Friday, December 23, 2011

Mona in the Promised Land (1996)

Author: Gish Jen
Title: Mona in the Promised Land
Publisher: Vintage
Price: Free from Community Reading Exchange Shelf
Book Put in its Place: Old issue of PMLA
LCC: PS3560.E474 M66 1996

The 1980s. The San Fernando Valley-- Mom, Dad, and I have are going to dinner at Road to China. It is a small, family-owned restaurant across the parking lot from where my father owns a muffin bakery. We have just gone to see a movie. It is Christmas and the all diners are Jews like ourselves. While our goyishe neighbors are celebrating the birth of their Lord, we are celebrating a tradition of our own. It might not be the sort of thing that Teyve would sing about, but it means something to us. The hostess and the waitstaff are all Chinese and are, we presume, possibly erroneously, Buddhist. Most of the cooks and the one busboy are Mexican or El Salvadorean immigrants. We don't think to ask how they feel about working on Christmas. If we did, I presume we would feel sorry for them. We don't work or go to school on our High Holidays after all. As an adult, I'll learn that some Jews eat Chinese food because it constitutes what Jordan Rosenblum terms "safe treyfe." Chinese food may not be Kosher but it becomes a safe way to develop cosmopolitan tastes and to interact with the society as a whole. To this I would add that Chinese food is "safe treyfe" because it allows Jews to interact with the wider community while not risking assimilation. As a Jew, you can eat all the Chinese food you want, but no one is going to mistake you for a Chinese person.

Gish Jen's novel Mona in the Promised Land describes this assimilation story from the perspective of the the Chinese, the  so-called "New Jews." In language that modulates between a Chinese-inflected English, a vaudeville Yiddish dialect, and conventional tight readerly prose, Jen tells us of the story of her titular character.  Mona is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and is trying to find her place in America. Rather than assimilate completely or remain culturally Chinese like her parents, Mona finds the best way to be both an American and Chinese is, oddly enough, to covert to Judaism. For being Jewish is perhaps the easiest ways to be a "model minority."And thus, Mona begins to volunteer at the local temple's suicide teen hotline, learn her prayers, and attend confirmation classes.  Of course, such a decision does not go over well with her parents. Upwardly-mobile Ralph and Helen work hard at the Waffle House they own. They want to make it in America--the Promised Land--but they are more reluctant to modify their Chinese traditions. To be Chinese means to stay Chinese, to know one's place. Mona realizes this most concretely when she views an exhibit of Chinese portraiture. Only the faces of the monks are distinct; the peasants, merchants, and other members of the society are distinguished more by their clothes than anything else. While Mona's mostly-Jewish friends believe that if the peasants had commissioned the painting it would look more differently, Mona quietly disagrees. She knows that they find great comfort in knowing exactly what their role in society is. Mona, however, no longer feels comfortable inhabiting the strict role of "good Chinese daughter" that her parents have laid before her.

While the novel plays at the "identity  novel" that folks like Amy Hungerford have identified, ultimately it's just as interested in the "marriage" plot as Jeffrey Eugenides recent novel. Instead of meeting those expectations that her parents lay before her, Mona finds herself increasingly laying before Seth Mandel. Seth is a product of the 1960s if ever there was one. He is almost a stereotype. Having a high draft number, Seth has put off college indefinitely to find himself. Mostly, this means reading continental philosophy, volunteering at the temple, and living in a teepee set up in his parents backyard. At first look, the novel's love story may seem to be the sort of thing one finds on the back of a Soy Vay bottle, but their romance is complicated not only by Mona's family but also by the tumultuous politics of the 1960s. Indeed, Seth is only capable of wooing Mona through a process of identity transformation that is even more unusual than Mona's own conversion.

Mona in the Promised Land is a romance in the tradition of Jane Austen. Like every good Austen novel, Jen gives us the happy ending we all want. It does so by weaving together all the loose threads in the tapestry of America. Shouldn't we all hope to be so lucky?

Happy holidays, everyone. Tell us what you're reading over Christmas and Hanukkah?

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