First she was premed at Harvard, then pre-law. When her year of graduate studies at the Stanford business school didn't feel right either, she filled out an application for architecture school.
Gish Jen was 30 at the time and knew this much about herself: "I can't wear panty hose, so that eliminates a lot of professions."
She knew that the regimentation of an institutional environment made her crazy. "Given a choice, it is harder for me to have structure than to work on my own," she said. "I chase, chase, chase."
So she decided to be a writer.
Four and a half years later, she was putting the finishing touches on "Typical American" (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, $19.95). "No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness," said the New York Times. Publishers Weekly set its own glowing review of "Typical American" in a printed box, an honor reserved for lauded works. The New Yorker excerpted it.
Perhaps predictably, a number of publications then proceeded to lump Jen into a group of new Chinese-American fiction writers. According to this line of literary pigeonholing, Maxine Hong Kingston, whose fictional memoir, "Warrior Woman," came out in 1976 and has sold nearly 500,000 copies, is godmother/grandmother of a trend that exploded in 1989 with Amy Tan's hugely successful novel, "The Joy Luck Club."
This spring, Jen's Ralph Chang, the jug-earred hero of "Typical American," has been joined by a 12-year-old named Donald Duk, star of Frank Chin's novel of the same name, published by Coffeehouse Press. Gus Lee's novel "Chinaboy" comes out in May from Dutton. In June, Knopf will publish "Pangs of Love" by David Wong Louie, and Putnam will bring out Tan's much awaited second novel, "The Kitchen God's Wife."
Bunching these books together is probably inevitable, Jen said. "In one way, it is a valid category," but to view these Asian-American novelists as springing from a common mold may also sell them short, she cautioned.
"There are many distinctions among a list of authors," Jen said. To view them solely through an Asian-American prism is "to use just one lens."
Jen's father, who came to the United States from China in 1947, is a professor of civil engineering at City University of New York. Jen and her brothers and sisters grew up in Yonkers, where people occasionally threw rocks at them and yelled racial epithets. Later, they moved to more affluent Scarsdale.
Jen shies away from elaborating on the tough times in Yonkers, calling that period "extremely unfortunate." She prefers not to dwell on it because, "I feel like I'm posing as a professional victim. I am not a victim.
"The name-calling and the rock-throwing and the discrimination did happen. But it is not the major factor in my life. It is just one factor. I'm trying to stay out of the victim box."
Nonetheless, Jen sometimes finds herself at odds with racial stereotypes. At parties, people come up to her and say, "Oh you're Asian. My grandmother just came back from Japan," Jen said, as if all Asians were the same.
This kind of ethnic stereotyping makes her fume. "Are you simply your biological endowment? Or are you the person you decided to make yourself?" she asked.
"Being an American, it is your right to define yourself."
More important to Jen is the question of whether she is succeeding as a writer.
"I am a writer attempting to write real literature," Jen said. "The question I would like asked is, 'Is she managing to do that or not?' "
Sitting in the kitchen of an apartment near Harvard Square that she shares with her husband, David O'Connor, a computer specialist, Jen sips on fresh-squeezed orange juice. She makes jokes about being short and being 6 1/2 months pregnant. She wears her short hair in a mass of curls that spin every which way.
Jen has a quick, big smile that surfaces when she's making fun of herself for having to sink to a point of "utter desperation" before taking up writing. Or when, for maybe the hundredth time, she describes how in her "arty phase" in high school, Lillian Jen became known as Gish--as in Lillian Gish--Jen.
"I always hated the name Lillian," she said. "It sounded like a librarian."
In "Typical American," the Chang family moves to the suburbs. In a playful attempt to sound more American, they refer to themselves as the "Chang-Kees," like the baseball team. Helen Chang takes up bridge. Ralph Chang buys into a fried chicken business. They have two children.
Jen, 35, bridles when asked if the novel is autobiographical, or when asked if she thinks it is assumed that her book is a banner for Asians in America.
"I had artistic reasons for choosing this subject, because this book is about America," Jen said. "It was not like I sat down and said, 'Now I am going to tell the Asian-American experience.' "
Yes, her parents are immigrants who arrived in this country in the late 1940s. When China was rocked by political upheaval, they found themselves "richly kidnaped by the U.S. government because they had received their technical training here," Jen said.
But the Jens are not, she insisted, models for Ralph and Helen Chang. "These people are all inventions," she said of the characters in her novel.
Jen wrote her first short story in fifth grade. "It was about a maid who stole some money, and they found it in a hat," she said. Mostly what she remembers about that story is laboriously copying it over so it could be run off on her school's mimeograph machine.
In college, she took a poetry class. She thought the homework would be reading poetry and was appalled when it turned out to involve writing it, once a week. But she loved it. "It was the first indicator that I actually liked to write," Jen said.
In her one year at Stanford, Jen spent most of her time oversleeping and reading 50 novels that had nothing to do with the school's curriculum. When she announced plans to enroll at the Iowa Writers Workshop, her parents refused to pay her tuition. She went anyway, in 1983.
Jen went on to spend a year in China, teaching English to coal miners. For another year she tried a real job, in publishing in New York. At age 30, a surprise grant from a Harvard philanthropic program became the "galvanizing force" for her to write fiction.
"There was this climate of expectation" among the fellows in her program, Jen said. "In a fit of nerve, I said, 'I'll write a novel.' " The big smile flashed on. "I didn't even know whose story it was. I didn't know how it was going to end. For 2 1/2 years, I didn't even know I had a book.
"When I was writing, it was like I was in some sort of dream state. I used Asian-American characters because they are in my dreams. What I was hoping was that people would not say, there are Asian Americans in this book, therefore it is about the Asian-American experience.
"I hoped it would transcend that kind of categorization. I hoped it would be seen as an American book."
Now that Jen has received such acclaim for her first novel, her parents have decided that being a writer just might be a respectable endeavor after all. They were especially pleased, Jen said, about an article about her in a Chinese-American newspaper, the World Journal.
"It was sort of half-article, half-wedding announcement," Jen said. "You know, 'Gish Jen is the daughter of . . .' "
Jen said she is surprised and pleased to find photographers from People magazine following her around the Boston Common, and to find that she worries about such cosmic social issues as whether her knee socks will show when she makes television appearances.
"I never wrote for success," she said. But "I am very happy that it is happening."
It is almost as if she is following her own advice about writing fiction, the counsel she borrows from Flannery O'Connor and dishes out to her students at the University of Massachusetts here.
"Surprise yourself," Jen urges. "If you don't surprise yourself, you're not going to surprise anyone else."