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The Joy Luck Club

Well written and riveting, Amy Tan’s fictional masterpiece The Joy Luck Club bypasses the traditional straight narrative style and instead relates its story through alternating vignettes between four mothers and daughters. Besides revealing the intimate and often humorous details of the Chinese immigrant experience Tan presents to her American readers an affirmation of the universality of the human condition. The conflicts in the novel are generational (the mothers wonder if their Americanized brethren will retain any of their Chinese roots) yet timeless (the frustrated daughters wonder if their mothers will ever understand them). Tan’s eloquent yet realistic prose is a lifelike portrait of the families she represents: one would recognize the same mothers and daughters in Russia as well as China.

The cast of characters The mothers Suyuan Woo An-mei Hsu Lindo Jong Ying-ying St. Clair The daughters Jing-mei “June” Woo Rose Hsu Jordan Waverly Jong Lena St. Clair

The book’s vignettes are further subdivided into four sections, each with a central theme tying the stories together. The titles of each section are symbolic of the increasing changes within the families as they mature and adjust to American life. Feathers from a Thousand Li Away starts off with Jing-mei Woo telling us about the Joy Luck Club, an idea her mother had back in Kwelin during the years of war. Her mother’s three friends had, since 1949, met to play mah-jonng every month deep in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Here is where the mothers relate the stories of growing up in war-ravaged China, one even escaping an arranged marriage just to come to America. To the women, America represents freedom, the proverbial land of opportunity raised to mythic proportions:

My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.

Tan subtly shows us the immigrant’s raised and unrealistic expectations in this manner.

The Twenty-six Malignant Gates , the second division of the novel, brings us into the conflicted childhoods of the daughters, as they simultaneously struggle to please their Chinese mothers and their American schoolmates. Rose Hsu suffers an eating disorder, chess prodigy Waverly becomes estranged from the game because of her overbearing mother, and Jing-Mei ignores her dreams because she feels she cannot possibly measure to Waverly’s genius. Lena St.Clair becomes withdrawn as she realizes that her mother has an unexplainable clairvoyance when she predicts her childhood bully’s death, a clairvoyance that frightens Lena and makes her become aware of what she refers to as her “Chinese eyes.”

American Translation jumps us to the climax of the young girls (by now women’s) lives. Lena, Rose, and Waverly have all experienced broken loves, much to the chagrin of their parents that were raised to marry for life. The title is perhaps the most symbolic: raised with American ways and mores, the daughters have become a literal American translation of their own parents.

Queen Mother of the Western Skies is the last section of the novel, and perhaps the most compelling. The mothers for the last time have their voice, expressing mixed feelings of dismay and pride at their own children. All of the daughters, Rose, Waverly, Jing-mei, and Lena, have come to terms with their heritage and their own relationships for good. The book ends on a positive note, with Jing-mei finally visiting China and realizing how different she is from her mother, and how much she still needs to learn.

An instant bestseller, The Joy Luck Club ’s readership transcended Chinese-American circles and became an international favorite. In my opinion, some of the stories are classic: in the vignette Rules of the Game , the stereotypical Chinese chess prodigy is revealed to have actual feelings, even divorcing the sport after a spat with her mother, in Magpies An-mei Hsu gives us the breath-taking confession of her own mother having been a concubine in a sickeningly decadent Chinese household. Important Chinese words entered the American conscious: hulihudu - a feeling of desperate confusion upon making a startling discovery; chunwang chihan - if the lips are cold, the teeth are cold. In the beginning of each section, Tan elucidates a childhood story of Chinese mythology to introduce the themes that each character will talk about. To put it simply, The Joy Luck Club is a cultural immersion that would beat out a Let’s Go tourist guide any day of the week.

Also a movie, Tan’s popularity can be explained not only by the writing and storyline but by the fact that Americans rarely get a chance to glimpse at what other peoples can think of them. It is human nature to look for a gleam of recognition in another culture, and The Joy Luck Club provided just that for people sick of a restrained media and annoyingly politically correct censorship. The idea that adolescent angst is not just confined to the white, punk-rock loving teenage “rebels” of America was an idea that Tan saw to a joyful culmination.

Amy Tan's best-selling novel The Joy Luck Club uses several short stories to explore the relationships between four mothers and their daughters. The tales alternate between mothers and daughters in both China and the United States, and it becomes apparent that the conflict between the mothers' Oriental upbringing and the daughters' westernized attitudes has generally driven the pairs apart. However, the evolving relationship between Jing-mei "June" Woo and her mother Suyuan has brought the two together, unlike the others. The character of Jing-mei is used to show how people grow more comfortable with their heritage as life progresses.

