127 The Wangs vs. the World

wangsby Jade Chang, 2016

It’s the start of the economic recession and Charles Wang – a Chinese immigrant who made his fortune in the cosmetics industry – is bankrupt. Having put all his collateral, including his house, toward a loan for a failed attempt at beauty stores that cater to non-white customers, Charles is determined to save face by reclaiming the land stolen from his family by the communist Chinese government. He picks up his daughter from boarding school, his son from college, and, along with his second wife, they head toward the eldest Wang daughter’s New York farmhouse in search of something like redemption.

I’ve said it before – I’m a sucker for a good multi-generational family plot and The Wangs vs. the World pretty much fits that bill. Told from each of the family’s perspectives, including that of Charles’s deceased wife’s car, this is a story that reveals the arrogance, stubbornness, ignorance, and the futility of the efforts of everyone involved. Youngest daughter Grace is convinced this is some trick, at the end of which her trust fund will be revealed to her. Son Andrew is on a never-ending search for true love. And eldest daughter Saina is dealing not only with the collapse of her engagement, but also that of her much lauded career as an artist. Wife and stepmother Barbra, who chose her American name after seeing a Streisand movie, is quietly resigned to the fact that she wants nothing more than to be married to Charles, no matter how inept he turns out to be.

I’ve also said this before – The Corrections did it better. Don’t get me wrong, The Wangs vs. the World is humorous and Chang draws an apt portrait of Charles Wang as a foolhardy immigrant who refuses to learn grammatically correct English because he’s convinced the Chinese will take over soon anyway. I loved the mixture of cultures, with Charles being so proudly Chinese and his children being so meekly American – this clash between homelands felt real to me and I would like to see more stories with this element. It’s just that at certain points I found myself getting bored, whether it was with Saina’s tormented love life or Andrew’s painfully embarrassing attempts at comedy open mics, and I couldn’t help but think that I’ve read this before. And I’ve read it better.

Nevertheless, Chang does a fine job of mincing Asian-American stereotypes and her book accurately reflects a life that many Americans know. This is, in effect, the story of the American dream. A man travels from the old country with nothing but a list of names in his pocket and, through hard work and determination, makes untold millions. Alas, we’re all too familiar with the flipside of that dream, when everything you’ve worked for crumbles away, and Charles Wang and his family must come to terms with what it means to be both American and Chinese and all the good and the bad that come with those identities.

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