Amy Tan's theme is related to the re-identification with the motherland (China, her mother and half-sisters), but ironically the story's theme is weakened by Tan's focus on China's modernization.
"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.
Amy Tan's “A Pair of Tickets” is a story of self-discovery—born in pain but eventually resolved in joy. Pain unites characters from different countries and decades. The narrator’s still-fresh sorrow at her mother’s death, the mother’s abiding despair at losing her twin daughters on the war-torn road to Chungking, and the daughters’ ache at losing their mother not once, but twice (first as babies in 1944 and then again as adults after they learn their mother is dead) are all caused by the same tragic historical circumstance and its far-reaching consequences. Joy, however, eventually links June with her two half-sisters. Acknowledging what they have lost, they find that much remains.
“A Pair of Tickets” is a story that grows naturally out of its setting. June’s journey to China is one of both external and internal discovery. Finding China, she also finds part of herself. Tan announces the theme at the end of the first paragraph: “I am becoming Chinese.” China becomes a spiritual mirror for the narrator, just as her glimpse of her half-sisters’ faces provides a living mirror of her own and her late mother’s face. One might say that “A Pair of Tickets” is the story of Americanized June May Woo (born, as her passport says, in California in 1951) becoming Jing-mei Woo by discovering her ethnic and cultural roots in her ancestral homeland.
June is Chinese American, which means that she experiences the two cultures from both the inside and the outside. Just as going to China helps her understand how she is Chinese, it also reminds her how much she has been shaped by America. She understands Mandarin Chinese but cannot speak it well. She does not know the Cantonese of her relatives or her father’s Mandarin dialect. Although she is purely Chinese in ancestry, not only her clothes betray her American upbringing—she is also too tall. “I stand five-foot-six,” June observes, “and my head pokes above the crowd so that I am eye level only with other tourists.” And yet she physically resembles her half-sisters, realizing at the end of the story: “And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood.”
Although “A Pair of Tickets” is saturated in Chinese history and culture, and its plot reflects a situation unlikely to be repeated in other contexts, it also explores nearly universal themes of self-discovery, cultural awareness, and family history. One might say that Tan’s broader theme is dual identity—an especially relevant theme for many Americans who come from immigrant families.
Tan explores this quintessentially American experience with humor, compassion, and imagination.