How do you compare and contrast "Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan and "Museum" by Naomi Shibab Nye?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When writing an essay comparing and contrasting “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan and “Museum” by Naomi Shihab Nye, you can examine the narrators, their reactions to their situations, and what their reactions reveals about them. First, consider that the narrators themselves are at different places in their lives.

Although both girls technically are teenagers according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Tan (age fourteen) is in the stage of Early Adolescence while Nye (age seventeen) is nearly out of the stage of Middle Adolescence. Experiencing puberty, Tan demonstrates increasing sexual interest, evidenced by her attraction to blond Caucasian boy that contrasts with and is outside of her Chinese-American community. Developmentally, she is still quite young, self-conscious, and focused on herself. The Christmas Eve dinner becomes all about her—her embarrassment at the food her mother serves, her horror at her father’s manners, and her family’s cultural divide from the American minister’s family.

Nye, on the other hand, probably has completed puberty and is developing a more outward focus. True, she still is an adolescent and understandably self-focused, but to a lesser degree. During the Middle Adolescent stage, people become more independent and interested in the world beyond their immediate surroundings. Unlike Tan, who cannot leave her home (she’s too young to drive and thus dependent on her family), Nye is able to drive with her friend Sally to explore; they seek out a museum independently and are open to appreciating art pieces from different times and places.

Second, you can also compare and contrast Tan and Nye’s embarrassed reactions. How does each narrator handle the situation? Within “Fish Cheeks,” Tan does not seem to recover while in “Museum,” Nye is similarly mortified but does seem to recover her composure, view the misunderstanding with humor, and move on. Do you agree?

Finally, Tan and Nye (as well as the teenager in the mistaken house) seem to learn similar lessons about their parents. Find the specific commonalities and any differences in anything they discover about others and themselves.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The short stories “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan and “Museum” by Naomi Shihab Nye are autobiographical or memoir texts that tell the stories of experiences the authors had in their youth. “Fish Cheeks” tells the story of an experience Tan had when she was a teenager and an American boy whom she had a crush on attended her family's nontraditional Christmas dinner. “Museum” tells the story of a trip Nye took to the McNay Museum, an old house turned museum—except that the first house she walked into was not the McNay Museum, but another house.

Both stories tell a short tale about embarrassment—Tan felt embarrassment at the traditional Chinese cuisine and mannerisms of her family in the presence of her white American pastor and his family, while Nye was embarrassed about accidentally stepping inside the home of a random family of native Texans.

Something you can look into is Tan's exploration of her embarrassment in the story. She focuses on the differences between Chinese culture and American culture and her awareness of those differences. Early in the story, she focuses on the difference in cuisine: “On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself in creating a strange menu” (paragraph 3). The way she describes the food as strange shows that she is embarrassed because she is considering the way their American guests might perceive the food.

You might also look into the similar embarrassment that Nye feels in her story. Nye feels embarrassed because of an obvious social faux pas that exists across cultures—she has entered someone else's house, uninvited, and has confused it for another place. Because she has brought her friend into the home, and insisted that it is the correct place, she feels responsible for the mistake. The initial embarrassment at being accountable for the error is worse because she has to explain to her friend that they are in the wrong place in front of the owners: “I just couldn’t tell her out loud in front of those people what we had done” (paragraph 3).

The major difference in the two essays lies mainly in who is affected at the end of the story. In “Fish Cheeks” it is Amy Tan who changes her view of her family and culture as a result of reflecting on her own actions in the story:

It wasn’t until many years later—long after I had gotten over my crush on Robert—that I was able to fully appreciate her lesson and the true purpose behind our particular menu. For Christmas Eve that year, she had chosen all my favorite foods. (paragraph 8)

Tan has a revelation about her actions and her own family and grows to appreciate her own culture in spite of its difference from American culture.

In contrast, in “Museum” it isn’t Nye who has the revelation about her own culture or the importance of her family, but one of the members of the family who is present when she enters their home:

That was my home. I was a teenager sitting with my family talking in the living room. Before you came over, I never realized what a beautiful place I lived in. I never felt lucky before. You thought it was a museum. My feelings changed about my parents after that too. They had good taste. I have always wanted to thank you. (paragraph 8)

The woman who stops her in the street is the one who has the change of heart about her own culture and her parents, and as the result of Nye’s embarrassing experience, that woman now has a better view of her own culture.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial