"Typical American," Vocabulary from Parts 1-2

April 21, 2013
When Lai Fu Cheng becomes Ralph, he changes more than just his name. No longer a refugee from communism, he says he has come to find the American Dream in Gish Jen's modern immigration novel, "Typical American."

Learn these word lists: Parts 1-2, Parts 3-4
His mother tells him something like, It’s only a phase.
Until finally, irked, she says what his tutor always says, “You listen but don’t hear!”—distinguishing, the way the Chinese will, between effort and result.
Until finally, irked, she says what his tutor always says, “You listen but don’t hear!"— distinguishing, the way the Chinese will, between effort and result.
The upright scholar, the ex-government official, calls him a fan tong—a rice barrel.
Or so it seems to his father as, on a fan-cooled veranda, he entertains apocalyptic thoughts of marching armies, a new dynasty, the end of society as they know it.
Or so it seems to his father as, on a fan-cooled veranda, he entertains apocalyptic thoughts of marching armies, a new dynasty, the end of society as they know it.
“Too much rice wine,” muses Ralph’s mother.
His ink blackens; and in the end he can’t be kept from making a few discreet inquiries, among friends.
I will do five minutes of calisthenics daily.
For girls, he knew, were what happened to even the cleverest, most diligent, most upright of scholars; the scholars kissed, got syphilis, and died without getting their degrees.
Otherwise he was himself—large-faced, dimpled, with eyebrows that rode nervously up and up, away from his flat, wide, placid nose.
In sum, he was a doll, and the Foreign Student Affairs secretary, though she loathed her job, loathed her boss, loathed working, liked him.
Walking home, though, Ralph was less sanguine.
Did he confuse this phenomenon with love?
Now Mr. Fitt was a grim man, an enforcer, with a small, sneering mouth; in another life he might have been a carnivorous fish.
Ralph’s heart rumbled like a Peking Opera drum; it was the crescendo before—crash of the cymbals!—a hero appeared.
“You’ve gotten completely hutu”— muddle-headed—Old Chao went on.
Sometimes Ralph thought of her as Yang Guifei incarnate—that’s a Tang Dynasty courtesan for whom an emperor went to ruin.
Research: as his classmates grappled on with Finite Element Analysis of Structures, Ralph began watching Americans and, his English having improved, even talking to Americans—who, he was surprised to discover, actually liked to sit back, and scratch their sandy chins, and tell him what they thought a young Chinaman should know.
Instead he stood in front of her empty desk in the evening, after everyone had gone home, and touched her things—her typewriter, her scissors, her pencil cup, her blotter—as if trying to coax them into yielding up what somewhere in their atoms they had to know.
The clamorous street had turned private, a blue path such as should rightly lead to a hidden knoll, and so on.
He remembered second aunt with her cactus collection, fifth uncle with his beard, eighth uncle with that opium addict, socialite wife.
They are ancient paper lanterns, translucent, unlit, strung across the courtyard, too fragile to move—though when he sees Ralph, his father, still a brave man, tries to speak.
It was Natural Process; it was the slow shift of a pendulum’s swing into a different plane.
He felt himself to be small, barefoot, lacking friction.
He saw all of this now, with the terrible lucidity of a strained mind; and seeing it, wondered what there was to live for.
But the second week he only blanched, and by the third he worked as though indigenous to this world.
A practiced look through the ranks; he’d snap the victim’s neck, bare its jugular, slit it.
Ralph would wash his hands, a ritual.
Scraping noises; and then, like the gates of the Western Paradise, the trap door would open, lowering into the basement an almost intolerable beam of light.
A big lit globe shone on either side of the doorway, above twin frost-tipped yews, which in turn set off a short, wide staircase.
Out of this trickled blood, which he watched meander to the edge of his hand.
It was as if in some prenatal rush, they had been dressed in one another’s clothes.
It was a paradigm of Western influence gone wrong.
The young man could station himself by a certain park gate as Theresa strolled down a path some hundred feet away, carrying a parasol.
The decision, when it came, opened suddenly, a crevasse.
In fact, Theresa found out, well before their date in the park, he had run off with his father’s concubine.
Hocked wallpaper, moss green with gold, in a pattern of sinewy trellises; a matching moss-green carpet; and on the walls, electric torches.
He wanted her to be permanent, an edifice whose piles touched the heart of the earth.
During the worst squall, she had counted thirteen containers scattered around the apartment, each with its own rhythm and pitch.
Once, in an effusion of sympathy, a strange American woman had squeezed Helen’s hand (typical American no-manners); the American had wondered then at how soft and smooth Helen’s skin was.
It had been a feeling she’d been after, a convivial solidarity; she’d hoped to murmur to one another, as if sitting at the edge of one of their beds.
Thickened, buxom.
Helen eyed him surreptitiously as she nodded in Old Chao’s direction.
Ralph could only ogle, though, helpless with envy, as Grover balled up his napkin.
Grover preened, straightening his shirt.
In between school and schoolwork, Theresa pitched in, happy to get away from her cadaver.
Ralph swallowed, chagrined.

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