Mona in the Promised Land
is a 1996 novel by Gish Jen. Categorized in the genres of both bildungsroman
and humorous fiction, structured as a series of short story-like episodes, it follows a girl named Mona’s conversion to Judaism, which she proceeds with despite the chagrin of her parents. Having moved with her Chinese parents to Scarshill, an affluent and predominantly Jewish suburb near New York City, she adopts a performative identity when she falls in love with her new cultural surroundings. Much of her observations are based on the concept of learning to become happy with performing one’s minority status. The book chronicles her coming of age, illuminating at the same time the various hypocrisies and conservative follies teenagers observe in contemporary life.
The book begins with Mona Chang’s move to Scarshill in the eighth grade. It is the late 1960’s, and her competitive, capitalist-minded parents, Ralph and Helen Chang, are somewhat preoccupied making their way up their respective career ladders. The whole family is excited to move into a more multicultural neighborhood. Observing her new school and suburban neighborhood, Mona quickly becomes attached to the Jewish performance of identity, observing how it is utilized like a toolkit for moving through life. She appreciates its deep respect for and involvement in intellectual life, as well as its imperative for democracy and activism. Mona’s mantra throughout the novel is “American means being whatever you want.” By this, she means that the globalist mosaic of modern life has made all identity essentially performative. This philosophy gives her the agency to pick and choose which cultural fragments to adopt from wherever she is situated.
Mona becomes quickly aware that adopting a Jewish identity comes at a cost of identification with her parents. When she tells them about her conversion, they are outraged, believing that to be a Chinese American is to commit to the wishes of one’s parents. Her mother even sarcastically asks whether Mona will want to become black after her phase is over. Challenging her mother’s selective disdain for certain performances of identity, she asserts that there are indeed archetypes that many Black people try to perform.
Calling herself a “solo Jew,” Mona has to navigate the nuances of presenting as a Chinese American while identifying as Jewish, all while trying to deal with the hopes and heartbreaks of being a teenager. She begins to juggle going to temple with a budding romance with a Japanese student and a Jewish hipster dropout, fears about not getting into the ideal college and following in the footsteps of her successful sister, and dealing with her parents’ strictness. At the same time, her other Jewish peers are less than accepting of her; though they ostensibly accept her identification, they consider her less informed or serious about Jewish culture. Mona’s struggle is couched within the larger instabilities of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, forces which were themselves reorganizing conceptions of identities in the United States. Jen’s account of Mona’s transformation informally addresses the religious, racial, and aesthetic transformations that form in response to these novel cross-cultural exchanges.
Mona also slowly gains perspective on some of the sillier misappropriations of identity. She gets a Jewish boyfriend named Seth Mandel, a pseudointellectual figure doing terribly in school who wears a dashiki to signify his respect for the Black Pride Movement. Seth seems ignorant about the concept of cultural appropriation, caring instead about coming off as liberal and globally educated. Callie, Mona’s sister, goes to Harvard to study Mandarin, a Chinese cultural inheritance her parents have neglected while selectively foisting others on their children. While Callie eats rice, their parents are into organic health food fads. When her parents express concern to the local rabbi that Mona is slowly discarding her heritage, he states, confusingly, that “the more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you’ll be.” Mona interprets this Jewish liberalism to endorse her conversion, realizing that the multitude of identity performances at work within a single individual’s life can actually enrich each other.
The novel concludes optimistically, as Mona decides to marry Seth and reconciles with her parents. They create the hybrid Jewish-Chinese last name Changowitz, signifying the fusion of their heritages. Meanwhile, Mona’s parents’ futures seem uncertain as they, too, start wondering about the validity of their conception of themselves as fully Chinese, realizing that Callie is in many ways more performatively Chinese than them. Mona ultimately realizes that Judaism, too, is not a panacea for the search for self-actualization through identity performance. With this ambivalent conclusion, Jen suggests that performance only creates new metaphors for understanding one’s situation in and relationship to the quickly changing world. To have an identity is necessarily to change; knowing this creates new difficulties for one who is in search of her identity, but also opens up unlimited epistemological possibilities.