I didn’t know what to expect from The Wangs vs. the World. I knew it was about a family road trip and I know how joyously awful those can be. What I got was a group of relatable characters with a fun but dark wit. I want to be best friends with all of them, maybe with the exception of the grumpy dad, Charles.
On his road trip, Charles Wang, like most of us, doesn’t have a choice but to bring his family. Unlike most of us, he is a millionaire make-up mogul who lost everything. In The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang’s debut novel, we are taken back to a world that seems long ago – the 2008 financial crisis.
The Wang family’s journey starts from their recently foreclosed Bel Air mansion. Charles and his wife Barbara pick up their aspiring comedian son Andrew and fashion blogging youngest daughter Grace at their respective schools on their way out of town.
Charles, to his horror, can no longer afford these schools. Instead, he takes his family on a cross-country road trip to small town Helios, New York to move in with his oldest daughter, and famously shamed experimental artist, Saina.
As their trip progresses, they see more of America than they ever have. The scope of the nation-wide financial crisis begins to become clear. They see others who have also lost their houses and livelihoods. On the journey Charles muses, “it was spread across the country: a club, a collective, a movement, a great populist uprising of failure in the face of years of shared national success.”
I recently did a cross-country road trip of my own. I was moving from New York City to Los Angeles. I didn’t want to put my dog in cargo on a plane because I probably read some article about it being dangerous. So my husband and I hired movers, packed up the car with dog treats and Fabreeze, and set out.
While reading The Wangs vs. the World I truly connected to the relatable, snarky mindset of the characters. The way they joke in the face of misfortune felt just like my family. Lack of sleep and the open road can result in grumpy arguments and indecisiveness on fast food choices but they can also lead to a strange kind of introspective calm. In my case, it was contemplating my need to post pictures of public rest stops. In Andrew’s case, he jokes, “Oh, my father’s not the man I thought he was, but… at least I still love Cool Ranch Doritos!’”
The Wangs are first and second generation Chinese-Americans. Their name is pronounced “Wongs” and means king. They have a rare experience of American identity.
“But one move to America and Charles Wang’s proud surname became a nasally joke of a word; one move and he went from king to cock.”
During the course of the book, the Wangs experience a disconnect on the part of others between their American-ness and their other-ness. Like when a fireman asks American-born Grace, “‘So, where are you from?’ ‘L.A.’ she’d answered knowing what was coming next. ‘No but where are you from from?’” Interestingly, the ultimate takeaway for the Wangs in these situations is not negative but dismissive. They are not defined by the misunderstanding of others but rather they are the center of their own stories. “What did it matter how a country full of white people saw them when the whole world was theirs?”
The perspective of the Wangs is not painted as separate from America though. Instead, they embody the essence of America’s history of immigration. They are not absorbed into an American identity. Instead, by their existence and contribution, they create something entirely new. The Wangs vs. the World suggests that immigration is a beautiful duality. “Every immigrant is the person he might have been and the person he is, and his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside.”
The notions about identity proposed in The Wangs vs. the World and Chang’s expressive language brings the family to life. Their journey is super interesting but like a family road trip, the real value for me was spending quality time with these glorious, quirky characters.