Here's the deal: you've got three different stories. And that means that you've got (at minimum) three different locations. Since the stories eventually interconnect, the locations eventually all come together too, but before that happens, you're going to have deal with the bumpy leaps in time and place from chapter to chapter.
But hey, that's where we—your handy Shmoop team—come in. So fasten your seatbelts and let's get started.
Macro: A Mythological Chinese Kingdom, Ancient Times
You've got the heavens, which seem like one big party with a fruit-flower mountain full of monkeys, and an earth on which demons roam freely. Sounds pretty detached from our contemporary real world right?
Not necessarily. Why? The way the characters speak and act with each other is completely in line with real world behavior The Monkey King farts in a demon's face as part of a kung-fu move (7.84) while gods come on to goddesses with off-color references like, "'Your peaches are looking especially plump today, my dear!'" (1.1). (We know—groan.) In other words, though they're hanging out in the heavens, they're acting like mere mortals all the time.
These things aren't what you expect in this mythical kingdom, so the setting acts almost like a contrasting foil to these characters, who speak and act like everyday Americans.
Another way to think about it? In Jin's storyline, dominant American culture and whiteness are elevated to a sort of heavenly/god-like status, but before we even encounter Jin we're set up with a solid reminder that those on top socially might not be as wonderful as they seem.
Macro: A late-20th Century American Suburb
You go from a small apartment in San Francisco Chinatown to a brand new house in the (white) suburbs: what do you think is going to happen? If you're Chinese American Jin, you can forget about fitting in and enjoying your new house because your life is all about feeling like a foreigner in your own country now.
Why else is Jin's move important? Call it the start of a trend that began in the 1970s and 1980s: the Asian move to the suburbs. These days, that trend has completely altered the landscape of major suburbs in America. But hey, we're not the experts. Check out what the New York Times has to say about that trend.
Micro: A Junior High School
Ah junior high. What could possibly go right when you're thirteen and awkward? Not to mention, if you're Jin, you stick out like a sore Asian thumb in a sea of white.
In fact, think of Jin's school as a reflection of how narrow Jin's larger suburban environment can be. There are only three Asian people; everyone else is another race. In order for Jin to grow up and feel at peace with his Chineseness, he also needs to grow out… which is maybe why the last scene of the book takes place—not at a majority-white school—but at a Chinese bakery/café (9.94-9.125).
Micro: A TV Show
Okay, so this isn't exactly a physical setting since it's kind of a fantasy that's occurring—just possibly—in Jin's head. It's also important to know that Chin-Kee isn't a real character in Jin's world exactly; he's a composite of a bunch of stereotypes that maybe could only ever exist on an American TV sitcom.
Why is this sitcom setting important? It forces us to realize that Chin-Kee and what he represents—all those Asian stereotypes—aren't really what people (especially Asians) are like in the real world, and that these stereotypes persist because we are so affected by our popular culture.