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FICTION : MONA IN THE PROMISED LAND, By Gish Jen (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 304 pp.)

May 26, 1996|RICHARD EDER

Gish Jen's "Typical American" was a brilliantly witty and affecting novel of a Chinese family eroding like an island in the sucking tides of American culture.

"Mona in the Promised Land" is a sequel in a way. It focuses on what the tides restore: a 16-year-old whose stubborn sensibility obliges her to invent a way to be American that takes account of her cultural traditions even while rebelling against them.

The novel, as witty as "Typical American" and more thoughtful--though much more discursive and in some ways less affecting--relates Mona's quirky, gallant and oddly persuasive effort at appropriation. Not only is her America also Chinese-American; it is America insofar as it is also Chinese-American.

Slight, polite, irrepressible and terribly funny, Mona naturalizes herself into Daniel Boone, Lincoln, Edison, Henry Ford, the Beatles, the civil rights movement, shopping malls and sexual and personal liberations. She alters them slightly as she does so. She is a cultural Luther Burbank; her hybrid apples are an improvement.

The setting is Scarshill, a not-at-all disguised version of Scarsdale, New York. There, having worked brutally hard in their restaurant business and suffered all kinds of ups and downs, Mona's parents, Ralph and Helen Chang, have made it to the promised land of the title. It is 1968; a liberal ethos is in the air, even in this haven of wealthy Wasps and Jews.

The Changs are the first of what Mona calls "the new Jews," a minority seeking what the previous minority had sought: verdant escape from the city, and excellent schools. The reader may get halfway through before noticing Jen's deliberate scheme: There are no Wasps in the book.

In a kind of joyful irony which, among other things, makes "Mona" a shining example of a multicultural message delivered with the wit and bite of art, it is Scarshill's Jewish families that represent for the Chinese girl the American Dream. At the same time, they are her model of how a minority can assimilate yet keep its particular flavor and, indeed, impart something of that flavor to the national mix.

"Mona" is a year or two of variations and forays through America's ethnic paths and detours. The protagonist and narrator, mounted upon her own frisky and restless adolescence, is a zany innocent whose gift is for discovery by going too far.

Where do I fit in? is her question, universal to adolescence and particular to her situation. She is the first Asian girl in her high school, and she is torn between the strict Chinese familial order at home, and the freedoms of her friends.

She washes her jeans repeatedly for a de rigueur bleached look, Helen, her mother, complains of the electric bill, Mona offers to pay, Helen is insulted. With Mona's best friend, Barbara Gugelstein, it is just the other way: She gets money for chores and is expected to pay an extra hour's wages to the day- maid because of the mess created by her pet birds.

"Barbara is her own separate accounting unit," Mona tells us. As for her and her sister, Callie, their chores contribute to the great family enterprise, the one that has got Helen and Ralph out of China and set them on a course of long hours, hard work and insecure prosperity. Callie is at Harvard; Mona works flawlessly at school and will eventually get there; this is their further contribution to the enterprise. Unity inside the Chang house, diversity in the world outside: two connecting chambers of such vastly differing pressures that something has to give.

Mona gives. She strikes out for America--in this case, the youth program at the local temple. She is determined to convert and persuades the skeptical but amiable young rabbi to agree. "I like it here at the temple. I like it that you tell everyone to ask, ask, instead of just obey, obey," is her fix on Judaism--so different from the Confucian pieties at home. "I like it that you tell people to make a pain in the neck of themselves."

Her tour of the promised land as a Chinese Jew leads to a series of ventures that take her farther and farther away from the family constraints. She falls bumpily in love with Seth Mandel, a 60s dropout who has dropped no farther than a tepee in his wealthy parents' garden where, supplied with food and parental laundry service, he argues politics and books and experiments with pot and girls. Mona is aroused but cautious--she is her upbringing as well as her rebellion--and they become boon companions and fellow-adventurers long before they become lovers.

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