Last Updated December 9, 2022.
And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. 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. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist.
Jing-mei Woo is looking at her aunties as she narrates these lines in “The Joy Luck Club,” the novel’s first story. With these words, she captures the essence of the three ladies before her and of her own mother. She also captures the essence of herself and the other daughters. The mothers have come to America with their hopes and expectations, their dreams for the children they will have to grow up in a different environment with more opportunities. But the daughters do not understand this. The two generations think in different ways. They have different priorities and different goals. They have different meanings, as symbolized by “joy luck.” The daughters fail to understand their mothers, and their mothers know it and grieve over it.
I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise.
These lines come from Lindo Jong as she begins her story “The Red Candle.” Her words express the contrast between Chinese values and American values. In Lindo’s Chinese upbringing, she was trained to obey her parents. When the matchmaker decided her wedding and her parents agreed, Lindo obeyed. This was respect for her parents. They had made the promise; she would keep it, no matter how she must suffer. Her own daughter, Waverly, is thoroughly American and thoroughly thoughtless. She will not sacrifice even a bit of her time for her mother. She puts herself first and treats her promises lightly, breaking them at the least excuse and breaking her mother’s heart along with them.
I can still feel the hope that beat in me that night. I clung to this hope, day after day, night after night, year after year. I would watch my mother lying in her bed, babbling to herself as she sat on the sofa. And yet I knew that this, the worst possible thing, would one day stop.
Lena St. Clair grieves for her mother in “The Voice from the Wall,” yet she clings to hope that someday her mother’s strength would reassert itself. Lena’s mother, Ying-ying, lost her infant son shortly after his birth and ended up in a draining depression that deprived her of the ability to do anything, including care for her daughter. Lena suffered from this, especially when she saw and heard the relationship between mother and daughter next door. While they argued, they loved each other. They laughed together even though they fought. Lena longed for that, and since she had her mother’s gift of knowing things, she knew that one day, her mother’s depression would end. Her mother would come back to her. The loss would fade, and hope would be fulfilled.
But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor,...
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a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in.
Waverly Jong desperately wants to tell her mother about her upcoming marriage to Rich in “Four Directions,” but she is scared that Lindo will influence her, making her see Rich in a different light. Waverly dances around the issue, never quite saying what she wants to say and even enduring a highly uncomfortable meal. Then she decides that she simply must tell Lindo. She goes to her mother’s house and sees her asleep. For a moment she is frightened because she notices her mother’s weakness. After their conversation, Waverly comes to a realization about her mother, who already knows all about Rich. The barriers between them drop. For the moment, they understand each other. Waverly sees Lindo for who she is and, perhaps for the first time, notices that her mother is waiting for Waverly to invite her into her life.
I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side. I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose.
Ying-ying St. Clair is a broken woman with a painful past. Her depression, at least in part, stems from an inability to face that past. Yet now Ying-ying sees that Lena needs the strength that only a mother can give. So she will look at the past again, and she will use it to draw strength, to regain her “tiger lady” power. Ying-ying will tell her story to her daughter so that Lena can learn from it and finally understand why her mother is the person she is. This will require sacrifice, but Ying-ying is willing to do anything for her daughter. They will fight, she knows, but Ying-ying will recapture her own spirit and give it to her daughter, for “this is the way a mother loves her daughter.”
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.
These words end the novel. Jing-mei Woo is standing at the airport with her sisters, the babies Suyuan had to abandon on the roadside so many years before. Jing-mei’s father has taken a Polaroid of the three of them, and now they wait for it to develop. They see themselves coming into focus, and they see their mother coming into focus in them. Here is the deepest meaning of the novel. The mothers and daughters in these stories are not really all that different. In fact, in many ways, they are all very much alike, and they all cherish a wish that they will one day truly understand each other. This will be the highest and best “joy luck” of all.