From the first page of the book, it is obvious that Jing-mei is different from the other daughters. In each of the book's four sections, four short stories tell about the lives of one of the mothers or daughters. Jing-mei is the primary narrator of two stories telling about her mother's life, while stories about the other mothers are narrated by the women themselves. This is the first clue that Jing-mei is special, and is destined to assume her mother's place in life. Jing-mei is also the only one of the daughters who has not been married; another reminder that she is fundamentally different from the others.

At the time of the first short story, "The Joy Luck Club," Jing-mei's mother has recently died of a brain aneurysm. Jing-mei is expected to fill her mother's place at the Joy Luck Club, a gathering of the four families featured in the book. The women gather to play mah jong, where Jing-mei is again expected to take her mother's place in the game. Jing-mei is extremely nervous, not feeling that she can live up to her mother's skill at the game. The expectations placed upon Jing-mei parallel the ones facing any child who has lost a parent, and Jing-mei's feelings of inadequacy and fear are typical of a person suddenly thrust into a new role in life.

However, Jing-mei instinctively knows which place her mother played at the mah jong table. Her intuitive bond with her mother is an indication of the connection shared between family. Jing-mei also notes that her mother chose to play in the East position, symbolizing her Chinese upbringing and lingering ties with her homeland. In fact, Suyaun Woo's connection to China runs much deeper. She was forced to abandon Jing-mei's twin half-sisters in her war-torn homeland, and had spent her entire life in search of her orphaned children. Finally, Suyuan receives an address revealing the location of her now grown daughters, but dies before she can go to see them. Now Jing-mei is expected to journey to China to meet her long-lost sisters. Her inheritance of her mother's life-long quest to find her first daughters is symbolic of the responsibilities a child assumes from her parents. "What will I say?" Jing-mei wonders. "What can I tell them about my mother? I don't know anything. She was my mother." (31) Jing-mei's Aunt An-mei answers, "Not know your own mother? ...your mother is in your bones!" Although every daughter has a deep and instinctive connection with her mother, fear of the responsibility to pass on this bond causes her to resist.

"Two Kinds," (141) the second story featuring Jing-mei and her mother, takes place in Jing-mei's childhood, and summarizes the rebellion against heritage that takes place during youth. Jing-mei's mother persistently pushes her daughter to find a skill that will make her famous. Although Suyuan is an extreme case, this shows how every parent has a wish to live vicariously through her child- a wish that more often than not causes friction between parent and child. This theme is one explored in depth in the story "Rules of the Game," about young chess champion Waverly Jong, and her mother's interference, which leads the girl to quit chess.

In "Two Kinds," Jing-mei's mother sends her to piano practice, hoping that she will be a prodigy. Although Jing-mei shows skill, she shirks practice to spite her mother. When her mother enters her in a neighborhood talent competition, Jing-mei plays horribly and refuses to practice any more. "Only two kinds of daughters," Suyuan shouts, "Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house! Obedient daughter!" (153.) Jing-mei's rebellious attitude is an example of the resistance most youths have against embracing their parent's rules and upbringing. Throughout her life, Jing-mei continues to fail to meet up to her mother's expectations, but ultimately realizes "I could only be me." (154) What Jing-mei does not yet realize is that to her, "me" includes a large amount of her mother. At the conclusion of the story, which takes place right after her mother's death, Jing-mei looks back in her piano book to the piece she attempted to play at the talent competition. The piece is titled "Pleading Child." Jing-mei notes, "It looked more difficult than I remembered." (155) This piece is symbolic of Jing-mei's childhood itself. Although the music appears difficult, it is not as hard as it seemed, much like Jing-mei's childhood.

In one of the most important passages in the book, Jing-mei notices for the first time a companion to "Pleading Child;" a song on the next page entitled "Perfectly Contented." This piece "[has] a lighter melody, but the same flowing rhythm and [turns] out to be quite easy. 'Pleading Child' [is] shorter but slower; 'Perfectly Contented' [is longer] but faster." (155) These songs are a metaphor for Jing-mei's life itself. While her rebellious childhood was painful, harsh, and slow, it is a short time compared to her adulthood, which is comparatively peaceful, although much longer. These two pieces together show the way a person changes over time- a child who is rebellious will eventually come to peace with her life, finally accepting it.

