characters who are unmistakably human and, as such, her work is a joy to read.
Jamie James

In the gang warfare of contemporary American fiction, no turf has been claimed more genially than that of the Chinese-Americans in the work of Gish Jen, who is quite as ready to expose the foibles of her own people as to catalog their complaints. One of the most impressive things about her first collection of stories -- Who's Irish? -- is its range: First-person tales told by an old lady, a little girl and an Italian-American teenage boy sit easily alongside wry omniscient narratives set in prosperous American suburbs, the tough inner city and China itself. Yet in all its widely diverse cast of characters, there's not one you can't like, or at least sympathize with, even if there are few you can admire. Which is just as it should be.

The title story is one of the best. A Chinese-born grandmother, the story's narrator, makes a poor baby sitter in the eyes of her liberal-thinking, Westernized daughter, who has married into an Irish-American family. When the old woman tries to discipline her naughty granddaughter in the Chinese fashion -- firmly -- the child's mother decides it's time for her own mother to move out. They look at some small apartments, but in the end the narrator stays with her son-in-law's mother, an Irish woman of her own age, who is just as befuddled as she is by the young people's modern ways: The generational wars have overwhelmed the ethnic skirmishing.

Jen has a deft way of turning stereotypes on their heads. In "Birthmates" -- which John Updike recently included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (a title P.T. Barnum would not have been ashamed of) -- a traveling Chinese businessman, pinching pennies, stays at a welfare hotel, where a young hoodlum knocks him out in the lobby. He regains consciousness in the room of a young black woman; groggily, he sees her cooking something and notices a plastic bag full of white powder on the table. He assumes the worst, but it turns out that she's making him a mug of hot milk and can afford only the powdered kind.

"Duncan in China," a novella-length piece, is a fascinating reversal of the usual immigrant's story. The title character, an assimilated Chinese-American, idealizes the intellectual and cultural tradition of the mother country and goes there to discover "the China of ineffable nobility and refinement." The story is set in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and Duncan finds not the refinement of the Song dynasty porcelain he cherishes, but rather snitches, a tubercular cousin, lust and anti-intellectualism.

Another novella, "House, House, Home," is the weakest work in the collection. It tediously details the decline of the marriage of a college student and her art professor, a man of highly cultivated eccentricity who would surely be among the most irritating characters in contemporary fiction if you could believe in him for even a moment. "Sven did not see why he should not wear other people's clothes if they were left handy. And why not pick up someone else's camera at a party and, holding it behind your back, snap the party scene you couldn't see?" The narrator, who is Asian, finally splits up with this highly original person and finds a sensitive, politically enlightened Hawaiian hunk, who shows her "how she had been wifed, how she had been fetishized, how she had been viewed as Orientalia" by white, Western Sven. Where is the irony with which Jen usually slaps down that sort of cant? At the end, the author even finds it necessary to inform the reader that both these men were "anatomically well-equipped."

"House, House, Home," never before published, has an earnest '70s air about it; I would hazard a guess that it's the torso of a failed novel that was resurrected to bring the book up to 200 pages. That might be wrong and completely unfair, but in any case including it was unnecessary: The 126 pages that precede it are well worth the price of admission.
Salon

