Style and Technique
Tan describes herself as a lover of language, not a scholar of English. Therefore, it is her translation into English of what she calls her mother’s internal language that is at the heart of this story. Drawing the reader into the story, the narrator directs the reader through a world in which readers experience the power of a rich, colorful language. For example, when Mother Woo characterizes Auntie Lindo’s daughter, an accomplished chess player at a young age, as “best tricky,” the reader knows not only what it means but also how it sounds. This brand of English, often called fractured or broken, becomes a vernacular that captures the tone and color of the experience of growing up in a bilingual environment.
Further illustrating the conflict between Chinese mother and American-born daughter, the spoken language of the two creates a verbal duel. For example, when June demands that her mother look at who she really is, saying “I’m not a genius!” her mother responds with, “Who ask you be genius?” The mother’s question, although incomplete grammatically, projects her confusion over being unable to understand her daughter’s anger or ungratefulness.
The language also characterizes the rich, layered texture of a household built on two languages and two cultures, which often are combined to form, for example, a Chinese Shirley Temple. As her mother offers her the piano, the tense shift in her words is purposeful: “You could been genius if you want to.” Even though it starts in the past, the sentence ends in the present, indicating to June and to the reader that it is not too late for June to find her genius. Ultimately, it is Tan’s command of the “Englishes” that transforms the short story into one that captures not only her mother’s voice but also other mothers’ voices that have been silenced or, at best, standardized into an “imperfect” English that does not convey their essence, their internal language.