Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372
Amy Tan’s voice is an important one among a group of “hyphenated Americans” (such as African Americans and Asian Americans) who describe the experiences of members of ethnic minority groups. Her short fiction is grounded in a Chinese tradition of “talk story” (gong gu tsai ) a folk art...
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Amy Tan’s voice is an important one among a group of “hyphenated Americans” (such as African Americans and Asian Americans) who describe the experiences of members of ethnic minority groups. Her short fiction is grounded in a Chinese tradition of “talk story” (gong gu tsai) a folk art form by which characters pass on values and teach important lessons through narrative. Other writers, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, employ a similar narrative strategy.
A central theme of Tan’s stories is the conflict faced by Chinese Americans who find themselves alienated both from their American milieu and from their Chinese parents and heritage. Other themes include storytelling, memory, and the complex relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and sisters. By using narrators from two generations, Tan explores the relationships between past and present. Her stories juxtapose the points of view of characters (husband and wife, mother and daughter, sisters) who struggle with each other, misunderstand each other, and grow distant from each other. Like Tan, other ethnic writers such as Louise Erdrich use multiple voices to retell stories describing the evolution of a cultural history.
Tan’s stories derive from her own experience as a Chinese American and from stories of Chinese life her mother told her. They reflect her early conflicts with her strongly opinionated mother and her growing understanding and appreciation of her mother’s past and her strength in adapting to her new country. Daisy’s early life, about which Tan gradually learned, was difficult and dramatic. Daisy’s mother, Jing-mei (Amy Tan’s maternal grandmother), was forced to become the concubine of a wealthy man after her husband’s death. Spurned by her family and treated cruelly by the man’s wives, she committed suicide. Her tragic life became the basis of Tan’s story “Magpies,” retold by An-mei Hsu in The Joy Luck Club. Daisy was raised by relatives and married to a brutal man. After her father’s death, Tan learned that her mother had been married in China and left behind three daughters. This story became part of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife.
Tan insists that, like all writers, she writes from her own experience and is not representative of any ethnic group. She acknowledges her rich Chinese background and combines it with typically American themes of love, marriage, and freedom of choice. Her first-person style is also an American feature.
The Joy Luck Club
Although critics call it a novel, Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club as a collection of sixteen short stories told by the club members and their daughters. Each chapter is a complete unit, and five of them have been published separately in short-story anthologies. Other writers, such as the American authors Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) and Gloria Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place), and the Canadian Margaret Laurence (A Bird in the House), have built linked story collections around themes or groups of characters.
The framework for The Joy Luck Club is formed by members of a mah-jongg club, immigrants from China, who tell stories of their lives in China and their families in the United States. The first and fourth sections are the mothers’ stories; the second and third are the daughters’ stories. Through this device of multiple narrators, the conflicts and struggles of the two generations are presented through the contrasting stories. The mothers wish their daughters to succeed in American terms (to have professional careers, wealth, and status), but they expect them to retain Chinese values (filial piety, cooking skills, family loyalty) as well. When the daughters become Americanized, they are embarrassed by their mothers’ old-fashioned ways, and their mothers are disappointed at the daughters’ dismissal of tradition. Chasms of misunderstanding deepen between them.
Jing-mei (June) Woo forms a bridge between the generations; she tells her own stories in the daughters’ sections and attempts to take her mother’s part in the mothers’ sections. Additionally, her trip to China forms a bridge between her family’s past and present, and between China and America.
“The Joy Luck Club”
The first story, “The Joy Luck Club,” describes the founding of the club by Suyuan Woo to find comfort during the privations suffered in China during World War II. When the Japanese invaders approached, she fled, abandoning her twin daughters when she was too exhausted to travel any farther. She continued the Joy Luck Club in her new life in San Francisco, forming close friendships with three other women. After Suyuan’s death, her daughter Jing-mei “June” is invited to take her place. June’s uncertainty of how to behave there and her sketchy knowledge of her family history exemplify the tensions experienced by an American daughter of Chinese parents. The other women surprise June by revealing that news has finally arrived from the twin daughters Suyuan left in China. They present June with two plane tickets so that she and her father can visit her half-sisters and tell them her mother’s story. She is unsure of what to say, believing now that she really did not know her mother. The others are aghast, because in her they see the reflection of their daughters who are also ignorant of their mothers’ stories, their past histories, their hopes and fears. They hasten to tell June what to praise about their mother: her kindness, intelligence, mindfulness of family, “the excellent dishes she cooked.” In the book’s concluding chapter, June recounts her trip to China.
“Rules of the Game”
One of the daughters’ stories, “Rules of the Game,” describes the ambivalent relationship of Lindo Jong and her six-year-old daughter. Waverly Place Jong (named after the street on which the family lives), learns from her mother’s “rules,” or codes of behavior, to succeed as a competitive chess player. Her mother teaches her to “bite back your tongue” and to learn to bend with the wind. These techniques help her persuade her mother to let her play in chess tournaments and then help her to win games and advance in rank. However, her proud mother embarrasses Waverly by showing her off to the local shopkeepers. The tensions between mother and daughter are like another kind of chess game, a give and take, where the two struggle for power. The two are playing by different rules, Lindo by Chinese rules of behavior and filial obedience, Waverly by American rules of self-expression and independence.
Another daughter’s story, “Two Kinds,” is June’s story of her mother’s great expectations for her. Suyuan was certain that June could be anything she wanted to be; it was only a matter of discovering what it was. She decided that June would be a prodigy piano player, and outdo Waverly Jong, but June rebelled against her mother and never paid attention to her lessons. After a disastrous recital, she stops playing the piano, which becomes a sore point between mother and daughter. On her thirtieth birthday, the piano becomes a symbol of her reconciliation with her mother, when Suyuan offers it to her.
“Best Quality” is June’s story of a dinner party her mother gives. The old rivalries between June and Waverly continue, and Waverly’s daughter and American fiancé behave in ways that are impolite in Chinese eyes. After the dinner Suyuan gives her daughter a jade necklace she has worn in hopes that it will guide her to find her “life’s importance.”
“A Pair of Tickets”
This is the concluding story of The Joy Luck Club. It recounts Jing-mei (June) Woo’s trip to China to meet her half-sisters, thus fulfilling the wish of her mother and the Joy Luck mothers and bringing the story cycle to a close, completing the themes of the first story. June learns from her father how Suyuan’s twin daughters were found by an old school friend. He explains that her mother’s name means “long-cherished wish” and that her own name Jing-mei means “something pure, essential, the best quality.” When at last they meet the sisters, she acknowledges her Chinese lineage: “I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood.”