Since before Marco Polo published his account of adventures in Central Asia and China, the West has been fascinated by the East and vice versa. However, the fascination has also been accompanied by confusion on both sides. Why, an American might ask, are Koreans so dominated by familial desires, whereas a Korean might ask with equal bewilderment how an American could justify fulfilling a personal dream, even if it meant flouting parental wishes. In her latest book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim, Gish Jen explores the gap between the interdependent East and the individualistic West.
Jen, the author of four novels, a collection of short stories and the acclaimed Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, is well suited to this task. Born in Scarsdale, New York, to Chinese immigrants, every aspect of her life has been shaped by the cultural values both of her parents and of the America in which she was raised. Indeed, even her name is a blending of her two cultures. Jen has a variety of names, reflecting her different relationships: She has a Chinese name, Ren Bilan, and an American name, Lillian Jen; names that reflect her marital status (Gish O’Connor, Lillian O’Connor); and names that reflect confusion about her name (Jen Gish, and the incorrectly pronounced “Geesh Jen”). But her pen name is “Gish Jen,” a choice that deliberately stakes out her individual identity as an author.
Jen holds up a comprehensive and scholarly mirror to both worldviews—and be warned: Her mirror is honest, and at times provocative. Her intent, however, is not merely to explain their differences. Instead, Jen promotes a new worldview, an “ambidependence” that recognizes the values of interdependence while still nourishing the creativity that arises from individuality. The Girl at the Baggage Claim is the first step toward bridging the gap.