In Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei is the American daughter of Chinese parents. She grew up in the United States but is still exposed to strong Chinese influences at home, especially from her mother, who has recently died as the novel opens. In part the novel concerns Jing-Mei’s eventual ability, by the end of the book, to embrace more fully her Chinese identity even though she is also technically and enthusiastically an American. As the novel begins, Jing-Mei feels caught between two cultures.
One indication of Jing-Mei’s ambivalence occurs in the sixth paragraph of the book. She recalls her mother’s excitement once about preparing a special dish for a meeting with the mother’s friends – a soup designed to compete with soup made by another woman. Jing-Mei, hearing the excitement in her mother’s voice, cautions her mother not to show off. The mother responds that she is not trying to show off. Jing Mei then continues:
She said the soups were almost the same, chabudwo. Or maybe she said butong, not the same thing at all. . . . I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.
This small incident suggest three reasons why Jing-Mei finds it difficult at first to fully embrace her Chinese identity:
- Her grasp of the Chinese language is not as secure as her mother’s is.
- She doesn’t entirely share her mother’s Chinese perspective on what is and what isn’t proper behavior.
- She suggests that she does not entirely understand the Chinese culture as reflected in the Chinese language.
Later, at the end of the opening chapter, Jing-Mei comments on several of her Chinese “aunties” who have daughters who resemble, in various ways, Jing-Mei herself. The mothers fear that their daughters, like Jing-Mei, have lost touch with their Chinese roots:
In me they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful, of all 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.
Here Jing-Mei suggests several more ways in which she has been unable to fully embrace her Chinese identity:
- She feels ignorant of her Chinese cultural heritage.
- She feels as if she has not paid enough attention to that heritage and that she has not even tried to understand it (she has been “unmindful”).
- She feels that she has been “impatient” about even listening to the Chinese language.
- She feels that she has actually been condescending in her attitude toward her Chinese mother.
In all these ways and for all these reasons, she feels alienated to some degree not only from her now-dead mother but also from her heritage as a Chinese American. By the time the novel concludes, she will have overcome many of these barriers and will have accepted more fully her Chinese identity.