Cultural cross-dressing and the quest for ethnic identity in Gish Jen's 'Mona in the Promised Land'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Americanness and Ethnicity
2.1 Defining the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’
2.2 Herbert Gans’s Symbolic Ethnicity
2.3 Symbolic Ethnicity in Mona in the Promised Land
2.4 Werner Sollors’s Consent and Descent
2.5 Consent and Descent in Mona in the Promised Land

3. Cultural Cross - Dressing
3.1 Definition
3.2 ‘Crossers’ in Mona in the Promised Land
3.2.1 Mona
3.2.2 Barbara
3.2.3 Naomi
3.2.4 Rabbi Horowitz
3.3 ‘Non-Crossers’ in Mona in the Promised Land
3.3.1 Eloise and the Ingles
3.3.2 Alfred

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Switching between different cultures, as depicted in Gish Jen’s novel Mona in the Promised Land, seems to be the most natural thing to do. However, crossing ethnic boundaries often evokes negative reactions: When Jen’s teenage protagonist Mona converts to Judaism, her parents do not exactly approve of this decision. As Chinese immigrants to the United States, Ralph and Helen Chang used to call themselves the ‘Chang-kees’, indicating both their desire to be fully accepted into American (i.e. ‘Yankee’) society and their awareness of being “racially different and, therefore, un-American” (Lee 47). Although in fact it is part of Jen’s first novel Typical American (1991), the ‘Chang-kee’ pun is also interesting with regards to the sequel Mona in the Promised Land: Here, Ralph’s and Helen’s daughter Mona is given the nickname ‘Changowitz’, a blending of Chang and the common Jewish name ending ‘-witz’. Both ‘Chang-kee’ and ‘Changowitz’ indicate an affiliation with different cultures at the same time, which is precisely what Jen’s novel deals with.

While Ralph and Helen Chang had to struggle with racial barriers during the 1950s and early 1960s and wish to be respected as assimilated self-made Americans, their daughter Mona embraces the idea that “American means being whatever you want”, putting individualism first (Jen 49). This self-granted freedom of cultural choice seems to stem from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the “dawn of ethnic awareness”, which also happens to be the dawn of Mona’s adolescence (Jen 3). As Sollors recalls, “ethnicity truly was in vogue in the 1970s” (1968, 21). Accordingly, Mona and other characters in the novel engage in discovering numerous aspects of their ethnic identities. Chapter 2 approaches the concepts of ethnicity and Americanness as well as several issues related to these terms. Here, I will refer to scholars such as Werner Sollors and Herbert Gans, who have made significant contributions to the field of ethnic studies. I will argue that Mona in the Promised Land with its recurring theme of cultural cross-dressing fits perfectly into the setting of the late 1960s and 1970s and humorously suggests what many (ethnic) adolescents must have experienced during these times.

Throughout the novel, the reader comes across various degrees of cultural crossings: the most prominent example being Mona, there are also less evident crossings of other characters that involve cosmetic surgery, a change of clothes, or a dietary change toward culturally-bound foods. Ethnic self-fashioning is depicted as a crucial step towards identity formation: While Mona and friends mostly conceive of their cultural cross-dressings as enrichments to their lives, “non-crossers” frequently appear as being narrow-minded and one-dimensional. Chapter 3 will be concerned with various characters from the novel who either do or do not switch between cultures and/or ethnicities. Here, I will consider their motives for switching (or not switching, respectively), and discuss the difficulties resulting from these decisions. Finally, chapter 4 will summarize the main findings and elaborate on the image of American society which Gish Jen depicts in her novel.

2. Americanness and Ethnicity

2.1 Defining the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’

Until this day, white Americans hold the majority in the United States. The 2006 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 73.9 percent of the total population are white (U.S. Census Bureau 2006, By comparison, Americans of Asian descent account for no more than 4.4 percent (U.S. Census Bureau 2006, In earlier times, when the term ethnicity was not yet part of the common vocabulary, the label ‘American’ was often exclusively attributed to whites, considering them to be the dominant race (Sollors 1997, 1). White supremacy was a widespread assumption (among whites, that is), and liberal accounts labeling non-white immigrants ‘Americans’ constituted rare exceptions (Sollors 1997, 1).

