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You can examine the novel from many angles: through a feminist lens (feminine concepts of beauty in China vs. America, the relationships between men and women); through an identity lens (how the China-American hybrid identity is formed); through a Marxist lens (how socio-economic class structure functions in either countries); or from a philosophical lens (how the novel employs Buddhism and "feng shui" balance).
Here's what I had to say about the story when I was in college:
"A Pair of Tickets" was among the first chapters submitted by Tan in order to get a $50,000 advance from G.P. Putnam's Sons. Though it is The Joy Luck Club's final chapter, it is the premise for the novel because it chronicles Tan's real-life trip to China with her ailing mother in 1987, a trip that was not only a cultural revelation, but a stylistic one as well.
Jing-Mei Woo imagines her older "identical sisters transforming from little babies into six-year-old girls" (269), half expecting them to arrive in rickshaw wearing peasant pineapple hats. When her aunt says, "Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese," Jing-Mei responds with, "I saw myself transforming like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA suddenly triggered" (267). Just as she never learns to play Mah-Jong or chess using Chinese strategy, Jing-Mei never feels or thinks Chinese by the novel's end; in fact, she continues to narrate as a post-modern American: linear-thinking and quick to point out things.
It is the narrator's repeated visual comparison of what she thinks will be old-world China to post-modern America that sets a very American tone: "From a distance, it [Shanghi] looks like a major American city"; "...each of them [her half-sisters] holding a corner of the [Polaroid] picture, watching as their images begin to form"; "She [Lili] immediately jumps forward, places one hand on her hip in the manner of a fashion model, juts out her chest, and flashes me a toothy smile." Even the title, "A Pair of Tickets," emphasizes the purchased objects of a journey. After having depicted the first-generation cousins as spoiled, Tan uses positive imagery of consumerism to drive home her themes of cultural and female identity, giving as much homage to the Garden Hotel and Number One Department Store as Buddha and the Great Wall. It would be understandable if she used images of materialism to juxtapose the old world Chinese values with the new world "American Dream," but with statements like "I feel as if I were getting on a number 30 Stockton bus in San Francisco" but "I am in China" (272), Tan (or Jing-Mei) is not so much discovering her ancestral roots, but realizing that her Communist homeland is not so communal--it is as modern and capitalistic as California.
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