What is it to be…me?

The Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan

The Joy Luck ClubMost of you have probably read The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan.  If you haven’t, then you’ve most likely seen the movie adaptation directed by Wayne Wang and produced by Oliver Stone.  This was my second time reading the book, and it was ironically prompted by my high schooler’s summer reading list.  We both enjoyed the audible version performed by Gwendoline Yeo while reading along in the text—my son didn’t need me along for the ride, but I took it as my opportunity to share with him something other than silly memes and the latest in video gaming.  I later watched the movie on my own.  I remembered that way before children I’d also watched it; Kleenex tissues wedged by my side.  Even though this was my second go round, I was thoroughly invested in every triumph and tragedy.  The overtly female perspective that Tan probably intended was also a little more evident to me this time.  However, this was my son’s reading assignment, so he took notes after reading The Joy Luck Club, while I wondered how much of it would resonate with him.  Then I set myself to writing this post.  The bonus ended up being the conversation that came from it.

I’m sure the Joy Luck Club has been discussed in High School Honors and AP-Lit classes ad infinitum.  The challenge I assume for any teacher would be to inform the experience of a high school boy through the story of four, aging Chinese women…then I had my “aha” moment.

My son will no doubt hear that this is a story about mother-daughter relationships; a story of women finding their worth and passing their values along to their daughters; mothers wishing their daughters greater, life, love, and dignity—basically an analysis that speaks to feminism.  All good stuff that we want our sons to learn too, but what other topics are there in Tan’s story that are relatable to “him?”

After discussing gender in Tan’s novel, there actually is ample room for an entirely new conversation; one regarding race and ethnic identity.

The Joy Luck Club, MahjongTan tells us four distinctly different journeys of four distinctly different mothers—all from China, circa 1930 to 1940.  The women have forged a friendship through food, family, and the game of mahjong.  They are the Joy Luck Club.

Suyuan Woo is the recently deceased mother of the main protagonist Jing-mei “June” Woo, that helps open Tan’s novel.  June often feels outdone by the competitive Waverly Jong and feels that she’s an underachiever in her mother’s eyes—that she can never meet expectations.  Her mother, however, assures her that she is “quality.”  In one passage she makes it clear to Jing-mei, “June,” that she is far greater than Waverly who mistakes materialism for quality.  June’s importance is clarified even more so when her father answers her question, ”What does Jing-mei mean?”

“…Jing’ like excellent jing. Not just good, it’s something pure, essential, the best quality.  Jing is good leftover stuff when you take impurities out of something like gold, or rice, or salt.  So what is left—just pure essence.  And ‘Mei,’ this is common mei, as in meimei, ‘younger sister.’ ”

An-mei Hsu was kept from her mother and the truth for many years, but finds her value and her voice upon the event of her mother’s suicide.  She proclaims that on that day she learned to shout.  She demands to be given the dignity that is rightfully hers and that is her newly found little brother’s too.  Her demands are granted.

“So, on that day, Wu Tsing, fearful of my mother’s vengeful spirit, wore the coarsest of white cotton mourning clothes.  He promised her visiting ghost that he would raise Syaudi and me as his honored children.  He promised to revere her as if she had been First Wife, his only wife.”

Years later, An-mei, the mother of Rose, is wary of Rose’s waigoren (American) husband, Ted.  An-mei fears that Rose’s depression over the relationship mirrors that of her once suicidal mother.  She can’t get through to Rose.

“I still listened to my mother, but I also learned how to let her words blow through me.  And sometimes I filled my mind with other people’s thoughts—all in English—so that when she looked at me inside out, she would be confused by what she saw.

Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions.  Chinese people had Chinese opinions.  American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better.

It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version.  There were too many choices…”1

An-mei also fears that Rose is not aware of her own value.  This plays out when Rose receives a $10,000. check from her soon to be ex-husband, sent to “tide her over” until their divorce is final.  Is this all she’s worth?

