How do the mothers use the "talk-story" in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to discuss how mothers use the "talk-story" in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, it is important to understand what the talk-story is; and in order to do so, one must understand high-context cultures compared to low-context cultures. These concepts are defined in terms of how much verbal communication takes place, as opposed to how much communication is inferred—understood without explanation. The high-context culture, e.g., China, offers little verbal explanation. Children are carefully trained to understand things inherently. Mothers of Chinese children do not share "written or spoken messages" with their children—even expecting that various aspects of the culture will prompt their children to follow unspoken social norms simply by watching and imitating what goes on around them.

In a low-context culture, such as that of the United States, everything is explained—inference is not an option. Children are not expected to understand a non-verbal language. American children are given verbal instructions with details. Because of differences in "sharing information" in these very diverse cultures, the children act much differently. Children of Chinese parents living in the East will understand how to honor their ancestors, will know that children take care of their parents when the children become adults, etc. There is no question: it is understood. This culture is steeped in tradition and is slow to change. Conversely, in the U.S., because everything is explained, there is more social flexibility, things change much more quickly, and children do not tenaciously grasp things that are cultural norms, but will question their parents—even rejecting their value systems.

With this being said, it is difficult for the Chinese mothers of Chinese-American children to convey what their children need to learn for they believe that this information is shared almost by osmosis.

Am-mei, for instance, sees in her mother "my own true nature. What was beneath my skin. Inside my bones..."

While children of Chinese parents struggle to understand the unspoken information that they feel they need to know, Chinese mothers cannot speak the words their children wait to hear. Frustration arises between the mothers and their daughters in The Joy Luck Club. Mothers are confused by what their daughters don't know and the daughters feel they are missing something.

The "talk-story" is a practice that allows the mothers to share information by presenting their "stories" in the form of folklore:

One way of maintaining and instructing children in traditional ways which Chinese immigrants adopted is the traditional Chinese talk story.

"Oral wisdom" is passed down in traditional ways such as parables, proverbs, etc., without the mother having to explain the point (as is needed with Aesop's Fables..."and the moral of the story is..."). The mothers in Amy Tan's novel use this technique. If we understand that to have to explain oneself in China is an embarrassment, we can easily realize that this technique gives the mothers socially- accepted...

...public utterances: painful experiences are recast in the language of folk tale; cautionary reminders become gnomic phrases; real life takes on the contours of myth.

The reserve of the usually silent mother in the Chinese culture, as well as the one who maintains distance from her audience, is upheld. In this way, both mother and daughter find acceptable ways to express themselves—in expressing their "essential self."

Read the study guide:
The Joy Luck Club

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