When the American film industry began to boom in the early 20th century, actors with ethnic roots frequently anglicized their names in order to disguise their ancestry (Sollors 1997, 1). Thereby, they probably hoped to gain popularity with the WASP audience. The latter, descendants of early English immigrants, mostly perceived of themselves as ‘truly American’, and tended to be in disfavor of later arrivals. Sollors resumes that “some Americans were so resentful of the erosion of the word ‘American’ that alternative terms were launched” (1997, 4). The self-proclaimed ‘real Americans’ thus wanted to distinguish themselves from non-WASP immigrants. Nowadays, however, the distinction between ‘old stock’ and ‘new immigrants’, “on which much of the thinking about ‘America’ and ‘ethnicity’ rested”, is much less common than it used to be several decades ago (Sollors 1997, 5).

World War II and the events of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s caused “that the term ‘American’ actually became intertwined with ethnicity and flexible enough to include – in widely accepted public and official usage – such groups as immigrants, African Americans, and American Indians” (Sollors 1997, 6). Impressed with President John F. Kennedy’s posthumously published book (1964), many people finally realized that the United States of America truly was A Nation of Immigrants, and that ethnic diversity was actually something their country could profit from (Sollors 1986, 8).

While the first and second generations of immigrants were frequently trying to hide their origins during the first half of the 20th century, the 1950s and 1960s brought about a significant change: ethnicity was on its way of becoming “a very desirable identity feature”, and a growing number of ethnics (re-)discovered their ancestral roots (Sollors 1986, 33). There was a popular belief in a third-generation return to ethnicity, interpreting their regenerated interest as an ‘ethnic revival’. Now that ethnicity was something to be proud of, all Americans, regardless of skin color, were considered “potential ethnics” (Sollors 1986, 33).

2.2 Herbert Gans’s Symbolic Ethnicity

Rather than speaking of an ‘ethnic revival’ (as many of his contemporaries did), Herbert Gans (1979) observed a general tendency among third-generation ethnics toward what he calls ‘symbolic ethnicity’: “[…] in this generation, people are less and less interested in their ethnic cultures and organizations […] and are instead more concerned with maintaining their ethnic identity, with the feeling of being Jewish or Italian or Polish, and with finding ways of feeling and expressing that identity in suitable ways” (Gans 434). Gans assumes that “the old ethnic cultures serve no useful function for third-generation ethnics”: as American-born grandchildren of immigrants, they often “lack direct and indirect ties to the old country” (Gans 432). Nevertheless, third-generation ethnics are well aware of their backgrounds, especially if their mere physical appearance bespeaks their racial ancestry (Gans 434). Gans is convinced that “ethnicity takes on an expressive rather than instrumental function in people’s lives, becoming more of a leisure-time activity” (435). Identification with a particular ethnic culture is likely to be expressed by means of ethnic symbols, which are regarded as “stand-ins” for the culture itself (435). Hence, ethnicity is considered to be a role one acquires by choice, rather than by birth: “[B]ecause people’s concern is with identity, rather than with cultural practices or group relationships, they are free to look for ways of expressing that identity which suits them best, thus opening up the possibility of voluntary, diverse, or individualistic ethnicity” (Gans 435).

2.3 Symbolic Ethnicity in Mona in the Promised Land

Although Mona and Callie are actually second-generation immigrants, Gans’s statement about ‘the third generation’ holds true for them as well: “[They have] grown up without assigned roles or groups that anchor ethnicity, so that identity can no longer be taken for granted” (435). On that account, it makes perfect sense to analyze the Chang sisters according to Gans’s concept of symbolic ethnicity. Their parents Ralph and Helen, self-proclaimed ‘Chang-kees’, are much more integrated into American than Chinese culture and society, since “China was such a long time ago, a lot of things [they] can hardly remember” (Jen 7). Also, the Changs did not raise their daughters speaking Chinese, and did not convey their knowledge of Chinese culture either. This, too, suggests that, according to Gans’s definition, Mona and Callie have a lot in common with third-generation ethnics.

