In Jade Chang’s debut novel, America giveth and America taketh away.
Charles Wang, a lovable, brash, and ambitious Chinese-American immigrant, achieves the ultimate American dream of making it rich in the land of the free only to have the financial crisis of 2008, the end-result of a freewheeling economy, take it all away. He’s left with his wife and three kids and the dream of returning to his native China to reclaim the ancestral land the communists took away from his family.
I started this novel expecting a lighthearted read and while the book has its share of amusing situations, it also shows how Charles Wang’s path to success included fighting or brazenly embracing stereotypes and prejudices against Chinese immigrants. His children, Saina, Andrew, and Grace, are born in the U.S. and raised in a world of privilege but they still deal with situations in which they are reminded of their otherness. It could be a stranger asking them where they are really from or their father making a comment that comes across as culturally insensitive. I appreciated that Chang does not shy away from depicting profoundly uncomfortable situations. I also like that Chang’s use of untranslated Chinese, similar to Junot Diaz’s use of Spanish throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is another reminder that this particular story is intrinsically American but also rooted in the immigrant experience.
Ultimately, we follow the Wangs as they come to terms with their changed financial situation and figure out that family is more important than the trappings of success.