The Pursuit of Happiness in Typical American by Gish Jen

2115 words (8 pages) Essay in Literature

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What is America? America is the land of the free were individuals can find opportunity for prosperity and success. Many people immigrate to America for the hope of achieving more from their lives. People dedicate their lives to hard work, sacrifices, and risk-taking in hopes of achieving the American Dream. Thus, it allows anyone regardless of race or color to reach upward mobility and obtain true success and happiness. In Typical American by Gish Jen, she reinvents the American immigrant story through the use of the Chang family. Ralph, his sister Theresa and wife Helen, find themselves clinging to old world ideas of themselves. But as they begin to dream the American Dream, they become people who were secluded in America to American themselves. Jen shows although chasing the American Dream can create identity and opportunities, it can also be corrupt.

 Ralph, along with the rest of the family, begin to create a major identity for themselves through the journey to the west. Ralph’s voyage from communist China to America helps create an identity when his father sends him to the west in the hopes that receives a degree. As described, “ He was going to be first in his class, and he was not going home until he had his doctorate rolled up to his hand his father”(Jen 6). Ralph’s father ideology for Ralph is placed under the impression that Ralph was sent to America to fulfill a degree. Ralph’s major and impactful views were to help himself create an identity through completing school. As an individual of chinese heritage, he was seen to complete a specific goal in coming to America to study. Through his travels in America we see Ralph come across several different lands, the land of opportunity, from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the final destination of New York City. He describes America saying, “ That splendor!  That radiance! True, it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty, but still in his mind its span glowed bright, an image of freedom, and hope, and relief for the seasick” (Jen 7). Ralph begins to describe the American Dream in an image, the advancement and industrial workers in a culture were the dream of fulfilment is obtainable. No matter the place where an individual comes from, the radiancy the dream carries allows Americans to dream to the fullest and break through barriers placed on people.

 In Addition, Ralphs beliefs of American identity change when he comes across Pete, the supervisor of the building in which Ralph and Helen make their first home. Struggling to survive in a broken- down apartment, they mock their manager Pete, who fulfills their notion of a “typical American”. Ralph said, “here was the most irritating thing: fly open, feet up on his legless desk, dog at the door, he often be thumbing through course catalogs… A man, Pete said was what he made up his mind to be, that man is fooling himself” (Jen 67). Ralph discusses Pete as a man, was what he made up his mind to be in the idea of being a typical American. Pete, as a typical American, would carry no morals and say things but do absolutely nothing. He would  decide to fix their broken down apartment, then claim it was fixed. As their time spent in America begins to lengthen, they begin to see traits of true identity. Ralph would see Pete and his representation of the American ideals through the things he does and by his personality towards them.

Furthermore, Ralph meets back with one of his friends, Old Chao, and is introduced to his successful landlord Grover, whose identity strikes Ralph’s attention. He begins to see the different traits of Grover when his behavior has differed from others saying, “What Ralph would have done then to leave with him–good-by, Old Chao and his tenure- track job offer! Good-by, social nicety! Ralph could only ogle, though, helpless with envy, as Grover balled up his napkin. He did not push his chair in” (95). Grover is shown as ignoring the social norms and not caring about what others think of him. He was a man who simply believed in the American Dream, and Ralph would become “lovestruck” onto the idea that he himself can imagine and make up his mind to be successful and ignore social norms. Therefore,  Ralph begins to surround himself with Grover as he takes him to eat a diner, Grover tells him, “ I’m a millionaire. A self- made man. What do you think of that? In America, anything is possible” (106). Grover speaks on the start of how he got his riches and status he has today. Ralph’s admiration draws him to emulate him, and seek the Dream and fulfillment that Grover has. His strong businessman traits with no college degree and true success creates the idea for Ralph that the Dream does exist, by doing it and imagining it anything can be achieved. Thus, Ralphs identity is furthered developed as an individual who become anything and do anything, because Grover’s idea of the American Dream allows it to happen.

 The American Dream can be fulfilling for individuals, but it can also allow them to reach new opportunities of success. Years go by and Ralph and Helen have kids, Ralph goes to school and receives the degree and soon becomes an assistant professor, As a sign of his rise and success, he finally buys a car from Old Chao. As Theresa adds “Seems like someone’s becoming one- hundred- percent Americanized” as Ralph states, “What’s so American? We had a car, growing up. Don’t you remember? Everywhere we go, we can keep the children inside. Also they won’t catch cold” (128). We see Ralph begin to fill himself with the idea of being Americanized by getting Old Chao’s car representing the ideals that Americans seek toward the American Dream. After several moments of waiting for it, he believes he has succeeded with his dream.He has started to fill his life with consumerism in the hopes of appealing to the American Dream.

