Review: Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish”, by Aida AlAwadhi

Gish Jen’s ‘Who is Irish?’ is a creative none fiction essay narrated by a Chinese-American immigrant grandmother. She talks about her relationship with her daughter, granddaughter, and the Irish family ‘Shea’ her daughter married into. Sophie, her granddaughter, has ‘wild’ behavior, which includes taking off her clothes in public, kicking adults and being stubborn. The narrator mainly blames the cause of this behavior on her ‘Shea side’ and believes corporal punishment should be enforced. Natalie, Sophie’s mother, is against corporal punishment. One day at the park, Sophie refused to come out of a hole, so her grandmother pokes in with a stick. Sophie’s parents were shocked to find her bruised, and Sophie revealed to her parents that her grandmother had spanked her before. The grandmother is kicked out of the house, moves in with her daughter’s mother in law and does get not visitation with Sophie.

Jen uses a heavy load of pathos to make readers sympathetic towards the grandmother. What makes it especially effective is the first-person point of view of the grandmother, which makes the audience trust her. Throughout the text, she expresses feelings of cultural shock:” In China, daughter take care of mother. Here it is other way around……I tell daughter, We do not have the world in Chinese, supportive. But my daughter is too busy to listen”. In this quote, the grandmother, even after years of living in the states, makes comparisons between China and western culture. She speaks in simple short sentences in an almost sequential way to give off the feel of an internal thought process and give a confused tone. The confused tone is reinforced by her train of thought, and it being cut off by her daughter being too busy. As the audience is part of her thought process, they step into her mind and feel a close emotional connection to her. The emotional appeal could be further added to by the Chinese influenced syntax, which frames her as out of place and more helpless. The audience can also feel the loneliness through the diction of ‘too busy to listen’ as this phrase is usually used when the other party does not care enough to put effort into the relationship. It is also important to note that the grandmother never outright complains – simply makes comments- so that the audience does not see her as unlikeable but can still see her struggles. It also makes it more believable that she prioritizes her daughter’s and granddaughter’s happiness and does not merely want her way. 

However, the grandmother has very low ethos as there is a personal basis towards herself and her beliefs. For instance, the spanking is shown only as a good thing. After Sophie stopped taking off her clothes, she then states,” but now I think I can help her Chinese side fight against her wild side.”. This quote represents her high level of logos. While not too explicit the grandmother makes the argument that ‘China is good’ and ‘Shea is bad’ through comparisons, using the black and white fallacy, “I am not exaggerate millions of children in China, not one act like this.”, or “Why the Shea family have so much trouble?….But my husband and I own our restaurant before he died.”. From her point of view, the cause is her Shea nature, the effect is her bad behavior, and the solution is a more Chinses approach. On the surface level, this works, but on further examination, a different interpretation can be derived. The author allows the audience to realize this by leaving in such lines as, “She knows if she comes out what will happen next.”. The audience can deduce that the inferred meaning is that she will get spanked. From the anti-corporal punishment point of view, the spanking reinforced bad behavior and created the mistrust that leads to the park incident. This possibility is subdued in the surface level narrative reading iso as to maintain the empathy to towards the grandmother and frame the parents’ reaction as extreme. 

In our ever-globalizing world, there are increasingly more mixed heritage children, which bring on different challenges to caretakers. The central conflict in ” Who’s Irish?” is the clash in parenting styles of the traditional Chinese grandmother and the second-generation American parents. The grandmother believes that Sophie’s Irish nature needs to be softened by her Chinese-ness to be a more reputable person. This focus differs from other texts in the dialectic, who are more concerned with identity and outside sources of racism. For instance, the conflict in ‘Ethic Trump’ is the world seeing the author’s son as only Chinese and him possibly developing negative feelings towards that side of his heritage. In the article “Half-Chinese share how they feel about being biracial in Beijing”, half-Chinese adults’ main issues are a feeling of not being entirely accepted in either society. In ‘Who’s Irish?’ race and racism is quickly glossed over. The closest instance that the text deals with it was when the Shea family was commenting on Sophie’s brown skin. However, after a quip the grandmother made the family never mentions it again, thus being ‘resolved’. One can interpret that the grandmother is not too concerned about racism since she is from an older generation, and so expects it. She herself makes several remarks that would not be deemed politically correct. In contrast, the other two texts are from the perspectives of younger people who have higher expectations of society and so are highly concerned about racism and identity. Alternatively, Sophie may not be old enough to have an identity crisis for it to be a concerned and/or the grandmother has already experienced raised a daughter in America. 

“Who’s Irish?” is a compelling narrative that brings up important issues. It is very a disorientating read. With its pathos, we are sympathetic to the narrator, even if she contradicts some of our values. Nonetheless, we should recognize her personal bias. She has a very particular view of what Chinese, Irish, and American people are like. She has a positive opinion on corporal punishment. She has a negative view of her son in law. As we are experiencing the narrative from her perspective, we only see her options. There are examples of people from these groups who contradict her stereotypes, arguments against corporal punishment, the son in-law’s side of the story, etc. It is possible to create a whole different narrative where the grandmother is the antagonist. While the text has bias, it still gives an important message. There is something to be said about the way we manage our relationships with cultural and generational differences. The narrator and her daughter are both at fault for not trying to understand each other and work together. This essay could act as a parable for how stubbornness and mistrust could create rifts. Therefore, the value of ‘Who’s Irish?’ lies in its discussion of human relationships rather than an accurate overview of parenting methods.

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