Some of the funniest moments in Jade Chang’s first novel, The Wangs vs. the World, are the offhand ones, such as when the Chinese-American family named in the title realizes they don’t know the name of the woman who raised most of them. “Ama,” wet nurse to Charles Wang, father of the clan, followed Charles from Taiwan to California and provided the children with a steady adult presence — as well as many years of housekeeping — through the death of Charles’s first wife and his remarriage to a woman who never quite fit in. Now that Charles has lost everything with the collapse of his cosmetics empire (it’s 2008) and must gather his two younger children from boarding school and college to take refuge in the home of his eldest child, Ama provides a means of travel from Los Angeles to upstate New York: a Mercedes station wagon Charles sold to her for a dollar sixteen years ago. It’s the only available vehicle that hasn’t been repossessed. As the Wangs drive away from Ama’s house, it dawns on them that, should the need arise, they have no idea how to look her up by name.
Not knowing the name of a person close enough to be almost family, or even a family member, is an occasional hazard of Chinese, and sometimes Chinese-American, life. Since relationships, not the individual self, determine most of a Chinese person’s identity, an aunt is much more likely to be referred to by nieces and nephews as “third-born daughter on the father’s side” or “first-born daughter on the mother’s side” than “Aunt Linda.”
While the scene may prompt mirthful recognition among some readers, it also contains the underlying threat that contact between the Wangs and Ama might never be restored. This possibility echoes the backstory of Charles’s family of origin, who lost all their land when they fled the Chinese Communists and, like many other refugees from the mainland, had to start anew in Taiwan. While the goodbye to Ama does not occur under the same duress, the Wangs’ financial crisis shares with their forebears’ flight the sudden breaking of lifelong relationships, along with material ruin.
To bring the situation full circle, Charles has a plot to travel to mainland China — where he has never actually been — and reclaim the land the Communists stole from his family nearly sixty years earlier. Trying to imagine the Wangs in China highlights how American they are. Until now, Charles has been the self-made man of free-market lore; his children, raised in comfort and with freedom of speech, have been able to pursue the interests they enjoy, rather than what will provide security. The oldest daughter, Saina, until recently a New York art-world darling, is embroiled in a stormy love triangle. The middle child, Andrew, still in college, is striving to make his name as a stand-up comic and searching in vain for true love among the many young women who find him attractive. The youngest, Grace, has a flair for fashion that, were it not marred by self-absorption, could make her blog take off as her father’s cosmetics line once did.
As artsy rich kids — though now no longer rich — they are ripe for satire. Chang achieves the delicate balance of making fun of the Wang children’s idiosyncrasies while also building each as a serious character. As a result, we are ready both to laugh and to ponder when the vagaries of race in America sneak up on them. Andrew struggles with how to tell Asian jokes on stage. Saina forgets that she might be seen by locals in her adopted rural town as “some Asian lady.” Grace gets the customary “No, but where you are from from?” at a moment so inopportune, it’s hard to know whether to laugh, and even if it isn’t funny at that point, it’s an effective defense of the novel’s inclusion of that question, no matter how many other authors of color have used it.
The story is less hilarious when it resorts on occasion to slapstick timing: it’s fairly easy to predict who is going to walk in on a sexual situation. Yet the embrace of comedic convention also makes certain details more believable, such as the means by which Charles’s first wife died (an uncannily timed helicopter crash) and the means by which his second wife subsequently snared him (plotting as early as their school days together in Taiwan, even through his emigration and first marriage). Although described as women of leisure in their marriages to Charles, both wives avoid becoming caricatures as the intimacy of the journey brings out the children’s memories of their mother and forces the children into meaningful interaction with their stepmother. Where we might have been tempted to see Barbra, the stepmother, as a now-thwarted gold digger, she emerges as a more nuanced person on the trip. Charles’s simmering regrets and ambitions make his former extravagance — and the overconfidence and bad luck that have now ruined him — understandable. He is particularly troubled that, as business soared, he kept postponing a trip to Taiwan to see his dying father until it was too late. With characters so realized, and with a clever skewering of the art world that elevated, then dropped Saina as readily as the business world did her father, the story need not contort itself in an effort to be side-splitting. Its seriousness works at least as well as its humor.
On the road, the Wangs, who take a long detour through the South to make a final product delivery, are forced to converse with one another day and night. Their dialogue is peppered with phrases of untranslated Chinese, romanized rather than in characters. By deliberately rendering parts of the conversation off-limits to many readers, the novel allows a certain subset of readers in and risks annoying others. (But it tries to help: the Chinese passages are short and interspersed with English to provide context.) It invites readers to imagine that the Wang children understand spoken Chinese but, not having had the many years of schooling it takes to memorize the characters, cannot equate the spoken language to the written. In addition, it demonstrates something true of many immigrant families: the first generation speaks a mixture of English and the language of the old country, while the second uses the latter mostly passively: understanding, and perhaps able to speak it, but tending to respond in English.
A problem with the romanized Chinese in the novel is that, as printed, it resembles pinyin but seems to alternate between phonetic transcription and pinyin. This makes for a different kind of frustration, one that seems not to have a point: the reader who knows pinyin will still, at times, be lost. Standardizing the Chinese dialogue would have made for more coherent reading.
Still, that is a side issue in an otherwise well-written book. Chang’s sentences are economical, witty, and eminently readable. The Wangs vs. the World is an engaging, thoroughly American novel and deserves to be seen that way. In some of the publicity it has received, its lighthearted aspects are contrasted with other immigrant narratives, as if to suggest that all other writing about immigrants (and/or Asian Americans) takes a singularly depressing tone and portrays nothing but struggle. Yet Gish Jen has been writing with humor about Chinese Americans for decades; Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats is full of comic flair; the late Justin Chin wrote and performed poems that are often funny and anything but model-minority. All of them, as well as Jade Chang, deserve better. Chang’s contribution and potential for future contributions ought to be celebrated along with, rather than at the expense of, other American writers who happen to cover related territory.