Furthermore, Ralph’s open opportunities he received from the car and school helps create the idea of an American identity and lifestyle when they decide to purchase a house. Ralph comes across the suburbs of Connecticut when he along with his sister, wife and kids celebrate him getting his license. As they drive through the suburbs, they decide to buy a house down their with the enthusiasm and intention to seek the American lifestyle, offering opportunities to pursue more in there lives as stated, “ When did they realize that a town like this was their destiny– that if they drew out the line of their past it would pass through this point, that however it curved afterward, for some time they would dwell in a house like one of these” (135). The idea that Ralph had a possibility of being a self made man like Grover created the idea that he can pursue the American Dream through his hard work and determination of things. Under American ideals, it was the Dream to have a car, the beautiful jubilant family and house with a lawn so fresh and colorful. Laurence Shames in his essay, “The More Factor,”states that, “ Frontier; opportunity; more. This has been the American trinity from the very start, the frontier was the backdrop and also the raw material for the streak of economic booms” ( Shames 78). What Shames means by this idea is that America is built on these ideas of needing more and succeeding in the world is needed to fulfill what it means to be an American. Along with doing things the American way given with the opportunities that people are able to get at the moment in time, through values hopes and ambitions, these ideas grow.  America is obsessed with the concept of growth and having more, the main point is that the notion of having more has always been an essential ideal to this country and is still is. Individuals fill their happiness with the next big thing in the market. In order to have more, growing is necessary and Americans have always found a way to do this. Ralph has shown the qualities by his consumerism and American ideals of getting a car, a house in the suburbs and having a wife and two kids.

Moreover, Ralph’s opportunities are opened when Grover decides to help Ralph open up a chicken restaurant. Grover has asked Ralph for a check to purchase the building as a favor in return that Ralph will have a new thriving business. As an addition, if the business is not growing, he can simply go back to teaching. Ralph further states, “Money. In this country, you have money, you can do anything. You have no money, you are nobody. You are Chinaman! Is that simple” (Jen 199). Ralphs chicken business begins to flourish, while he finds ways to make the business profitable. He believes in the concept that money is the answer for anything in life, creating the same ideals other Americans have towards it. Ralph alongside his wife Helen work together and begin to become respected. Becoming profitable in the business, Ralph begins to purchase many consumer items and achieve success. James Roberts in his essay, “The Treadmill of Consumption,” states that, “ that treadmill is a barrier to raising your level of happiness, because it causes you to quickly adapt to good things by taking them for granted… the process of moving ahead materially without any real gain in satisfaction” (Roberts 119). What Robert means by this is that through the treadmill, individuals instantly are in a cycle of consumerism that makes them adapt to new things, but have no further direction towards true happiness. Ralphs ideal life is to be somebody by having money, because he is nothing without it. Through his consumption he addresses what it means to be an American. But often times, the idea of having money and consumption can create corruption.

Nevertheless, although the American Dream carries opportunities and success, it can also be corrupted through individuals in society. Grover has sold the land to Ralph knowing it was built badly on soil of rotting logs, to take his money and benefit from Ralph’s decisions. As stated, “there lot had been a pit, into which someone dumped trees… having long since to started to rot; the land… was unstable and unbuildable” (244). Grover had gave Ralph a restaurant where it’s foundation was bad and began to sink. Throughout Ralphs growth and change towards the American Dream, the restaurant slowly collapsing represents the dream falling apart and being corrupt. Ralph had left his job and pursued to focus on what Grover gave him, when in fact it hurt Ralph’s success. He focused so much on his benefits toward achieving the American Dream, without realizing the effects and corruption that came with it. His American dream has become corrupted by the culture of wealth and opulence that surrounds him. Thus, although the Dream was beneficial, it also caused corruption on his life and the things he desired.

 Lastly, although chasing the American Dream can create identity and opportunities, it can also be corrupt. The American Dream is universal in that everyone hopes for positive change and that the change deals with their place in society. As the land of opportunity, immigrants believe they can pursue a change. The American Dream is something that everyone aspires for, even if it is hard to accomplish, no matter the race. It is the thing that keeps people going, creating opportunities and identities for people. The American Dream can be corrupt from what it truly is, but it allows people to be pushed to become something better.  Because people have different perspectives on the Dream, it is up to the individuals to find true happiness in their society as an American.

Works Cited

  • Jen, Gish. Typical American. Vintage Books, 1991.
  • Maasik, Sonia and Jack Solomon, editors. Signs of Life in the USA. Bedford/ St Martin’s, 2018. 
  • Roberts, James. “The Treadmill of Consumption.” Signs of Life in the USA Ninth Edition, edited by Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, Bedford/ St Martin’s, 2018, pp. 117-123.
  • Shames, Laurence. “The More Factor.” Signs of Life in the USA Ninth Edition, edited by Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, Bedford/ St Martin’s, 2018, pp. 76-82.
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