“Who’s Irish” by Gish Jen is a short story about a Chinese grandmother living in America. The grandmother lives with her granddaughter Sophie, her daughter Natalie, and her unemployed, Irish son-in-law John. She describes Sophie as “wild (105)”, and blames her Irish side. She claims: “She is not like any Chinese girl I ever saw (106)”. The grandmother babysits Sophie during the day and believes she should be spanked, even though Natalie and John oppose it. Sophie continues to misbehave and the Grandmother spanks her anyways.
One day at the park Sophie climbs into a hole and refuses to get out. The Grandmother pokes her with a stick to try and get her out. When her parents finally get Sophie home they find bruises on her. The grandmother is forbidden to see Sophie after that. The central idea is that being stuck between cultures can be very challenging for a family. The central character is the Grandmother. She describes herself as “fierce (105)” and claims: “The gang members who used to come to the restaurant all afraid of me (107)”.
Her husband and daughter escaped from China to America, where they opened a Chinese restaurant, which they came to own before her husband died. She is filled with prejudice, and is disturbed by the laziness of her daughter’s Irish husband and his family. She is not afraid to speak her mind to them: “Even the black people doing better these days (105)” She blames her granddaughter’s Irish side for her behavior problems, and strongly believes children should be spanked. After she is exposed for spanking Sophie, she moves into her son-in-law’s mother, Bess’s house.
She respects Bess for being such a strong woman. Bess says that the central character has become “honorary Irish (110)” while living with her. The central character is dynamic, because in the end she learns that she cannot always judge people on their cultural background. The supporting characters are her family members, both her immediate family and her son-in-laws family too. Although the central character is clearly the Grandmother there is a great focus on the secondary characters in Jen’s story. The supporting characters are all static.
John does find work for a little while, but is unemployed again by the end of the story. He claims he cannot help take care of Sophie because: “he is a man (105)” He is depressed and spends most of his time at the gym. Her daughter Natalie is also “fierce” and works very hard to support her family. She is always tired. Natalie does not wish to make her mother move out, but fears John will divorce her if not. Towards the end of the story she says “I have a young daughter and a depressed husband and no one to turn to (109)”, to which the grandmother tells us: “When she says no one to turn to, she mean me (109)”.
It is obvious that the central character loves her granddaughter Sophie, and just wanted to help. After she is moved out of the house she recalls: “She call me Meanie, but she like to kiss me too (109)”. Johns mother Bess, who raised four Irish boys on her own, while working as an executive secretary for a big company, is fond of the central character and invites her to move in with her. It is Bess’s character who best displays the Grandmother’s dynamism, through their friendship, and the central characters admiration of her. The central conflict is women vs. society.
Jen’s story is an interesting portrayal of the various conflicts that could arise for an Asian immigrant entering American society. The Grandmother, who escaped from China, struggles to accept the new culture she has been immersed in. She does not agree with the way people discipline their children here, and does not understand why Natalie must be supportive of her unemployed husband: “We do not have this word in Chinese, supportive (106)”. She is disturbed by the babysitter her daughter hired before her: “I cannot even look at this Amy, with her shirt so shirt and her belly button showing (107)”.
At times in the story it seems that she is not even trying to adapt, but we can’t discount how hard it must be for an elderly woman coming from such a different culture to make such drastic changes. )”. Although it may seem that the central character is not trying very hard to adapt, we can’t dismiss how challenging it must be for an elderly Chinese woman living in a culture so different than her own. Jen’s story is an interesting portrayal of the various conflicts that could arise for an Asian immigrant entering American society.
The secondary conflict is woman vs. an. The narrator is in constant conflict with her daughter and her son-in-law throughout the story. She does not agree with her daughter’s choice of husband. Everything about the Shea family seems backwards to her. The women work and then men do nothing: “every one of them is on welfare, or so-called severance pay, or so called disability pay (105)”. Natalie and John do not want her to spank their child and Natalie has made this clear to her.
She tells her mother: “It gives them low self-esteem, and that leads to problems later, as I happen to know. 107)”, hinting at some longstanding resentment Natalie might have toward her mother. When the Narrator spanks their child anyways, she is not doing so to be malicious, but she is sure her way is the right way, and wants her granddaughter to be brought up right. After she moves in with Bess, her daughter still comes to visit sometimes but does not bring Sophie and always makes an excuse to leave early. The story is told through a first person point of view. The style of narration is almost as if the central character is speaking directly towards you.
The Narrator speaks in broken English: “I am work hard my whole life (105)”. This deliberate use of incorrect grammar makes the story seem more realistic, and furthers the conversational effect of the narration. The first person point of view allows us into the central characters mind so that we can see the world through her eyes. Our view of the story is tinted by her opinions: “Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking. Even his name is plain boiled: John. Maybe because I grew up with black bean sauce and hoisin sauce and garlic sauce, I always feel something missing when my son in law talk (106)”.
Being able to see the Narrator’s thoughts, we know that she means well, and the reader can’t help but feel bad for her at the end of the story. Her choice of language is blunt and honest and adds some much needed humor to the sad story. The setting is a key element to Jen’s story. Although it does not specify exactly which city, we know that it’s a probably a large city in the U. S. One indication that it is a large city is when The Narrator talks about gang members coming in for protection money, this leads the reader to believe that they are not living in some small town, as this seems like more of a big city problem.
The story is set in modern time, where things like mixed marriages, alternative approaches to disciplining children, and women working are very common. The Narrator recounts when she first came to America with her daughter “I took care of her when we have to escape from China, I took care of her when suddenly we live in a country with cars everywhere, if you are not careful your little girl get run over (109)” The reader can imagine the culture shock they must have experienced.
While the specific culture that the Narrator is in conflict with in Jen’s story is Irish, it could just as easily have been any other culture. Most American cities are huge melting pots, containing people from all sorts of different backgrounds. The conflicts in Jen’s story all seem very realistic, so much so that the reader can’t help but wonder how much of the story is from personal experience.