Moreover, their coming of age takes place during the time of the alleged ‘ethnic revival’ of the 1970s. Mona takes delight in ethnic fashion and wears ponchos, peasant blouses, and water-buffalo sandals (Jen 25), all of which were must-haves for fashion-conscious people during that time. Although ethnic clothes certainly can function as symbols to express one’s own ethnic identity or one’s solidarity with a particular ethnic group (as in the case of Seth Mandel, see below), I would argue that Mona does not wear ponchos to ‘try on’ Latin American culture, but rather because they are commonly in vogue. Hence, I consider it important to distinguish between symbols which are being intentionally displayed in order to convey a certain message, and objects used so frequently that they have virtually lost their original meaning or function.[1]

Callie, initially “sick of being Chinese” (Jen 29), is getting increasingly interested in her Chinese heritage once she has met her college roommate Naomi. Although she does occasionally resort to ethnic symbols, e.g. by replacing her breakfast muffin with shee-veh (Jen 168), Callie’s ethnic identity needs seem to be much more intense than that. In addition to enrolling in Chinese courses (Jen 43), Callie studies hard to learn Mandarin (Jen 128), and gets up before sunrise to do her tai qi exercises (Jen 166). Finally, she even gives in to her parents request to go to medical school: after all, this is what a dutiful Chinese daughter should do in order to be able to take care of her parents one day (Jen 234). All this suggests that Gans’s concept does not apply to Callie, especially since he considers symbolic ethnicity to be a “relatively effortless” endeavor (440). Callie is far from understanding ethnicity as a mere “leisure-time activity” (Gans 435), but seriously devotes herself to Chinese language and culture, until she finally evolves into a “proud Asian American” (Jen 301).

Although the novel does not reveal which immigrant generation Seth Mandel belongs to, I consider him the prime example of a phenomenon called ‘symbolic multiethnicity’. Gans refers to this concept in his 1995 epilogue to his 1979 essay, stating that people can “indulge in being or feeling ethnic in many ethnic groups, and can change from one ethnic group to another when they so choose” (456). Believing himself to be a freethinker, Seth lives in a teepee in his father’s backyard (Jen 63). The teepee serves as a symbol of Native American culture, and demonstrates Seth’s willingness to live in harmony with nature. Paradoxically, Seth’s spiritual affinity with primitive people does not keep him from enjoying all the advantages of electricity: in addition to “[leaving] his laundry for the maid” (Jen 63), he has a tape machine and a telephone in his teepee (Jen 64).

As a member of “Camp Gugelstein”, Seth starts wearing a dashiki to declare his solidarity with the African American housemates, but is not taken seriously by them (Jen 200). In order to “[find] out who he is”, Seth engages in Jewish community life, nevertheless considering himself to be “an authentic inauthentic Jew, […] more ethnic than religious” (Jen 112). While pretending to be Sherman Matsumoto, Seth acquaints himself with Japanese culture by making ethnic and cultural symbols part of his daily routine: he “[covers] his teepee floor with tatami mats”, “[uses] chopsticks”, takes “long hot baths” until suddenly “[he begins] to feel, actually, sort of Japanese” (Jen 278). In contrast to Mona’s or Callie’s endeavors, Seth’s multiethnicity remains largely symbolic. His frequent use of ethnic symbols suggests that he is indeed searching for identity, but, in the process, never really seems to find what he is looking for.


[1] Certain fashion trends with a culture-specific background, such as the keffiyeh (originally an Arabic headdress, later frequently associated with Palestine), have become so popular outside of their original context that today’s fashion victims probably cherish the stylish aspect much more than the ethnic one.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Cultural cross-dressing and the quest for ethnic identity in Gish Jen's 'Mona in the Promised Land'
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
Representations of Chinamerica
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
432 KB
Cultural, Gish, Mona, Promised, Land, Representations, Chinamerica, Chinese American, Ethinicity, Identity, Immigration, Chinese, USA, America, American Studies
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2008, Cultural cross-dressing and the quest for ethnic identity in Gish Jen's 'Mona in the Promised Land', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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