The Wangs vs. the World

Image of The Wangs vs. the World
Release Date: 
October 3, 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

It’s a fact that everyone knows: America is a country of immigrants. The Irish, the Germans, the Arabs, even the founding fathers and the first colonists, were all immigrants. Some have been settled on this continent for so long they seem no different than the rest of us. Others are relative newcomers and have one foot in their homeland, juggling first generation angst and cultural woes.

The Wang Family is a typical example of this first generation immigrant angst. The book The Wangs vs. the World is less a storyline than it is a commentary on what it means for Asian immigrants in particular to leave their homes and settle in America.

Charles Wang is the colorful patriarch around whom the story revolves. He is the main character with a larger than life personality, whose successes and failures have been so astronomical that they seem almost made up.

Charles’ story is not the typical immigrant story, at least not entirely. Yes, he has struggled in the beginning, but his struggles have brought him great monetary success. He is the founder of a great cosmetic empire, something the average American reader doesn’t immediately associate with the Chinese immigrant story. In fact there are some aspects of it that are extremely non-stereotypical, and there are others which scream stereotype. It is an interesting mix designed to keep the reader on his or her toes.

Charles is now older and less wealthy. His less than sharp business acumen coupled with some economic missteps have led him to lose all his possessions in one fell swoop. From being a millionaire he has gone to being a pauper, and that is the push he and his family need to really see America for what it is: the land of opportunity. He has children who range from adult to teen, and they are all swept up in this unfortunate state of affairs.

Yet Charles’ children share none of the immigrant angst, or if they do, they have hidden it quite successfully. They speak Chinese but don’t seem to follow any other cultural traditions. Apart from language they could be any other rich family desperate to hold on to their wealth and comically angry at losing it all through no fault of their own.

Grace the youngest is a fashion blogger, as self-important and superfluous as one would expect the darling youngest daughter of a rich man to be. Saina is an artist with high society connections, and there is much to read about her love life in The Wangs vs. the World that has little to do with the overall story.

Only Andrew, the middle child, seems to be introspective and attuned into his cultural roots. An aspiring comedian, his jokes often center on Asian stereotypes. In one comedy bar he opens with “So, I’m Asian. Mm-hm. Yeah . . . Yep. One hundred percent Asian. I know you want to know what kind. Because people always say they can’t tell the difference between particular Asians.” Later, he admits somewhat sarcastically but also pathetically: “I’ll tell you a secret . . . we can’t tell the difference either.”

Charles Wang, of course, is the center of the story. He is the real reason one reads the book, the real character we want to know. How did he get so rich? What was his early life like? Is he the stereotypical Chinese father or the born-again American one? To be honest he is a little bit of everything, and in that confusion he is Charles Wang. His tirades are a perfect commentary on immigrant life, told not from the perspective of rich or poor but from the perspective of Chinese and American.

In some ways, being an immigrant in America is a double-sided coin, with ups and downs, positives and negatives. It is a little like the makeup that Charles sells. “Makeup was American, and Charles understood makeup. It was artifice, and it was honesty. It was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy.”

Truly, the best parts of the novel are Charles’ ruminations, his opinions and his soliloquies about one random topic or the other. Even while lamenting his financial losses, he can be philosophical in a way that gives the reader an insight into much that is not apparent. From makeup he begins to think about women, and the innate differences that in his opinion make men superior: “Look at magazines. Women’s magazines were all about feeling something. There was advice on how to feel pretty, how to feel love, how to feel happy, all sold to you by making you feel like you were none of those things. Men’s magazines, on the other hand, were about making money, going places, having sex with beautiful women, and eating rare or bloody things. Passions, not emotions.”

At another time he observes the wealthy elite in general, while appreciating being a part of them: “Oh, the anxious, aging wives of his white business associates, fingers weighted down with diamonds, constantly tittering on about how busy they were with this committee meeting and that school event, all the while shedding pretty tears for dark-skinned children in distant countries.”

Finally, Charles has much to consider about what immigrants mean to his adopted land. “America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles.”

In the end, the parts of the novel that entertain and the parts that bore, those that are scintillating and those that are average—all paint a rather delicate picture of Chinese American multigenerational family experiences, even though they lose some of the impact because they are from the perspective of wealth and privilege. In that too, perhaps, The Wangs vs. the World shatters a stereotype. And that’s a good thing.