How does the meaning of "Chinese" evolve in Amy Tan's "A Pair of Tickets"?

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At the beginning of Amy Tan’s "A Pair of Tickets," American-born Chinese protagonist June May thinks the term “Chinese” has two meanings: a set of superficial physical traits and a set of stereotypical behaviors. When growing up in San Francisco, June felt that despite her skin-deep Chinese appearance, she...

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was just like her Caucasian friends. In her passport photo, she appears Westernized, with stylish swept-back hair, lined lips, and cheeks contoured with bronze blusher. Later, when she arrives in China, she feels that “Even without makeup, I could never pass for true Chinese.” June is too tall, towers over native Chinese residents, and may not be purely Chinese by blood, but part Mongolian. She feels Chinese by race or genetics only as a result of her parents’ ethnic Chinese identities.

June also defines stereotypical actions—like haggling, picking teeth in public, and mismatching colors—as “telltale Chinese behaviors.” Another Chinese behavior that she resists is the desire to spare relatives the pain of bad news; Auntie Lindo does this when she wants to write to June’s half-sisters pretending to be their late mother so they will believe she is still alive. June thinks this lie is cruel and raises false hopes. Also, she does not want to be the person to reveal their mother’s death, because she fears that her Chinese half-sisters will blame her for their mother’s death as a result of June’s insufficient appreciation of or respect for her mother.

Yet when her mother was alive, she insisted that June had “Chinese-ness” in her blood: “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese.” June slowly realizes that being Chinese is not merely looking like other Chinese people or knowing their behaviors, but feeling an inexplicable bond with the land, culture, and family. She first realizes this when she witnesses her elderly father seeing his homeland for the first time in decades; June also feels a strange sense of nostalgia and déjà vu, as if she “had seen this a long, long time ago, and had almost forgotten.”

Upon arrival in China, she copes with the culture shock by simultaneously seeking superficial similarities between China and America as well as searching for confirmation of stereotypes. She compares the crowded Guangzhou train to the “number 30 Stockton bus in San Francisco”; although she reminds herself that she is in China, she feels a familiarity with the crowds. June notices that from a distance, Guangzhou’s skyline resembles that of a major American city. Up close, however, she notes stereotypical, cheap, and exotic “otherness” in details like bamboo scaffolding held together by plastic strips and men and women working without any safety equipment. China’s growth in prosperity is compared to American wealth with Aiyi’s family business and house and the Chinese Garden Hotel, which looks like “a grander version of the Hyatt Regency” with restaurants, a video arcade, and American junk food and soda in each room. June realizes that the term “Chinese” may not be what she had expected.

June’s stereotypical expectations of Chinese food are further upended when her relatives do not take her to what she had anticipated would be her “first real Chinese feast”—a banquet of winter melon soup, Peking duck, and more—but a meal of American fast food and even apple pie. Only later, when June washes her hair with shampoo the color of hoisin sauce, does she believe “This is China.”

During her stay in China, the meaning of “Chinese” further evolves; she realizes that the word signifies the strong bond of family. June recalls learning from her mother about a family that stayed together, even in dangerous circumstances that would kill them all simultaneously. Her mother had explained that during wartime bombing, if her niece “was in the house with that doll, her parents were there, and so everybody was there, waiting together, because that’s how our family was.” Familial ties span and endure over time and distance. June witnesses the nearly instant bond between Aiyi and her father when they first meet after decades apart. The bond between parents and children (as well as between siblings) is unbreakable despite hardship and separation. June is inexorably driven to rejoin the bond between her late mother and the twin daughters her mother was forced to abandon (June’s half-sisters). Upon meeting them, June recognizes their mother in one of the sisters, who has “that same look on her face.” Although June admits that she knows the sister is “not my mother,” the sister carries “the same look [their mother] had when I was five and had disappeared all afternoon, for such a long time, that she was convinced I was dead,” like the long-lost twins. When June spots them, she seems to see two copies of her mother.

June and the twins’ mother links them as they establish a previously unknown and invisible bond finally realized. Although she looks at their faces again yet sees “no trace of my mother in them,” the sisters still look familiar to June. She realizes, “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 the three women create separate images, “together we look like our mother.”

By the end, to June the term “Chinese” is not merely a collection of stereotypical physical traits and behaviors, but strong familial bonding and familiarity.

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At the start of Amy Tan's "A Pair of Tickets," Jing-mei, the narrator, is on a train crossing into Shenzhen, China, when she experiences a peculiar feeling: "I am becoming Chinese." Jing-mei is Chinese American; her parents were born in China, and she has relatives in China still, but she grew up in the United States. At least part of her has always been Chinese, but it is only now that Jing-mei begins to feel Chinese. This introduces the idea that culture and identity are complex concepts.

Jing-mei's mother always told her that she was Chinese whether she felt that way or not. As a girl who grew up in the US, she feels as American as her classmates. After her mother tells her she cannot avoid her Chinese heritage, Jing-mei worries that she will start to exhibit stereotypical Chinese traits and seems to fear these will make her less unique, will reduce her to a label and nothing more. Her mother is right about Jing-mei connecting to her Chinese roots; it simply takes her until her adult life to fully embrace and recognize that part of her identity. In the story, it takes her physically visiting China to set this process into motion. 

In "A Pair of Tickets," Jing-mei goes to China to meet her sisters, babies her mother had to abandon on the roadside before she immigrated to the US. The babies lived, though, and try to make contact with the family. But their mother is now dead, and Jing-mei reflects, "I am on a train, carrying with me her dreams of coming home." Jing-mei approaches the trip with trepidation, worried her sisters will not like her or will blame her for their mother's death.

When Jing-mei meets her sisters, though, embrace her warmly. Eventually, Jing-mei feels a strong bond with them and, by extension, with her mother. She begins to ask them to speak in Chinese to her; she begins to understand what she represented to her mother. Overall, Jing-mei develops a stronger sense of self and a greater appreciation for her family and her cultural origins. Jing-mei eventually concludes that "the part of me that is Chinese" is "my family."

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At the beginning of "A Pair of Tickets" by Amy Tan, in Jing-mei's mind, "Chinese" denotes something undesirable. Much of this comes from growing up in the United States where she was part of a minority class, and her differences not only stood out, but separated her from the masses.

Jing-mei's trip to China is a road to discovery: not only with regard to her mother and other relatives, but also to who she is culturally.

As Jing-mei learns about her mother (Suyuan) and her difficult—near tragic—life experiences, she starts to see her mother in a new light based upon the circumstances in which Suyuan was living in China as a younger woman.

When Jing-mei arrives in China, her preconceived notions about "Communist China" are swept aside. There is a great deal there that mirrors the Western culture that she is accustomed to. In addition, she is no longer an outsider: she looks like everyone else and feels comfortable in her own skin.

Being Chinese is who she is, and the label no longer bothers her as she meets family members (her great-aunt and the twins) and realizes she is a part of a Chinese family—which brings her a new sense of belonging. This knowledge frees Jing-mei from feeling isolated (“It is so obvious…After all these years, it can finally be let go.”); she accepts her heritage, no longer as something that separates her from others, but as something that unites her with others.

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