I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish. Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family, of course not. My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that.The narrator has other thoughts on the Irish question as well, including the connection between national diet and world view: "Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking," she says of John, then adds that "because I grew up with black bean sauce and hoisin sauce and garlic sauce, I always feel something is missing when my son-in-law talk." But it soon becomes apparent that the problems between the narrator and her daughter's family are less cultural than generational, and in the end the mother forms a surprising alliance.
Jen comes at the question of identity from another angle in "Duncan in China," in which a second-generation Chinese American man returns to Mainland China to teach English. Here she manages to delicately suggest the enormity of the differences between the very American Duncan and his Chinese students, coworkers, and relatives. And in "Birthmates" she places her computer programmer protagonist, Art Woo, in close proximity to the low-income, mostly black residents of a welfare hotel that he's accidentally checked into. Class, race, gender, and job security all figure into this brilliant, subtle story that looks at the dark side of the American dream and finds that failure comes in all colors. These eight stories are sharply written, filled with humor, pathos, and more than a few surprising twists and turns. Quite simply, Who's Irish? is a delight. --Alix Wilber