The Struggle for Communication in Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish”
Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish? ” tells the story of a Chinese immigrant grandmother who has a hard time adjusting to life in America. The story primarily focuses on the difficulties in communication between family relationships. The different lifestyle her daughter’s family lives is quite different from the household she raised in China. Throughout the story, the narrator voices her opinion on different morals and values her daughter’s family practices, which becomes the root of her family’s communication issues.
The primary problem in the household is the lack of communication between the narrator and the Shea family. Communication issues arise at the beginning of the story between the narrator and her relationship with her son-in-law, John. The grandmother and John have difficulty communicating, because she does not understand what he values in life. She thinks he always has something to complain about and that he never is genuinely happy. Going back to her Chinese heritage, in her opinion, John would be happy in China: “If John lived in China, he would be very happy, but he is not happy” (Jen 273).
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She has a terrible understanding why Sophie’s own father does not help take care of her while Natalie is at work. His reason for this is that “he is a man” (273). When John finally gets a job he becomes an “expert” (276) at everything, according to the grandmother. Suddenly he knows more about raising Sophie now than ever before. Ultimately the miscommunication between the narrator and John is that the two never discuss their differences, making the grandmother resent him even more; not only as a husband and a father, but also a man.
The narrator and Sophie also share a huge miscommunication when they are together, especially when Sophie plays in the park. Sophie does not listen to her grandmother, and the more she tries to correct her, the more Sophie tests her patience. Even when her grandmother bribes her with a lollipop she still does not obey her. The narrator does not understand why Sophie misbehaves when they are outside, because little Chinese girls do not behave like this in privacy and especially not in public: “It is inside that she is like not any Chinese girl I ever see” (275).
According to the grandmother, if Sophie’s behavior was controlled while she was inside, they would not have problems with her when she is out in public. Sophie lacks discipline and shows no respect toward her grandmother when they are together. Sophie’s conduct and demeanor is nothing like a good Chinese girl. Going back to her Chinese heritage, this behavior is tolerated in America but not in China. The narrator seems to paint the perfect picture of what a Chinese girl is supposed to look like and act like.
She describes Sophie as being beautiful with her black hair and black eyes and her nose being just as perfect (274). She then turns around and compares the beauty of Sophie to her horrible behavior. She repeatedly assures the reader that Chinese little girls do not misbehave like Sophie. Nice Chinese girls did not take their clothes off, throw dirt at people, and kick their mommies. She then compares a Chinese mother to an American mother saying that a Chinese mother would be willing to help a Chinese mother versus an American mother who just looks and shakes their head (278).
She then quickly refers back that a Chinese girl would have obeyed her mother in the first place. When the grandmother speaks of Amy, the American babysitter, she has nothing but hateful things to say. Even though they never meet in person, she has strong and harsh opinions about her. The lack of control Amy had over Sophie is why the grandmother is so resentful toward her. Amy’s “creativeness” that Natalie loved so much was not tolerated by the grandmother. In fact, in China that word was not used: “In China, we talk about whether we have difficulty or no difficulty” (275).
The concept Amy had of loving her body is what makes the grandmother think that is the reason Sophie takes off her diaper and clothes continuously. She never considers the fact that she is a little girl wanting to play. She always wants to put the blame on someone especially since a good Chinese girl would never act the way Sophie does even though Sophie is not fully Chinese . The narrator’s opinions about Amy stimulate the miscommunication between her and Sophie. The cultural differences also make the household even more dysfunctional.
In the beginning of the story, the narrator’s views on the Irish were not so favorable. In her opinion, the Irish did not work as hard as the Chinese, “I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish” (272). She made it clear when she said that not every Irish family was not like the Shea family (272). When she spoke to John’s mother and as they both confessed they each approved of John and Natalie’s marriage, Bess explained the difficulty of raising four boys alone.
The grandmother began to see a new perspective on another way of life. Not everyone is as fortunate at being able to come to America and opening a restaurant that supports the whole family. At the end of the story, Bess welcomed her with open arms and called her a “permanent resident” (280). This reassurance to the grandmother was unlike any other feeling to her. To know she was not going anywhere, and now she had a permanent place to call home. The narrator has trouble understanding the relationship that Americans practice between a mother and daughter.
The novel The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan tells a story of four Chinese immigrant families who the mothers from the families form the Joy Luck Club that want to instill “Old Chinese” heritages (Zeng 3) into their daughter’s American life, which is somewhat similar to the narrator and Natalie. Tan’s story reminds me of the conflicts that the narrator and Natalie share: “On the one hand, the daughters find Chinese customs puzzling and their mothers’ experiences mysterious.
On the other hand, with broken English and limited knowledge about American customs, the mothers are upset with the fact that their daughters do not understand them. Moreover, the mothers, driven by fear and psychological loss, try to control their daughters; and this intensifies the mother-daughter conflict” (Zeng 3). Conflicts in the family primarily involve the grandmother against John and Natalie’s way of life. The grandmother has brought her values and morals to America and expects her daughter’s family to obey her rules.
She is used to being the boss and in charge of everyone. The narrator’s inability to gain back control intensifies, only making communication conflicts even harder . The concept of spanking is the central controversy in the story. As grandmother thinks spanking Sophie is the best thing for her, John and Natalie thinks spanking will only damage her in the long run. After obeying John and Natalie’s wishes of punishment other than spanking and by using her words, she finally comes to the conclusion that Sophie is just as stubborn as she thought.
She never obeyed her grandmother using words as a means of punishment until one day she popped her. This simple act of punishment stopped Sophie from taking off her clothes. Her point was proven to John and Natalie now. She is once again certain that her way of disciplining Sophie is better than John and Natalie’s and when asked by Natalie how she got her to quit taking off her clothes, the narrator says, “After twenty-eight years experience with you, I guess I learn something I say” (Jen 276).
The concept of using words to communicate with Sophie obviously did not work, forcing the grandmother to make alternative methods, even if it was against John and Natalie’s will. Physical communication worked better than oral communication in this situation between Sophie and her grandmother. The narrator speaks of her daughter Natalie as a woman of power and dignity just like she is. She raised a woman who encompasses the same qualities as her: “My daughter is fierce like me” (276).
The last communication problem was solved when Natalie kicked her out of the house. The thought of her own daughter kicking her out was shocking. She was now so desperate that she has to turn to the woman, who in the beginning of the story was so critical toward. In China, the daughter is to take care of her mother. This is the case no matter what happens. The reason she is abandoned by her own daughter is because of the customs and traditions Natalie wants to instill in her family now.
A life that has nothing to do with the way Natalie was raised. The narrator makes it apparent from the beginning of the story that she was a hard and stern woman. She probably was a mother who did not tolerate bad behavior, and if one did misbehave, always be prepared for the repercussions. The narrator’s means of communication with her family members was brought on by fear. Therefore Natalie being raised in a household where rules were strictly enforced, she does not want to have a household that functions the same way.
The narrator finally realizes that Natalie’s family life in America is nothing like the family she raised in China. Communication between the narrator and her family was ultimately cut off at the end of the story. Natalie had nothing to do with her mother, because they could not come to a common ground of understanding one another and their differences. Not only did she have difficulties in communicating with her daughter, but she also had trouble with her relationships between her son-in-law, John and her granddaughter, Sophie.
She never was able to look beyond some of the problems she found in John which only made their relationship that much awkward. Having a granddaughter that she is not able to communicate effectively with made her relationship with Natalie that much more complicated. Consequently, the narrator will have to come to the realization that her new life is a result from her inability to communicate effectively with a life that is not hers, and one that she is unable to control.