Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268
Aiyi: Jing-mei’s great-aunt
Lili: Aiyi’s great-granddaughter
Wang Chwun Yu and Wang Chwun Hwa: Suyuan’s twin daughters, Jing-mei’s half sisters. Their names mean “Spring Rain” and “Spring Flower”
Mei Ching and Mei Han: the couple who find and raise the twins
Suyuan’s schoolmate: never named. She recognizes the twins and contacts Suyuan with their address
Jing-mei narrates this story. She and her father are on a train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, China. Her father has tears in his eyes as he looks out the train window at the countryside. Even Jing-mei is moved by the sight, “as if [she] had seen this a long, long time ago, and had almost forgotten.” After they visit Canning’s aunt in Guangzhou, they will go to Shanghai to meet Jing-mei’s twin half sisters, whom she has never seen before.
At Guangzhou Jing-mei and her father meet Aiyi, his aunt, and her family. The city seems very modern, and the taxi pulls up in front of an imposing hotel that doesn’t fit Jing-mei’s ideas of Communist China. The rooms are even stocked with Western snacks and drinks. The family decides just to stay at the hotel so they can visit.
At 1:00 a.m. Jing-mei wakes up, sitting on the floor in her hotel room. Everyone has gone to sleep except Aiyi and Canning, talking quietly about Suyuan’s daughters. Jing-mei asks why her mother abandoned the twins.
Canning narrates this flashback. Suyuan walked several days, unable to get a ride. Eventually she could not walk any farther. Convinced she was going to die, she put the babies on the side of the road and lay down next to them, begging passers-by to take them. No one would.
When no one was left on the road, Suyuan put jewelry under one girl’s shirt and money under the other’s. She wrote a message on the backs of photos of her family, asking whoever found the girls to take care of them and take them to their family in Shanghai for a reward. She touched the girls on the cheek and left without looking back. Her only hope was that they would be found by someone who would take good care of them. She did not allow herself to envision any other alternative.
She walked a while, then fainted. She awoke to find she had been rescued by American missionaries who brought her to Chungking, where she learned that her husband had died two weeks earlier. She met Canning in the hospital there.
Mei Ching and her husband, Mei Han, who lived in a hidden cave, found the twins and raised them, since they had no children of their own. They discovered the valuables and photographs Suyuan had left, but neither of them could read. By the time they found someone who could tell them what was written on the photographs, Mei Ching didn’t want to give them up.
When the girls were eight, Mei Han died. Mei Ching decided to take the girls back to their family, hoping she would be hired as their nanny. The address on the back of the pictures was now a factory, though, and no one knew anything about the family whose house had been at that site. Suyuan and Canning had returned to that address, too, seven years earlier, hoping to find her daughters and family.
When it was possible to send mail to China once again, Suyuan immediately began to write to her old friends, asking them to look for her daughters. Suyuan even contemplated going back to China, but Canning, not knowing her motives, told her they were too old for the trip. Canning wonders if perhaps Suyuan’s spirit guided the friend from Shanghai who found the twins walking down the stairs in a department store not long after Suyuan died.
Jing-mei narrates as she and Canning say good-bye to Aiyi and her family at the airport, knowing they’ll never meet again. Their plane lands in Shanghai. Someone shouts, “She’s arrived!” and Jing-mei thinks she sees her mother. Then she sees the other sister. Both are waving, and one is holding the picture of her she sent them earlier. Once Jing-mei gets past the gate, they all hug.
Her sisters look familiar to her. She realizes that she is Chinese because her family is Chinese. As Suyuan had predicted, it was in her blood, “waiting to be let go.”
Canning takes a Polaroid of the three women, and they stand together to watch it develop:
The gray-green surface changes to the bright colors of our three images, sharpening and deepening all at once. And although we don’t speak, I know we all see it: Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish.
Jing-mei’s trip to China serves as a metaphor for a journey into her perceptions about herself. She considers how she has viewed her sisters, China itself, her mother, and herself as Chinese.
Tan incorporates a subtle motif about age that points out not only Jing-mei’s view of her sisters but also everyone else’s assumptions about her. At first Jing-mei thinks of her sisters only as babies. When she discovers that they are alive, she pictures them first as six-year-olds and later as ten or eleven. Not until she imagines herself bringing them the news of Suyuan’s death does she see them as adults. The motif resurfaces when Jing-mei meets Aiyi, her great-aunt. Aiyi’s first word to her is “Jandale,” “So big already.” Her sisters say something similar when she meets them at last: “Meimei jandale,” “Little sister has grown up.” Other changes in vision also take place.
For example, Jing-mei says, “This is Communist China?” as she gets used to the idea of modern cities and traffic, luxurious Western-style hotels, and Western food. She expected China to be like the shampoo in the hotel, somehow inferior. Being Chinese is not what she thought it would be, either. In China Jing-mei does not look different from anyone else. In America she is separated from many people by appearance. Here, she fits right in.
During the trip Jing-mei also learns the rest of her mother’s wartime story. She sees that her actions were justified. Suyuan’s quixotic and necessary efforts to find the girls again ennoble her. The Dickensian coincidence of the girls’ discovery becomes a forgivable device when matched with the tragedy of Suyuan’s early death. Jing-mei sees her mother in a different light. In “The Joy Luck Club,” she said she didn’t know anything about her mother. By the time she meets her sisters, she has much to tell them.
The new perception of her mother leads Jing-mei to a new understanding of herself. From the generation before her father to the generation after her, she sees friendly, hardworking people who seem very typical to her. Her family is Chinese, and she does not have to resist the designation any longer. “It is so obvious…After all these years, it can finally be let go.”
The meeting with her sisters, long anticipated in the novel, is anticlimactic. It serves more as a resolution to the conflicts Jing-mei and Suyuan experienced individually and together. As the women crowd around the Polaroid, a device Tan uses throughout the story, the reader sees Suyuan’s strength and influence as surely as the three women see her physical characteristics. Her hope has become their joy and luck.
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