Mistakes are often essential factors of one’s wisdom and future success. People can always gain precious life lessons from their flaws, which resemble the pebbles that make a stable and perfect road. In the novel Typical American written by Gish Jen, the protagonist, Ralph Chang, makes a mistake in which he shifts and tortures his original American dream to a false and ‘poisonous’ dream that causes his ultimate familial, moral and financial collapse; in other words, he fails to create a ‘China’ with traditional values in America. However, he actually becomes more mature after gaining a valuable lesson from his flaws.
Because of his excessive pride and confidence, Ralph is considered a tragic hero as he commits the tragic flaws that lead to his downfall; and eventually he realizes, reflects, and learns from the mistakes and roots of his failure of his pursuit of American dream. Ralph assimilates to the materialism of ‘typical Americans’ gradually and discards the traditional Chinese values, in which he misinterprets the significance of American dream and causes his collapses. Initially, Ralph merely wants to study and earn a degree of engineering in the United States without any intention of staying.
The prejudice, disdain and discrimination make him adhere more resolutely to his Chinese identity with conventional ideas and values. Even after learning that the Communists assume control in China and that his family has disappeared, he rejects American culture and brings in old values to adopt his home in America. Nevertheless, when Ralph meets his ‘friend’ Grover Ding, a completely Americanized Chinese, his original ideas and values begin to alter. In addition to his attempt to afford the daily expenses, he gradually abandons his career as a professor, disregards the relationship with his family, and makes money illegally.
Ralph’s Americanized behaviors such as spending ‘an hour or so’ in his restaurant ‘every night’ ringing ‘the cash register’ (Jen 201) reveal his intense desire to make great fortune from a successful business. Further, his thorough shift from adhesion to Chinese culture to the corruption by American values is exhibited as he states that ‘In this country, you have money, you can do anything. You have no money, you are nobody’ (Jen 199). Ralph’s first major flaw clearly shows the readers that his disparage of Chinese identity and complete Americanization result in a distortion of his initial dream and goal.
He progressively becomes a materialist and an individualist who only focuses on fulfilling his desire towards creature comforts and becoming a rich millionaire. Ralph’s misunderstanding of the actual marrow of American dream and his conformity to Grover’s instigation of making a self-business eventually cause his financial failure, the bankruptcy of his restaurant; as well as the familial collapse, the affair between Grover and Helen, and Theresa’s depart from the house due to her disagreement with Grover’s principle of money.
Ralph’s excessive pride and ambition further increase his inclination to individualism and materialism that lead to his final crash. Due to his confidence, Ralph is resolved with the idea that his business should be further expanded with the construction of a second floor in his restaurant, and he is so ambitious and ‘sure’ that ‘[he] can double business’ (Jen 220). During a discussion with Helen on the plan, he never hesitates but replies Helen’s doubt immediately that Grover also agrees with the idea and ‘wants to give [him] a chance to show how smart’ (Jen 232) he is.
His excessive confidence is further revealed when he encourages Helen to ‘have faith’ (Jen 232). The author conveys to the readers that Ralph’s arrogance and ambition trigger his boldness to risk his present business and even the whole family in trying to make more money on a large scale. Besides, he exerts stress and pressure on his family. In order to make sure not to hurt Ralph’s pride, Helen hides things from him and Theresa pretends that her scholarship is cancelled.
Also, his neglect and indifference diminish the bond between the family, in which it separates ultimately with affairs and disagreement on perceptions. Gish Jen shows that Ralph’s personality of extravagant pride affects his interpersonal relationships and influences him to make reckless decisions, in which these factors lead to his familial and economical decline directly. Along with the desperation and disorientation for the tragedy, Ralph enlightens and recognizes his flaws slowly at the end of the novel, while he actually gains a priceless lesson from his flaws.
Ralph recalls his initial American dream and recognizes that he is too self-centered that he often neglects his family, an essential part of his dream, and employs excessive emphasis on the material world formerly. He, too, gradually understands that the meaning of ‘typical American’ does not base on materialism and individualism. Instead, as a Chinese immigrant, he may combine the best of Chinese and American cultures without discarding his cultural identity and fully adapting to the American culture.
Eventually, he succeeds in rebuilding his cultural identity after the reunion and reconnection with the entire family. Ralph’s proper shift of personality and values is implied as he concludes at the end of the novel that ‘America is no America’ (Jen 296), which suggests the inexistence of utopia and marks an end to Ralph’s immoderate arrogance. Ralph no longer cherishes illusions and misconceptions of the corroded dreams such as making money extensively without considering other aspects like his family and morality.
As a tragic hero, even though Ralph recognizes his faults after acquiring the consequences, he is able to regain and process his Chinese cultural identity and become a ‘typical American’ simultaneously after binding the best of western and eastern cultures ultimately. The evolution of Ralph in Typical American from committing the mistakes and undergoing his downfall to his recognition and correction makes him a tragic hero who actually learns a lesson that matures him eventually.
Correspondingly, people in reality learn from their mistakes and try their best to correct them in order to make progresses. In fact, the author Gish Jen uses Ralph Chang’s experience to inspire and remind the readers to behave appropriately towards various cultures and be positive to cultural adaption, in which she supports and reminds the immigrants to maintain the pith of their native cultures and combine it with the essence of American culture in order to reduce unnecessary cultural conflicts.
Jen, Gish. Typical American: a Novel. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008. Print.