The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

wangsI’ve seen mixed reviews of this book, but I really liked it.  Chang gives us a screwed-up family on a road trip, but she makes their story sympathetic, clever and at times funny.  I’ve seen this book described as hilarious, and I can’t say it reached that level for me, but then I’m not Chinese so I may be missing things.  I would call it dark humor, and in that it reminded me a bit of the movie Little Miss Sunshine.

The Wangs is about a Chinese immigrant, Charles Wang, who comes to the U.S. as a young man and makes a fortune in selling cosmetics.  When he loses it all in the financial crisis, he collects his children and his wife and drives them all from California to upstate New York to stay with his oldest daughter.

When reading a book about another cultural or ethnic group, I wonder how my experience of the book differs from those who are part of that group.  What are Chinese-American readers saying about this novel? I always appreciate the opportunity to experience life from another group’s perspective.  I could identify with this novel quite a bit, as the daughter of an immigrant, but the white immigrant’s experience in the United States is not the same as that of a non-white immigrant.  I could also relate to the sense that your country has stolen what belonged to you.  Charles’ family lost their estate in Communist China, and he dreams of getting it back.  My father comes from a family that also lost everything, first in the Holocaust and then in Communist Slovakia.

Chang is an excellent writer of dialogue, and the exchanges between siblings in this book were some of the best parts (I loved one part where brother and sister are comparing sexual experiences).  I also really liked the parts where brother Andrew does stand-up comedy.  For one thing, Chang is able to use these scenes to really drive home the Asian immigrant experience in the U.S.  Andrew is talking about very real things, and it’s so real it’s not funny, and yet its painful awkwardness is funny.

It’s important to note that Chang’s pointed (if not laugh-out-loud) humor isn’t only related to Chinese culture; it also pokes fun at American culture, such as our rags to riches mentality and our obsession with wealth. And of course, it pokes fun at how white Americans view Asians.

And sometimes, it hit uncomfortably close to home:

America was a great deceptor.  Land of Opportunity.  Golden Mountain.  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles.  A Great Wall?  Ha!  This country could never build anything as epic as that.

What I really liked about this book was the characters.  I found them interesting and sympathetic, though imperfect, and the family’s problems are understandable, even if I can’t relate to being fabulously wealthy. Clearly, money has created opportunities for this family: Saina wouldn’t have become a successful artist without her family’s income and influence, and Andrew and Grace have had access to the best of everything.  Money doesn’t bring these siblings happiness, but it does make things a lot easier.  But over time, every member of this family has become more and more distant from the others, and now, suddenly, they need to rely on each other.

In the end, this is a story about a family, and that worked for me.  The ending felt a bit contrived, although I find that’s a common problem, especially in a debut novel.  And I think a bit too much time was spent on Saina and her relationship problems.  Otherwise I liked everything about this book.  I especially liked Grace, the youngest daughter; her teenage voice felt the most real to me.

Grace felt raw and open again…  She wanted to get back to that without anything horrible happening.  She wanted to be a transparent eyeball like that Emerson poem, bright and full and receptive to everything.

Some readers have been bothered by the use of Chinese in this novel.  Sometimes it’s translated but a lot of the time you simply have to read between the lines.  I felt there was always enough context to understand the gist of what was being said, and I quite liked this aspect of the novel because it felt realistic.  My father and his wife speak another language to each other most of the time, and that’s what it feels like reading this book.  Yes, having someone speak a language you don’t know makes you feel like an outsider– but that’s life in a multicultural world, not something to be bothered by.

If you like writing that feels like it could easily be a movie or a tv show, you’ll like this book.  It’s very visual and dialogue-driven.  It’s got a few road trip cliches, and at times the characters can be selfish, but they grow along the way.  This is a story about siblings realizing how little they know each other, and finding that their parents are in fact real people. And that much I could totally relate to.

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