How does Jing-Mei feel about speaking Chinese in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club?
Language play a key role in the process of Jing-Mei's "becoming Chinese". There are references to language througout the story, especially in the names of the sisters.
In Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei (June) has done all she can to reject everything Chinese. She sees herself only as she is able: as an American, and this causes a great deal of strife between her and her mother because her mother is only able to see life and her daughter from a Chinese perspective. This may seem to be a "no-brainer," but where Jing-Mei's mother sees a connection between herself and her daughter as a continuation of the same person—a perception passed through generations of Chinese mothers and daughters—Jing-Mei perceives her mother as trying to control and change her.
Early in her life, Jing-Mei finds ways to empower herself while forcing her mother to relinquish her "hold" on her daughter. Jing-Mei tries to tell her mother that she is not Chinese. Her mother explains that being Chinese goes as deep as her DNA. Jing-Mei resists her mother's attempts to make her a child prodigy, finally hitting her mother's innermost heart by screaming that she wishes she were dead like her half-sisters, left in China during the war.
As Jing-Mei grows, she does not speak the language, so as an adult, she can understand it only with difficulty, and she cannot really speak it at all. When she and her father arrive in China, going to see her mother's twins who have been found alive many years later—and sadly after her mother died—Jing-Mei asks her father about the names of her sisters, her mother's name, and her own. Knowing what each name means provides an insight into the person her mother was. While this makes Jin-Mei sad—for the woman she never knew—it helps her to better understand the mother she has lost.
The names are symbolic to the story: the twins' names mean "Spring Rain" and Spring Flower," names of hope and beauty. Her mother's name means "Forever Never Forgotten." However, as her mother wrote it, it meant "Long Cherished Wish." In that she chooses to write it this way, we can infer that this form of her name reflects who she became after losing her twins. Jing-Mei's name means "pure essence" and "younger sister." Tan writes:
I think about this. My mother's long-cherished wish. Me, the younger sister who was supposed to be the essence of the others.
Jing-Mei believes that her mother must have been incredibly disappointed in her, as she rejected everything about her mother: her culture, her language and her wishes for her daughter.
As she arrives in China, Jing-Mei notes:
...I realize I've never really known what it means to be Chinese.
Seeing the landscape with new eyes, she feels a kinship for this place, which she has actually never seen before. And when she asks her father to tell her the story of her mother's life and losing her twins, her father begins the story in English, but she stops him:
"No, tell me in Chinese," I interrupt. "Really, I can understand."
What she is saying her is not that it's all right for him to speak in Chinese, which is his native tongue. She is connecting with her culture. "I can understand" means literally that she can comprehend, but I think it also means that she is beginning to know her mother better—and what she meant about their Chinese connection.
Jing-Mei rejects the Chinese language (and other things) in America, but she is "awakened" to her heritage and her mother's character in China, finally embracing that which she rejected for so many years. Only in looking to the language, can she understand who her mother was, and therefore, who she is.