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Ethnic Differences Across Generations

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Ethnic Differences Across Generations

Gish Jen's "Who's Irish?" explores a Chinese grandmother's thoughts and beliefs about her ethnically integrated family. The grandmother tells the story as though she is looking back on past events and thinking about how they have affected her present life. As her tale begins, she identifies her granddaughter, Sophie, as a wild three-year-old (161). Perhaps the grandmother associates with Sophie's strong will, because she reveals her own intense nature when she says, "I am hard work my whole life, and fierce besides." (161). Jen provides an immediate glimpse into the grandmother's true character that remains constant. As the grandmother recounts her time living with her daughter, Natalie, while babysitting Sophie six hours every day, she gives numerous examples of her fervent beliefs about the roles that members of a family should play. Ultimately, it is the ethnic differences that occur between their generations that divide the Chinese grandmother and Natalie, even though they share the same race.

Throughout "Who's Irish?" it is clear that the grandmother's expectations for proper behavior vary greatly from Natalie's expectations. For instance, the grandmother believes that, although Sophie looks Chinese on the outside, her personality comes from her Irish side (163). Perhaps the real reason that Sophie has become uncontrollable is because her parents have chosen to focus on their own needs instead of their child's needs. Natalie works hard as a vice president of a bank (161) and John, her husband, "has no job but cannot take care of Sophie either" (162). They both seem incapable of handling their own child, however, they expect that Natalie's mother will be supportive even though, "In China, daughter take care of mother. Here it is other way around" (162).

Before the grandmother babysat Sophie, Natalie and John hired "Amy the guitar player" to babysit (164). This is another way that Jen identifies how the two generations see things so differently. The grandmother calls Amy "that crazy-person sitter," while Natalie "thought this Amy was very creative" (164). Jen points out that they have different ideas about how children should be raised with the controversial notion of spanking.

It is in a conversation about spanking that the grandmother recalls having with Natalie and John that the plot fully develops. The grandmother is frustrated because she cannot get Sophie to stop taking her clothes off at the park (164). She declares, "John and my daughter agree Sophie is a problem, but they don't know what to do." (164). Subsequently, the grandmother offers the suggestion, "You spank her, she'll stop" because she considers it acceptable based on her cultural background (164). However, John and Natalie are against spanking because they believe it gives children low self-esteem, and "In America, parents not supposed to spank the child." (165). After many frustrating attempts to get Sophie to keep her clothes on, the grandmother spanks her anyway (165). Following that, Sophie keeps her clothes on in the park, but the grandmother does not reveal to Natalie how she succeeded in gaining Sophie's compliance (165). This success leads to a short period of harmony between Sophie, the grandmother, and Natalie.

During this period of concord, the grandmother believes she can "help her [Sophie's] Chinese side fight against her wild side." (166). She does this by teaching Sophie good habits such as not eating food with her hands, not playing with garbage cans, and not hitting anyone (166).

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