Lindo Jong has realized her freedom and success through guile only to find that her daughter, Waverly, has matched her in this.  Lindo frets that Waverly finds her and therefore her Chinese identity an embarrassment.  Waverly struggles with her mother’s less than encouraging reception of her intended; the red-headed, freckle faced, Rich.  Will Waverly see that both she and her mother are reacting from fear?  Will understanding lead them to peace?

and Ying-ying “Betty” St. Clair who aborted the son of her first marriage—a marriage to a bad man (in her words); an unapologetic philanderer.  After having fled this marriage, more than ten years have passed, and Ying-ying is making a living for herself as a shop girl in the city.  She meets an American and eventually marries him.  He becomes Lena’s father, thus the last name St. Clair.  Lena’s story introduces experiences in which race and culture intersect, but is Lena a casualty of her mother’s loss of spirit (chi)?  Ying-ying struggles to change this, and we hear it in her narrative that recounts her nature as that of a tiger.

“It has two ways.  The gold side leaps with its fierce heart.  The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between the trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come.”

Ying-ying wants Lena to stand up for herself, embrace her inner tiger, and set her relationship either with or without Harold straight.

All four women place their hopes in the lives of their daughters (and although less mentioned, I expect in their sons).  They are in the throes of reconciling what it means to raise first generation Chinese-Americans.  The character, Lindo Jong, vents some of this frustration when speaking about her daughter, Waverly.

“It’s my fault she is this way. I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character.  How could I know these two things do not mix?”

Early in the book we find that the mothers fear that their daughters do not know them.  “Knowing” is the key to understanding and Jing-mei shows that she “gets” it.

“And then it occurs to me.  They are frightened.  In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of the truths and hopes they have brought to America.  They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English.  They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “Joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist.  They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.”2

Understanding is the key to identifying as Chinese—their roots.  Lindo asserts that Waverly is all American-made.

“Why are you attracted only to Chinese nonsense?  You must understand my real circumstances, how I arrived, how I married, how I lost my Chinese face, why you are the way you are.”3

Shared history, culture, and experiences shape the relationship of the women in Tan’s story.  She builds a case for their interconnectedness through their first person narrative voices.  History is told as “her-story.”  In this context the daughters glean their Chinese identity, an appreciation for it, and cultural pride.

So, what is it to be Chinese?  To be European?  To be African?  Or to be American?  How do any of us settle on a race and a culture—what is it to be me?  The answers are in our many stories and our stories are as different as are we.  This is the conversation…

Tan illustrates that racial and ethnic identity become amorphous when uprooted.  She paints a picture of how the transplanted cultural vitality of immigrants can wane generation after generation—it’s one aspect of viewing race as a social construct.  So, Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, Betty St. Clair and their stories serve as constant gardeners of their descendant’s identity.  All parents bear this responsibility.  Without stories, we find ourselves inventing traditions to celebrate our uniqueness and we question how we fit into a diverse world.  Self-knowledge leads to wider acceptance of others and this is the gift that The Joy Luck Club keeps bringing to the conversation.  Suddenly those stories you tell your children about old Uncle What’s-His-Name are viewed in a new light and the game controller can be replaced by a genuine interest in learning more.

Enjoy Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club by downloading the audio book.  It’s performed by Gwendoline Yeo.  Follow along in the physical book, because you’ll want to experience every word and spelling from “butong” (the better half of mixed intensions) to “hwai dungsyi” (you bad little thing).  Afterward, take in the movie—it’s a completely different experience that will warrant a Kleenex or two.  Some might call it a chick-flick, but sensitive guys will totally get it, and we love our sensitive guys.

Some of the quotes from this post are useful if read in context, so I’ve included the following endnotes for reference.

1 Reference: page 191, The Joy Luck Club, 1989. ISBN 978-0-14-303809-2 (pbk.)
2 Reference: page 40
3 Reference: page 259

The photos were found via a Google images search.
The featured image is of Amy Tan and her mother, Daisy.
The mahjong game table is a scene from the movie.


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