Jean Thompson
...[Portrays] cultures in splendid confusion and outright collision....She has a clear-eyed affection for people who struggle to find their places in the world....Her subject matter is so appealing, it almost obscures the power and suppleness of her language. Who's Irish?, at its considerable best, finds words for all the high and low notes of the raucous American anthem.
The New York Times Book Review \ \
From The Critics
...Jen's voice always rings true. In various states of assimilation, her characters approach the clash of cultures with wit, humor and pathos.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
KLIATT
In just eight stories, Jen easily captures the fragility of the human experience as common, everyday people are caught up in the absurdities of life. In her title story, "Who's Irish?," a mother/daughter relationship takes on some difficult twists and turns when the Asian daughter and her Irish husband must deal with her mother's world of culture and discipline. The beauty of this little narrative is that it is told in the mother's voice, a voice that expresses well the confusion of the western ways her daughter has adopted. Also examined is the pain of not understanding the growing separation in their relationship, a separation due not only to the changing of their worlds, but also to the distancing of the generations. Like all of Jen's stories, "Who's Irish?" mixes humor and sadness. Jen writes about the immigrant experience, and more specifically the Asian American experience. While this diversity in her stories is delightful, her characters are simply human beings caught up in the tangles of living their lives. In "The Water Faucet Vision," Callie believes there is power and comfort in the malachite beads she has found. As she and her sister listen to her father and mother fighting, the beads bring her assurance that there will be a miracle. When her mother is flung from an upper-story window, but still lives, Callie knows her beads have been at work. Jen skillfully pulls the reader into the innocent purity of this young woman's world as she reminisces about her life: back then, the world was a place that could be set right. Jen's writing is clear and skillful. Her descriptions are tight and sharp: e.g., "her hair like a dandelion head." These short stories could be enjoyedby more advanced YA readers and would certainly be a valuable addition to public library story collections. Every story in "Who's Irish?" is a wonderful slice of life. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House/Vintage, 208p, 21cm, 98-42801, $12.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Sally M. Tibbetts; Audio Visual/LRC, Maine West, H.S., Des Plaines, IL January 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 1)
Library Journal
YA-As in her novels, Jen provides a clear, compelling voice and presents characters who are both realistic and quirky. Multicultural settings, plot lines, and social issues figure into most of these short stories but are well integrated so there is no sense of this being a collection "about" multiculturalism. Some selections feature characters from the author's longer fiction, albeit at different points and in different situations from those in which they appeared earlier. The title story provides a wonderfully dynamic portrait of an older Chinese-American woman who must deal with her granddaughter's biracial identity and her own evolving warmth toward her daughter's mother-in-law. Each of the stories stands independently but it is easy to move from one to the next, without a disappointment in the lot. This is a great way to introduce readers to Jen, and her fans will be happy to have these new stories, each of which is a tiny window on a busy world.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
David Gates
...Jen uses her ever-ready wit to provide ironic distance from genuinely dark places....The result [is] an esthetic whole even greater than the sum of its entertaining parts.
Newsweek
Jean Thompson
...[Portrays] cultures in splendid confusion and outright collision....She has a clear-eyed affection for people who struggle to find their places in the world....Her subject matter is so appealing, it almost obscures the power and suppleness of her language. Who's Irish?, at its considerable best, finds words for all the high and low notes of the raucous American anthem.
The New York Times Book Review
Lucius Lau
...[D]ensely packed with little insights....[C]asts a wide net over Chinese American life....[W]onderful tales that are as complex as they are subtle.
A. Magazine
Michiko Kakutani
Ms. Jen...has a keen eye for the incongruities of contemporary life....[S]he gives us a gently satiric look at the American Dream and its fallout [capturing] the absurdities and self-indulgences of a country where adjectives like creative are attached to everything...[and] the wonderful sense of freedom it can confer on individuals who are new to its shores.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A sharp-eyed debut collection of eight stories examining American life from a foreigner's perspective, by Chinese-American novelist Jen (Mona in the Promised Land, 1996, etc). Most of the observers here are Chinese-Americans who have been in the US long enough to feel at home but who can still find themselves continually surprised by American styles and attitudes. The grandmother of the title piece wonders at the lack of ambition of her Irish-American son-in-law ("Selling egg rolls not good enough for you, but at least my husband and I can say, We made it. What can you say?") but is positively baffled by the psychobabble of her first-generation daughter ("In China, daughter take care of mother. Here it is the other way around. Mother help daughter, mother ask, Anything else I can do? Otherwise daughter complain mother is not supportive"). The sense of alienation is always present to some degree, as it is for the businessman of "Birthmates" (who is sent by his ailing corporation to a business conference and becomes depressed staying in a seedy motel in a bad part of a strange city) or the boy of "Chin" (who is moved into a Westchester suburb with his parents and becomes the butt of abuse at the local high school). Others take pleasure in their exotic new world: the Chinese-American girl of "The Water Faucet Vision" attends a Catholic grammar school and becomes so fascinated by Christianity that she convinces herself she's having visions, while the immigrant family of "In the American Society" becomes obsessed with gaining admittance to the country club. The culture shock is not unilateral, either: the Chinese-American boy of "Duncan in China," who moves to China to teach Englishin a remote mining town, never realizes how fully American he is until he returns to his homeland. Perceptive and sharply detailed stories that inhabit the boundary between nostalgia and resentment that is the exile's true domain—without falling into either.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781862072763

Meet the Author

Gish Jen
Gish Jen lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Biography

As a child, Chinese-American author Gish Jen read constantly, though she did not dream of becoming a writer. From pre-med at Harvard to finally finding an academic "home" in an MFA program, the author of The Love Wife, Typical American, Who's Irish?, and Mona in the Promised Land, is known for her tragi-comic sensibility and transcending stereotypes in her characters' search for identity.

Typical American, Jen's first novel, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and launched Jen into the literary limelight. The story follows three Chinese immigrants, Ralph Chang, his wife, Helen, and his sister, Theresa, as they pursue the American Dream and do battle with the pressures of greed, assimilation, and self-interest. Brilliantly funny and sad, the story takes some surprising turns in the quest to become American.

Gish Jen, whose characters undergo profound changes in the quest for identity, is herself no stranger to identity issues. After publishing two short stories with her given name, Lillian Jen, in the early eighties, she began using the name she acquired in high school, Gish Jen, after the silent film star, Lillian Gish.

