“Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.”
Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who came to America decades ago with nothing but a list of fertilizer manufacturers who might want to buy the urea produced in his family’s Taipei factories. Instead, he ended up building a cosmetics empire, which has come crashing down around him in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. With the factories shuttered, the house foreclosed, and the cars repossessed, Charles commandeers the vehicle belonging to his elderly Ama, and sets out with his second wife, Barbra, on the cross country trek to retrieve his younger children from their college and boarding schools, and join their eldest sister at her home in upstate New York. Along the way he plans to deliver Ama to her daughter in Nevada, drop off one last customer order in Alabama, and then find a way to return to China, and reclaim the land his family lost in the Communist Revolution.
The Wangs vs. the World is the ultimate dysfunctional family road trip, told in alternating perspectives among the Wang family members, and with a couple of vignettes from the point of view of the car they are driving, which once belonged to Charles first wife, and the mother of his children, May Lee, who died tragically in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon. Jade Chang approaches it all with a slightly crass sense of humour that starts right out from the fact Charles’ family essentially produces artificial chemical piss (urea) and carries on through such debacles as Andrew masturbating with a leftover ketchup packet. These jokes aside, the family dynamic has a tragi-comic flavour glossing over a deeper level of introspection, but some readers will probably find this tone off-putting.
On the surface, The Wangs vs. the World is a comic story about the shock of rich people who suddenly find themselves poor. Yet it also interrogates the American Dream, income inequality, and the bill of goods immigrants are sold about the possibilities of life in America. Tellingly, Charles goes bankrupt trying to keep afloat a line of cosmetics for non-white women, a huge untapped market that he believes will make his fortune. But skepticism among bankers about his social justice motives causes him to float a personal stake in the endeavour just as the market is about to collapse. Meanwhile, his son Andrew wants to be a comedian, but worries that he will only gain success in the American market by making fun of his own Asian heritage. They have all had to work out their role in a country that promised them everything, and delivered, but at a price they never expected.
While Charles and Barbra are mostly focused on money, and the loss of wealth, Saina, Andrew, and Gracie are also facing losses, not just of money, but the other things they have been taught to value as first generation Americans. The currency of the younger Wangs is mostly fame, though it comes in different forms. Andrew dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian, and asks his father to make stops in cities along the road that are hosting open mic nights. Gracie runs a successful fashion blog, with a currency in likes and followers. Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Saina, at first seems relatively untouched by the crisis, but as the story progresses we learn that after three critical successes, her latest art show was a controversial flop, and her reputation in New York City’s art scene is in ruins. She has fled to upstate New York to escape the fallout, and perhaps break it off with her cheating artist boyfriend once and for all.
(Content Warning: Rape) Another thing that is lost along the road is Andrew’s virginity, in a part of the plot that is perhaps one of the most confusing and disturbing aspects of the story. Having steadfastly refused to have sex until he is in love, twenty-one year old Andrew meets an older woman at a wedding in New Orleans, where the Wangs have stopped to visit an old friend of Charles’. Dorrie takes Andrew home, and proceeds to have penetrative sex with him, even after he tells her he wants to wait. Tied up and blindfolded, Andrew can’t resist her, and is profoundly confused about whether he wanted to. He never manages to tell anyone in his family about it after the fact, either. Andrew’s lingering virginity is an object of humour, and the way he loses his agency in the choice of when to give it up is passed over without much reflection about what was taken from him.
While the crasser side of Chang’s brand of humour wasn’t especially my thing, I think she has mastered the depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as the road trip narrative, and used the two together to reflect on the immigrant story in a new way, through the lens of the financial crisis. However, I enjoyed the more situational aspects of Chang’s sense of humour, and the odd predicaments the Wangs ended up in as a result, despite my reservations about how she handled Andrew’s story.