What is the purpose of the story "Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan?

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Hollis Sanders eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The purpose of the story "Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan is precisely as Tan's mother points out at the end of the story: that "the only shame is to have shame," speaking in terms of one's heritage. Due to a childish crush on the son of the American guests as well as insecurity, Tan becomes more and more ashamed as an evening meal goes on, constantly agonizing over how strange Chinese food and customs must seem to an American guest.

Tan wants to leave the table and escape the situation when she is offered a fish cheek, which she sees as embarrassing. However, she fails to realize that all of the foods...

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The purpose of Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” is to illustrate the conflicts that arise for 14-year-old Amy, as she navigates the process of cultural identification. Amy’s parents embrace the traditions and customs of their native China, while Amy longs to be like, and viewed as, a typical American teen.

Tan’s short narrative uses the description of one Christmas dinner to detail the scope and importance of these conflicts. Amy's burdensome task of straddling two disparate cultures is effectively brought to life through the various “horrors” Amy experiences throughout the meal. Her teenage crush, the minister’s son, Robert, and his family witness “the strange menu” Amy’s mom has created, as well as her relatives’ table manners as they, “licked the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food.” Finally, Amy is mortified into silence when her father “belched loudly,” a Chines custom signifying satisfaction at the end of a meal.

After the meal, when Amy and her mother are by themselves, her mother tells Amy that her “only shame is to have shame.” Amy’s cultural heritage, in part, defines her identity, regardless of her desire to assimilate completely into American culture.