In one fell swoop, Charles Wang—patriarch of the Wang family, purveyor of the American immigrant dream, cosmetic visionary and turner of “shit into Shinola”—goes from king to, well, cock:
In Chinese, in any Chinese speaker’s mouth, Wang was a family name to be proud of. It meant king, with a written character that was simple and strong. And it was pronounced with a languid drawn-out diphthong of an o sound that suggested an easy life of summer palaces and fishing for sweet river shrimp off gilded barges. But one move to America and Charles Wang’s proud surname became a nasally joke of a word; one move and he went from king to cock.
Ruined by the financial crisis, Charles Wang of Bel-Air soon finds himself without a home, without cars, without the luxury he has become accustomed to, without his cosmetics empire and, he realizes, without land. And then an idea is born: Charles will reclaim the land in China that is rightfully his. All he needs to do is get there.
And so begins Jade Chang’s take on the classic American road trip in The Wangs vs. the World, a riches-to-rags to (immaterial) riches tale that is fresh, funny, pacey and bright.
The “Wangs” are Charles, his second wife Barbra and three children: eldest daughter Saina, a former “it” artist in self-imposed exile in upstate New York, middle child (and only son) Andrew, an aspiring comedian at university in Arizona, and Grace, a popular fashion blogger at boarding school in Santa Barbara.
Charles first pulls Andrew from school and then Grace and along with Barbra they drive across the States to Saina’s Catskills hideout. Adventure ensues from Charles’s final customer delivery to Andrew becoming waylaid in New Orleans, all as Charles reconciles the Old World and the New, the West and the East.
Chang brings out each character of the Wang crew with humor and skill, creating a cast of likeable characters that the reader can cheer for. Each family member is given equal billing in the narration and the resulting effect is a novel that moves at a spirited pace with a sense of adventure and humor on a situation that is less than funny.
To say that Chang takes traditional Chinese cultural norms and adds a twist would be a disservice to the nuances in her writing. Rather the Wang family’s Chinese heritage informs the story and enriches the characters, but she is never precious about it. Stereotypes are stereotypes (Charles: “The only thing with legs Chinese people don’t eat is table and chair”), but in some sense Chang just owns them and moves on. Take a discussion between Saina and Andrew as they try to understand their father’s thinking:
“Maybe he’s getting real Chinese in the face of adversity. I am the first-born son.”
“But not the firstborn.”
“XY trumps XX.” Saina laughed and he felt that old relief.
Or when Grace and Andrew can’t remember their Ama’s name.
Andrew turned to Grace. “What’s Ama’s name?”
“Isn’t it Ama?”
“No, that’s what she is, an ama. It’s like a nanny.”
“Yeah. You’ve basically been calling her ‘caretaker’ all your life.”
“Well, you have, too!”
Where the novel can get a bit clunky is in its heavy use of a pinyin (and Chang has chosen a pinyin that is not the standard romanization system used in Mainland China), which is often written in full sentences, without explanation, context or translation. An early example jolts the reader from what has been so far a fluent read:
[Barbra] knew about his prejudices and knew that they probably extended rather further than he let on — especially about the native Taiwanese, especially about her own parents — but those were easy to indulge. Money made everything easy to indulge.
“Wang tai-tai, kuai yi dian la! Ni je me hai mei you kai shi shou yi fu? Mei shi jien le!”
Ama shout-whispered as she appeared over Barbra’s shoulder in the mirror, a slash of coral lipstick under her beauty parlor perm.
“Yes, I know,” Barbra replied, staring back. “I’ll be ready in a moment.”
Or later, during the family road trip:
“I don’t know,” said Andrew, who never knew anything. “I guess not. But I really have to go, like right now.”
Barbra finally turned to Charles. “Wo qu. Ni ying gai pei Grace zai lu guan.“
Not what he was expecting, she thought triumphantly. He tried to look mischievous as he said, “Ke shi wo shi xiang wo men ke yi..”
Barbra shook her head, an emphatic no. As if she would even consider having sex with him at this moment.
Readers might assume for the foregoing that “Wo qu. Ni ying gai pei Grace zai lu guan” translates to “Not what she was expecting”, but it doesn’t—the latter is Barbra’s internal thinking, while the former roughly translates to “I’ll go. You and Grace stay in the motel.”
While not on every page, these passages appear frequently enough—enough for non-Chinese readers to do a big hmmm and enough for average Chinese readers like myself to spend a not insignificant amount of time translating Chang’s pinyin into standardized pinyin to translate into English. Does this matter? Maybe not. While I was taken out of the story more than I wanted (or needed) to be, I still got the full meaning. Perhaps non-Chinese readers would irritated; perhaps they would just skip over the passages in full, none the richer or poorer for it.
Wangs vs. the World joins an increasing number of novels about the financial crisis. Chang’s take works and her bold style pairs nicely with her heartwarming tale.