"Typical American," Vocabulary from Parts 1-2

When Lai Fu Cheng becomes Ralph, he changes more than just his name. No longer a refugee from communism, he says he has come to find the American Dream in Gish Jen's modern immigration novel, "Typical American."

Learn these word lists: Parts 1-2, Parts 3-4

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. phase
    any distinct time period in a sequence of events
    His mother tells him something like, It’s only a phase.
  2. tutor
    a person who gives private instruction
    Until finally, irked, she says what his tutor always says, “You listen but don’t hear!”—distinguishing, the way the Chinese will, between effort and result.
  3. distinguish
    mark as different
    Until finally, irked, she says what his tutor always says, “You listen but don’t hear!"— distinguishing, the way the Chinese will, between effort and result.
  4. scholar
    a learned person
    The upright scholar, the ex-government official, calls him a fan tong—a rice barrel.
  5. veranda
    a porch along the outside of a building
    Or so it seems to his father as, on a fan-cooled veranda, he entertains apocalyptic thoughts of marching armies, a new dynasty, the end of society as they know it.
  6. apocalyptic
    prophetic of devastation or ultimate doom
    Or so it seems to his father as, on a fan-cooled veranda, he entertains apocalyptic thoughts of marching armies, a new dynasty, the end of society as they know it.
  7. muse
    reflect deeply on a subject
    “Too much rice wine,” muses Ralph’s mother.
  8. discreet
    marked by prudence or modesty and wise self-restraint
    His ink blackens; and in the end he can’t be kept from making a few discreet inquiries, among friends.
  9. calisthenics
    light exercises designed to promote general fitness
    I will do five minutes of calisthenics daily.
  10. diligent
    characterized by care and perseverance in carrying out tasks
    For girls, he knew, were what happened to even the cleverest, most diligent, most upright of scholars; the scholars kissed, got syphilis, and died without getting their degrees.
  11. placid
    not easily irritated
    Otherwise he was himself—large-faced, dimpled, with eyebrows that rode nervously up and up, away from his flat, wide, placid nose.
  12. loathe
    find repugnant
    In sum, he was a doll, and the Foreign Student Affairs secretary, though she loathed her job, loathed her boss, loathed working, liked him.
  13. sanguine
    confidently optimistic and cheerful
    Walking home, though, Ralph was less sanguine.
  14. phenomenon
    a remarkable development
    Did he confuse this phenomenon with love?
  15. sneer
    a facial expression of contempt or scorn
    Now Mr. Fitt was a grim man, an enforcer, with a small, sneering mouth; in another life he might have been a carnivorous fish.
  16. crescendo
    a gradual increase in loudness
    Ralph’s heart rumbled like a Peking Opera drum; it was the crescendo before—crash of the cymbals!—a hero appeared.
  17. muddle
    mix up or confuse
    “You’ve gotten completely hutu”— muddle-headed—Old Chao went on.
  18. courtesan
    a woman who cohabits with an important man
    Sometimes Ralph thought of her as Yang Guifei incarnate—that’s a Tang Dynasty courtesan for whom an emperor went to ruin.
  19. grapple
    work hard to come to terms with or deal with something
    Research: as his classmates grappled on with Finite Element Analysis of Structures, Ralph began watching Americans and, his English having improved, even talking to Americans—who, he was surprised to discover, actually liked to sit back, and scratch their sandy chins, and tell him what they thought a young Chinaman should know.
  20. coax
    influence or urge by gentle urging, caressing, or flattering
    Instead he stood in front of her empty desk in the evening, after everyone had gone home, and touched her things—her typewriter, her scissors, her pencil cup, her blotter—as if trying to coax them into yielding up what somewhere in their atoms they had to know.
  21. clamorous
    conspicuously and offensively loud
    The clamorous street had turned private, a blue path such as should rightly lead to a hidden knoll, and so on.
  22. socialite
    one who is well known or prominent in fashionable circles
    He remembered second aunt with her cactus collection, fifth uncle with his beard, eighth uncle with that opium addict, socialite wife.
  23. translucent
    allowing light to pass through diffusely
    They are ancient paper lanterns, translucent, unlit, strung across the courtyard, too fragile to move—though when he sees Ralph, his father, still a brave man, tries to speak.
  24. pendulum
    an apparatus in which an object is mounted to swing freely
    It was Natural Process; it was the slow shift of a pendulum’s swing into a different plane.
  25. friction
    the resistance when a body is moved in contact with another
    He felt himself to be small, barefoot, lacking friction.
  26. lucidity
    a clear state of mind
    He saw all of this now, with the terrible lucidity of a strained mind; and seeing it, wondered what there was to live for.
  27. indigenous
    originating where it is found
    But the second week he only blanched, and by the third he worked as though indigenous to this world.
  28. jugular
    veins in the neck that return blood from the head
    A practiced look through the ranks; he’d snap the victim’s neck, bare its jugular, slit it.
  29. ritual
    any customary observance or practice
    Ralph would wash his hands, a ritual.
  30. intolerable
    incapable of being put up with
    Scraping noises; and then, like the gates of the Western Paradise, the trap door would open, lowering into the basement an almost intolerable beam of light.
  31. yew
    evergreen tree or shrub having red cup-shaped berries
    A big lit globe shone on either side of the doorway, above twin frost-tipped yews, which in turn set off a short, wide staircase.
  32. meander
    move or cause to move in a sinuous or circular course
    Out of this trickled blood, which he watched meander to the edge of his hand.
  33. prenatal
    occurring or existing before birth
    It was as if in some prenatal rush, they had been dressed in one another’s clothes.
  34. paradigm
    a standard or typical example
    It was a paradigm of Western influence gone wrong.
  35. parasol
    a handheld collapsible source of shade
    The young man could station himself by a certain park gate as Theresa strolled down a path some hundred feet away, carrying a parasol.
  36. crevasse
    a deep fissure
    The decision, when it came, opened suddenly, a crevasse.
  37. concubine
    a woman who cohabits with an important man
    In fact, Theresa found out, well before their date in the park, he had run off with his father’s concubine.
  38. sinewy
    consisting of tendons or resembling a tendon
    Hocked wallpaper, moss green with gold, in a pattern of sinewy trellises; a matching moss-green carpet; and on the walls, electric torches.
  39. edifice
    a structure that has a roof and walls
    He wanted her to be permanent, an edifice whose piles touched the heart of the earth.
  40. squall
    sudden violent winds, often accompanied by precipitation
    During the worst squall, she had counted thirteen containers scattered around the apartment, each with its own rhythm and pitch.
  41. effusion
    an unrestrained expression of emotion
    Once, in an effusion of sympathy, a strange American woman had squeezed Helen’s hand (typical American no-manners); the American had wondered then at how soft and smooth Helen’s skin was.
  42. convivial
    occupied with or fond of the pleasures of good company
    It had been a feeling she’d been after, a convivial solidarity; she’d hoped to murmur to one another, as if sitting at the edge of one of their beds.
  43. buxom
    healthily plump and vigorous
    Thickened, buxom.
  44. surreptitious
    marked by quiet and caution and secrecy
    Helen eyed him surreptitiously as she nodded in Old Chao’s direction.
  45. ogle
    stare or look at, especially with amorous intentions
    Ralph could only ogle, though, helpless with envy, as Grover balled up his napkin.
  46. preen
    pride or congratulate oneself for an achievement
    Grover preened, straightening his shirt.
  47. cadaver
    the dead body of a human being
    In between school and schoolwork, Theresa pitched in, happy to get away from her cadaver.
  48. chagrin
    strong feelings of embarrassment
    Ralph swallowed, chagrined.

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