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America and the New Immigrant Experience : Immigration Shock: The World He Lost Waxed Fairer in the Losing : 'Typical American': Yifeng Chang, the novelist's creation, came to New York for a Ph.D., had his name changed to Ralph by a secretary and saw his life changed in ways he never imagined.

May 05, 1991|Gish Jen | Gish Jen, who lives in Massachusetts, is author of the novel "Typical American," (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence) from which this selection is excerpted.

By August Ralph Chang had moved nine times, in a spiral away from his Chinese friends. They and the university still formed some center to his universe, but only as a point of origin; he hardly ever saw anyone anymore. Not that he lived so far. Henry Chao, and Freddy Wang, and Milt Chen, and George Lee had all come around pretty often at the start. With time, though, they were called back to their own lives.

It was Natural Process; it was the slow shift of a pendulum's swing into a different plane. Or here was the law: As his life diminished, theirs burgeoned, requiring attention. There were romances now, travel plans. Old Chao won a car in a church drawing. George Lee eloped. More and more, Ralph became for them a funny set of ears that came up sometimes, a lesson about falling for foreign devils. And for Ralph, on his side, they became another lost family.

Except for moon-faced Little Lou, who not only kept track of Ralph, but came by every now and then, bearing gifts. A box of pork buns, a pan--and troubles, Ralph sensed, to rival his, although just what they were, who knew? Little Lou was such a stopped-up type that when Ralph was done with his news, they could sit for a quarter hour at a time in complete silence. This, with all their friends to draw on for conversation. Something was just not right. Ralph would eat and play with his hat. Little Lou would watch, blank.

And yet Ralph appreciated his visits. They were something solid to stand on, anyway. Respite. They were a breakwater against some black undertow in himself that could any moment snatch him away to its killing home. He felt himself to be small, barefoot, lacking friction. Nearsighted. Everyday events seemed magnified another power.

Little Lou's dropping by became the concern of a boddhisatva. A pigeon corpse on his doorstep was Ralph's true self come to rot at his feet. Everything signified, everything blared and reverberated as though some adjustment was off, some knob turned all the way up. Exhausted, that's what he was. Gone out. Looking to the future, he saw no future; and who doesn't hurt when he sees his life fizzling, his life that should have climbed and burst, blooming, a fire-flower in the sky? Once Ralph could imagine his parents watching, breathless, amazed, but now . . . .

And then there was another pain too, quieter, weightier, its roots in what everybody knows--that one day a person looks back more than forward, that one day he'll have achieved as much as he was going to, loved as much as he was going to, been as happy as it was granted him to be. And that day, won't he have to wonder--was it enough, what he's lived? Can he call that a life and be satisfied?

So it was that Ralph felt not only his future to have failed, but with it his past, the twin engine that might have sustained him. He missed his home, missed having a place that was home. Home! And yet his life there, no; it didn't begin to fill the measure of his hopes for a life. It was no golden time. He might gild it, but in truth it was lacking.

Lacking what? Something, everything, he didn't know exactly. But he did know this--that the world he had lost had waxed valuable in the losing, like an unwon love. How perfect Cammy had become in his memory, how much more desirable for having stepped behind a locked door! He saw all of this now, with the terrible lucidity of a strained mind; and seeing it wondered what there was to live for. His new job?

His new job. Being Chinese, he had thought the safest place to work would be in the Chinese restaurants scattered like toys in around the legs of the el on 125th Street. Weren't people needed to wash dishes, wait table, make noodles? Ralph had no experience, it was true, but everyone started with no experience.

And as it turned out, his lack of experience didn't matter.

"Please, may I speak to your boss," he'd say in Mandarin.

"What you say?" the answer would come back; or at least that's what he guessed, not understanding a word of Cantonese. "Whaat? "

Once or twice he tried asking in English, but it was no use. Talking wrong, he might as well have been a barbarian invader; the town gates were closed. Still he knocked, until finally a tiny girl perched on a stool in the fresh-killed meat store said, "Yes?"

In perfect English, this was. Off the stool she barely cleared the countertop, but she knew where her father was, and her father--also American-born, it seemed, a gum chewer--guessed Yeah, he could use someone. Sure.

Ralph's non-life began. At dawn he would get up, wash, put on his bloody clothes, and walk to the store basement, where by the light of a yellow 40-watt bulb, crates of animals surrounding him--pigs and rabbits against one wall, pigeons and snakes against another--he would kill and clean and pluck hours upon hours of chickens.

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