Hope in the Rubble of the American Dream

Two new novels by Imbolo Mbue and Jade Chang take on the 2008 financial crisis from the perspective of immigrant families.

Gary Hershorn / Getty

“The financial crisis laid bare a lot about the ways in which the American dream is not that accessible to everybody,” the writer Imbolo Mbue, originally from Cameroon, recently told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “I was very disillusioned about America.” After losing her job in marketing during the Great Recession, she turned to fiction to explore that disillusionment. Behold the Dreamers, her debut novel, opens in 2007 and follows Jende and Neni Jonga, a pair of Cameroonian immigrants whose sights are fixed on “the milk, honey, and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” Both husband and wife go to work for the family of a Lehman Brothers executive. Red flags wave from the first page, signaling disappointment ahead—and visa troubles are on the horizon as well. But whether or not America will have them, they don’t lose faith in its platonic form: “a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers.”

Jade Chang’s debut, The Wangs vs. the World, is fueled by currents of immigrant disenchantment too. It picks up in 2008 just as Lehman Brothers files for Chapter 11, and features a family that has enjoyed decades at a pinnacle perhaps even higher than Mbue’s American executive. But now Charles Wang, a Chinese immigrant who made hundreds of millions running cosmetics factories in southern California, has lost everything. He is “mad at America” and “mad at history,” which propelled his emigration in the first place. (Like Charles, Chang’s Chinese parents came to the U.S. by way of Taiwan.)  Forced to give up his home and his business, Charles sets out on a cross-country road trip with his wife and two of his children. As he heads east to stay with his eldest daughter in upstate New York, he dreams of “the land in China” he hopes to reclaim.

The project of these novels is inspired: to chronicle a period during which just about every American questioned the dream, and many watched it crumble, through the eyes of people who never considered its promise a birthright. Immigrants, by definition, are poised to wonder about things that natives might never think to question in good times—things like national character, cultural values, and civic priorities. When bad times arrive, they are already in the habit of asking the relevant questions. They genuinely want to know, as Neni asks, “What kind of country is this?” Together, these novels suggest a clear answer: the U.S. may be inhospitable to these immigrants’ dreams in the near term, but one day it’s altogether likely to belong to their children.

* * *

The financial crisis proves disastrous for the Jongas and the Wangs alike. For the Jongas, it’s the ultimate barrier to entry; the Wangs experience it as a humiliating fall from grace. In both cases—and in many real-life cases too, of course—the crashing market is a symbol of disintegrating national myths. Hard work does not always end in success. Not only does homeownership come at a steep price—it may not be possible to begin with. And America’s pluralism is prized more in theory than in practice.

But for the immigrant protagonists of both novels, the myths are only part of the equation. They are also acutely aware—in a way that bankers, as depicted in both novels, are distinctly not—that the world they see crumbling around them is not the whole world. Wall Street is not the sole center of gravity. As their American lives fall apart, both families look back toward the homelands they were once so eager to escape, now armed with a measure of the hard-won clarity they’ve gained in the U.S.

In Behold the Dreamers, Jende and Neni Jonga’s approach to the new world in which they find themselves—they’re a little skeptical, and very curious—offers a fresh perspective on the excesses of the pre-crash one percent. They encounter not just a chaotic city, but a bewildering set of terms and social codes for what they discover is the primary activity: the making and spending of money. Though Jende spends his days chauffeuring a banker and reads the Wall Street Journal religiously, he is enough of an outsider that he assumes Enron was a person. Still, his thoughts come across as more sensible than ignorant: “The bailout thing was in the news every day, but he still didn’t understand if it was a good thing or a bad thing.” In the Hamptons, startled by the size of her employer’s second home, Neni wonders, “didn’t they understand that no matter how much money a person had, they could sleep on only one bed at a time?”

If Mbue sometimes strays into homiletic territory with her protagonists, she also deftly parodies the natives. Vince, the banker’s son who wants to disabuse Jende of “all the lies [he’s] been fed about America,” is a caricature of a self-conscious radical chafing at his privilege, naïve and unworldly in his vague cynicism. But such sweeping dismissal of the country is its own kind of privilege. Newcomers, more quickly than the natives, learn to see the good and the bad in one frame. When the Jongas head back to Cameroon, chastened by their experience, post-crash America remains, in their minds, the land of choices and all kinds of chances. They imagine their young children someday returning.

The Wangs, who have been in the U.S for decades or since birth, are far less pious than the Jongas when it comes to their assessment of the country’s character. Cursing America’s shortcomings and making fun of its self-importance—and laughing with and at each other—are some of the family’s favorite pastimes. Charles, brash and flamboyant, defies the stereotype of the modest, model Chinese immigrant. He’s a man who walked off the plane vowing to turn “shit into Shinola,” and never looked back. Even brought to ruin, he can’t help but dream ridiculously big. Chang’s picaresque plot has him swearing, stealing, and sweet-talking his way out of near-disasters from Santa Barbara to High Point, North Carolina as he and his two youngest kids drive east in the family’s old powder-blue Mercedes station wagon. Shortly after arriving in upstate New York, he sneaks off to China, “to our old home,” telling his children via email, “Do not be worried, be happy.” He makes it to the ancestral property he’s been dreaming about and has “a brief and glorious moment” there—“the Wangs, the great and glorious Wangs, never should have left”—before realizing, with his pants unzipped (“he would piss over every inch of this land”), that it’s being developed into an apartment complex.

There’s plenty of humor at Charles’s expense throughout this very funny novel, but his over-the-top sense of entitlement and willfully blind optimism also transcend mockery.   One never doubts that, for all his delusions of grandeur, his heart is in the right place. The very delusion that had landed him, even before the crash, in a mess (he now refers to it as “the Failure”) was a noble one in its way: He staked everything on a makeup line for nonwhite women, intent on proving to a skeptical WASPy banker that this was “not some NAACP for eye shadow” but a “brilliant” and “necessary” venture. His children may roll their eyes at their father’s proclamations—they certainly do not share his visions of a great and glorious return to China—but their love, like his, runs deep. When Charles’s fight for the land takes a physical toll, all three Wang kids fly to China to be by his side.

Chang, as high-spirited as her protagonist, goes for broke with a comic ending that showcases the reconciliation of a father and his children, of dreams and reality, of Old World and New. Finally, having taken them as far east as he can imagine, Charles realizes that the Wangs are, more than anything, Americans. The Indians, he decides, were merely a “tribe of early Chinese people who took a long walk across the Bering Land Bridge and ended up in a New World.” His hyperbole speaks to a greater truth about a world, not just a nation, of immigrants. People on the move, ready to stake their claims, are the rule, not the exception. With his children in mind, Charles asks, “What did it matter how a country full of white people saw them when the whole world was theirs?”

Both these novels pose a version of that question, and give a version of the same answer: America may have failed these immigrants, and may yet fail thousands more. But larger forces are at work, Mbue and Chang implicitly acknowledge. The financial crisis, rather than the end of the story, was the beginning of a new chapter. Immigrants, in Chang’s words, are “here to knock shit down and rebuild the country in their own image.”