Born in 1955 in New York, Jen grew up Chinese and Catholic in Queens, Yonkers and in the large Jewish community of Scarsdale. She never dreamed of being a writer. Instead she dutifully pleased her parents by first going to Harvard with plans to become a lawyer or doctor. That changed when a poetry professor suggested she at least work in publishing if she wasn't going to be a full-time writer. She took a job at Doubleday Books, but was not quite satisfied. From here, she enrolled in an M.B.A. at Stanford University, only to drop out and follow the urge to write. Finally, in the M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she found her academic and creative home.

After Jen graduated from Iowa in 1983, she married David O'Connor and lived in California until 1985, when they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they now live with their two children. During this period, she was so discouraged about a literary career that she took a typing test at Harvard. Although she passed it with flying colors, she was able to triumphantly turn down the clerical job offered because she had been accepted as a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute. It was here that Jen began writing her first novel, Typical American, which was eventually published in 1991.

Typical American was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and gave Jen literary clout and exposure. The book follows the lives of three foreign students -- Ralph Chang, older sister Teresa, and Ralph's future wife Helen. When the Communists assume control of China in 1948, the three become trapped in the United States and band together, planning to achieve the American dream while keeping their Chinese values intact. However, as they encounter their own foibles and the challenges of America, the ride in this tragi-comic story is by no means smooth.

Rave reviews followed the publication of Typical American. The New York Times Book Review said, "No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness. The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line. Even her incidental description seems new-minted -- purely functional, bone clean yet lustrous."

Although Typical American was successful, Jen resented being labeled as just an AsianAmerican writer. As a reaction, she decided to complicate what that meant with her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996).

The story centers on the middle-class owners of a pancake house, Helen and Ralph Chang, who have moved on up to a house in wealthy, suburban Scarshill, NY. In 1968, with Vietnam and the civil rights movement in full swing, their younger daughter Mona enters high school, joins a youth group at a synagogue, converts to Judaism, fights against other "isms" and becomes known as Mona "Changowitz." Eventually, her mother turns her back on Mona, and Mona learns that her rabbi is right in telling her, "The more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you'll be."

Jen told the journal, Ploughshares, in 2000 that Mona in the Promised Land grew out of a short story, What Means Switch?, that she had written while trying to finish Typical American. She had lost her first pregnancy, and didn't know if she'd be able to finish the novel. After running into an old high-school acquaintance, she was inspired to revisit her teen years in Scarsdale in a short story.

In the eight short stories of Who's Irish? (2000), Jen chronicles Chinese and other Americans as they take on America with sometimes comic and heart-breaking outcomes. The stories originally appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and Ploughshares. Two stories were selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, and one that was originally published in Ploughshares, "Birthmates," was chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

The title story of Who's Irish? is one of the best. The story's narrator is a Chinese-born grandmother, who clashes with her liberal-minded, Westernized daughter in matters of childrearing. When she tries to discipline her misbehaving granddaughter in her firm Chinese way, the child's mother, who has married an Irish-American, decides her own mother should move out. Ultimately she moves in with her Irish-American son-in-law's mother, who is just as confused as she is about their offspring's modern ways. It seems the generational clash has superceded ethnic differences.

Throughout her writing career, Jen, has chosen to take advantage of what freedom she could find rather than play such roles as expert on China, or of professional victim. In the Ploughshares interview, she said, "I have hoped to define myself as an American writer."

In her third novel, The Love Wife (2004), readers are introduced to another of Jen's "typical American families." The family is made up of a second-generation Chinese American husband named Carnegie, a blue-eyed wife named Blondie, adopted Asian daughters Wendy and Lizzie and a blond biological son, Bailey. Then from mainland China, along comes Lan, a nanny and relative who is "bequeathed" by Carnegie's mother.

The mother of two biracial children, Jen told Dale Raben in a 2004 interview for the Library Journal that their appearances helped shape one of her themes in The Love Wife.

"My children look exactly alike except that my son has straight black hair and my daughter has fine, light hair. And for whatever reason, that has caused them to be seen very, very differently by the world.

In the novel, Blondie is already worried that their family looks strange, as if she and Bailey don't belong. Lan's arrival only intensifies this pre-existing tension.

Writing from a Chinese American standpoint, Jen argues that grouping people by ethnicity is almost meaningless. Continuing her interview in the Library Journal, she said, "You have to ask, ‘Are they immigrants or are they non-immigrants?' For the people in this book, to be first- and second-generation immigrants from a non-Western culture is very germane. How germane it will be to their children, who can say?"

In her novels and short stories, Jen liberates her characters from stereotypes by making them profoundly human and complex. In an interview published in 1993 in the journal MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature) Jen said she views her work as indeterminate in its final message: "I think it has to do with the fact that I come from a culture where things can have opposite attributes at the same time, like in food, sweet and sour. The world is at once yin and yang."

