Typical American

As promised last Monday, here again is a bit of writing from a book I enjoyed immensely. This is a selection from the first chapter of Typical American, by Gish Jen, a wonderful novel about American immigration that is unlike any other. Her imagery is stunning, and the story itself is full of comic tragedy. Enjoy!

   On the way to America, Yifeng studied. He reviewed his math, his physics, his English, struggling for long hours with his broken-backed books, and as the boat rocked and pitched he set out two main goals for himself. He was going to be first in his class, and he was not going home until he had his doctorate rolled up to hand his father. He also wrote down a list of subsidiary aims.

1. I will cultivate virtue. (A true scholar being a good scholar; as the saying went, there was no carving rotten wood.)
2. I will bring honor to the family.

What else?

3. I will do five minutes of calisthenics daily.
4. I will eat only what I like, instead of eating everything.
5. I will on no account keep eating after everyone else has stopped.
6. I will on no account have anything to do with girls.

    On 7 through 10, he was stuck until he realized that number 6 about the girls was so important it counted for at least four more than itself. For girls, he knew, were what happened to even the cleverest, most diligent, most upright of scholars; the scholars kissed, got syphilis, and died without getting their degrees.
He studied in the sun, in the rain, by every shape moon. The ocean sang and spit; it threw itself on the deck. Still he studied. He studied as the Horizon developed, finally, a bit of skin – land! He studied as that skin thickened, and deformed, and resolved, shaping itself as inevitably as a fetus growing eyes, growing ears. Even when islands began to heave their brown, bristled backs up through the sea (a morning sea so shiny it seemed to have turned into light and light and light), he watched only between pages. For this was what he’d vowed as a corollary of his main aim – to study until he could see the pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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, of hope, and relief for the seasick. The day his boat happened into the harbor, though, he couldn’t make out the bridge until he was almost under it, what with the fog; and all there was to hear was foghorns. These honked high, low, high, low, over and over, like a demented musician playing his favorite two notes.

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