One of the primary themes in Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is the conflict in identity that Chinese Americans face when growing up with influences from both cultures. In a review in Newsweek, Dorothy Wang writes that Tan’s ‘‘insights into the complexities of being a hyphenated American, connected by blood and bonds to another culture and country, have found a much wider audience than Tan had ever imagined.’’ The other major theme in the novel is the conflict between mothers and daughters. As Denise Chong notes, ‘‘These moving and powerful stories share the irony, pain, and sorrow of the imperfect ways in which mothers and daughters love each other.’’ While each of the stories in The Joy Luck Club reflects these themes to some extent, nowhere is this dual struggle more apparent than in the story, ‘‘Rules of the Game,’’ where the game of chess is used to illustrate both conflicts. In the story, Waverly Jong embraces both the Chinese and American ways of life, but it is her complete adoption of the latter that generates the conflict between Waverly and her mother and which renders Waverly powerless by the end of the story.
At the beginning of ‘‘Rules of the Game,’’ Waverly Jong is both Chinese and American, although her preferences lean towards her Chinese heritage. Young Waverly believes in magic and mystery, which she finds in everyday items around the house. For example, when speaking about her life at home, she says that she was always fed well. ‘‘My bowl was always full, three five-course meals every day, beginning with a soup full of mysterious things I didn’t want to know the names of.’’ Waverly is content to experience the mystery, without trying to solve it.
The same is true for Waverly’s playing. Although she and her brothers live in Chinatown, a couple of blocks away from a playground, they rarely play there. Says Waverly, ‘‘The best playground . . . was the dark alley itself. It was crammed with daily mysteries and adventures.’’ Some of these mysteries concern individual businesses, such as Li’s medicinal herb shop, which Waverly and her brothers ‘‘peer into.’’ As Waverly notes of Li, ‘‘It was said that he once cured a woman dying of an ancestral curse that had eluded the best of American doctors.’’ Finally, at one corner of the alley, the children pass by Hong Sing’s, a Chinese café that they stay away from at certain times of the day. ‘‘My brothers and I believed the bad people emerged from this door at night,’’ says Waverly.
In addition to her mysteries and superstitions, Waverly is also in touch with her Chinese side through the philosophy that her mother imparts to her. ‘‘I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength,’’ says Waverly, describing the strategy that she eventually uses to win her chess games. Waverly’s mother teaches this invisible strength, a collection of Chinese ‘‘daily truths,’’ to her children, in an effort to help them ‘‘rise above our circumstances,’’ as Waverly notes. Waverly cites the first example of invisible strength that her mother teaches her. Waverly is six years old, and cries for a bag of salted plums. Her mother tells her, ‘‘Wise guy, he not go against wind,’’ and the next time they are in the store, Waverly is silent. As a result, ‘‘When my mother finished her shopping, she quietly plucked a small bag of plums from the rack.’’ By keeping her peace, and proving that she is strong enough not to beg for the candy, Waverly earns it in the end.
Waverly’s mother knows that, as Chinese Americans, her children will need to learn the art of invisible strength if they are to survive in American society, which has its own set of rules. Waverly’s mother herself had to employ her invisible strength to make her way to America. As she notes to her children...
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