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Jen:

"I am a more or less normal person."

"I have two happy, healthy children. They are far funnier than I am."

"I love nothing more than a long swim in a pond."

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    1. Hometown:
      Cambridge, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. Harvard University, M.F.A., Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Read an Excerpt


Nothing the matter with Sophie's outside, that's the truth. It is inside that she is like not any Chinese girl I ever see. We go to the park, and this is what she does. She stand up in the stroller. She take off all her clothes and throw them in the fountain.

        Sophie! I say. Stop!

        But she just laugh like a crazy person. Before I take over as baby-sitter, Sophie has that crazy-person sitter, Amy the guitar player. My daughter thought this Amy very creative--another word we do not talk about in China. In China, we talk about whether we have difficulty or no difficulty. We talk about whether life is bitter or not bitter. In America, all day long, people talk about creative. Never mind that I cannot even look at this Amy, with her shirt so short that her belly button showing. This Amy think Sophie should love her body. So when Sophie take off her diaper, Amy laugh. When Sophie run around naked, Amy say she wouldn't want to wear a diaper either. When Sophie go shu-shu in her lap, Amy laugh and say there are no germs in pee. When Sophie take off her shoes, Amy say bare feet is best, even the pediatrician say so. That is why Sophie now walk around with no shoes like a beggar child. Also why Sophie love to take off her clothes.


        Turn around! say the boys in the park. Let's see that ass!

        Of course, Sophie does not understand. Sophie clap her hands, I am the only one to say, No! This is not a game.

        It hasnothing to do with John's family, my daughter say. Amy was too permissive, that's all.

        But I think if Sophie was not wild inside, she would not take off her shoes and clothes to begin with.

        You never take off your clothes when you were little, I say. All my Chinese friends had babies, I never saw one of them act wild like that.

        Look, my daughter say. I have a big presentation tomorrow.

        John and my daughter agree Sophie is a problem, but they don't know what to do.

        You spank her, she'll stop, I say another day.

        But they say, Oh no.

        In America, parents not supposed to spank the child.

        It gives them low self-esteem, my daughter say. And that leads to problems later, as I happen to know.

        My daughter never have big presentation the next day when the subject of spanking come up.

        I don't want you to touch Sophie, she say. No spanking, period.

        Don't tell me what to do, I say.

        I'm not telling you what to do, say my daughter. I'm telling you how I feel.

        I am not your servant, I say. Don't you dare talk to me like that.

        My daughter have another funny habit when she lose an argument. She spread out all her fingers and look at them, as if she like to make sure they are still there.


My daughter is fierce like me, but she and John think it is better to explain to Sophie that clothes are a good idea. This is not so hard in the cold weather. In the warm weather, it is very hard.

        Use your words, my daughter say. That's what we tell Sophie. How about if you set a good example.

        As if good example mean anything to Sophie. I am so fierce, the gang members who used to come to the restaurant all afraid of me, but Sophie is not afraid.

        I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no snack.

        I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no lunch.

        I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no park.

        Pretty soon we are stay home all day, and by the end of six hours she still did not have one thing to eat. You never saw a child stubborn like that.

        I'm hungry! she cry when my daughter come home.

        What's the matter, doesn't your grandmother feed you? My daughter laugh.

        No! Sophie say. She doesn't feed me anything!

         My daughter laugh again. Here you go, she say.

        She say to John, Sophie must be growing.

        Growing like a weed, I say.


Still Sophie take off her clothes, until one day I spank her. Not too hard, but she cry and cry, and when I tell her if she doesn't put her clothes back on I'll spank her again, she put her clothes back on. Then I tell her she is good girl, and give her some food to eat. The next day we go to the park and, like a nice Chinese girl, she does not take off her clothes.

        She stop taking off her clothes, I report. Finally!

        How did you do it? my daughter ask.

        After twenty-eight years experience with you, I guess I learn something, I say.

        It must have been a phase, John say, and his voice is suddenly like an expert.

        His voice is like an expert about everything these days, now that he carry a leather briefcase, and wear shiny shoes, and can go shopping for a new car. On the company, he say. The company will pay for it, but he will be able to drive it whenever he want.

        A free car, he say. How do you like that.

        It's good to see you in the saddle again, my daughter say. Some of your family patterns are scary.

        At least I don't drink, he say. He say, And I'm not the only one with scary family patterns.

        That's for sure, say my daughter.

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Table of Contents

Who's Irish? 3
Birthmates 17
The Water Faucet Vision 37
Duncan in China 49
Just Wait 92
Chin 105
In the American Society 114
House, House, Home 133
Acknowledgments 209
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Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

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