The next story, "Best Quality," (221) shows another step in the evolution of Jing-mei's life. The core of this story is a gift Suyuan has given Jing-mei: a jade pendant which Suyuan calls Jing-mei's "life's importance." (221) Although Jing-mei doesn't realize its significance, it is apparent that the pendant is symbolic of the heritage a mother passes on to her daughter. In thinking about the pendant, Jing-mei notes that it is "not a piece of jewelry I would have chosen for myself... too green, too garishly ornate." (221) This is like Jing-mei's difficult Chinese heritage, which she wouldn't have chosen for herself either. At first, after receiving the pendant, Jing-mei does not wear it, but after her mother's death, she wears it every day. She is now beginning to accept her heritage as a part of who she is.

This story also emphasizes the differences between Jing-mei and the other daughters. Jing-mei only lives six blocks from her parents, and stops by their house for dinner often, a close relationship that the other daughters do not share with their mothers. Waverly Jong, who is visiting the Woo's for a New Year's celebration, is a successful business woman, while Jing-mei, who does advertisement work, has only succeeded working for small businesses. Although Jing-mei is humiliated by Waverly when she publicly reveals that work Jing-mei did for Waverly's company was amateur, Jing-mei realizes that she should not be hurt by Waverly's pettiness. As she had realized in "Two Kinds," she can only be herself, even if that self is but an amateur ad-writer.

Earlier in "Best Quality," it is mentioned that a cat living in the same building as the Woo's has constantly pestered Suyuan. Tan describes Suyuan's response to the cat: "[she] would stand on her tiptoes and bang the kitchen window to scare the cat away. And the cat would stand its ground, hissing back in response to her shouts." (224) Now Jing-mei does the exact same thing to scare away the cat, and receives the exact same response. This similarity is a not so subtle reminder that Jing-mei is becoming very much like her mother. In fact, at the time of her encounter with the cat, Jing-mei is at her father's home cooking him dinner- her assumption of her mother's tasks further emphasizing her increasing similarity with her mother.

"A Pair of Tickets," (306) the final story, has Jing-mei going to China to meet her half-sisters. This symbolizes Jing-mei's final acceptance of her heritage and her completion of her mother's legacy. Throughout the story there are references to the fact that Jing-mei is subtly becoming, or at least feeling, more Chinese. "The minute our train... enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. ...my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. ...I am becoming Chinese." (306) There is a depth in Jing-mei's Chinese heritage not shared with the other daughters. This difference is emphasized by the fact that Jing-mei is the first of the daughters to visit China.

Jing-mei's father also reveals a previously unknown significance to her name, and her mother's. Suyuan means "Long-Cherished Wish," or "Long-Held Grudge-" prophetic of her lifelong search for her daughters, and the guilt she feels for abandoning them. Jing is revealed to mean "pure essence" and Mei "younger sister-" (323) Jing-mei was supposed to be the essence of her two sisters, so it is easy to see how she feels she can never live up to what is expected of her.

The final piece of Jing-mei's puzzle falls into place as she meets her half-sisters. She says, "...now I see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go." (331) As the three women see a Polaroid picture of their reunion develop, Jing-mei completes her realization: "Together we look like our mother." (332) Their outside resemblance is the result of a deep bond between family that exists even when separated by a vast ocean and many generations. The themes of the four stories about Jing-mei come together to show four stages of life and the growing acceptance of one's heritage. When the stories are arranged chronologically, they outline this development. First is a resistance to one's heritage, then a slow process of becoming like the parent, a reluctant assumption of familial responsibility, and finally a realization of the importance of heritage to the process of coming to know one's self.

The American Dream in The Joy Luck Club

The “American Dream” is the driving force of most Americans, many who wish to be Americans, and anyone else. The Dream takes on many shapes and forms for many different people, but at its core is a ‘rags to riches story' that all Americans hope to achieve. In The Joy Luck Club, four Chinese mothers and their four daughters come to realize their own “American Dreams” while finding the roots of their dreams. For the mothers, the “American Dream” is that of making a better life for themselves and their children, in particular their daughters that are also focused on in the book. More specifically, the mothers wish that their daughters assimilate into American culture but not without forgetting their Chinese heritage. For the daughters, the “American Dream” is that of complete assimilation into the American culture.

The “American Dream” is the basic idea that anyone, no matter where they come from, can gain a piece of the pie in America with hard work. Often, this means the sacrifice of previously held values in favor of American values. The values that America lives by, like freedom of choice, political involvement and capitalism, are essential if one wants to live the “American Dream”. But these values often clash with the ideals held by immigrants back in the Old World. An example of this in the book occurs when the Chinese mothers tell their Chinese-American daughters, most of whom want to marry, or have married Caucasian men, that long-term social problems will result from interracial marriages. The daughters embrace the idea of freedom of choice in respect to marriage, whereas most of their mothers cling to the Old World custom of staying within your race. This shows that the conception of the American Dream differs between mother and daughter.

The mothers differ in their conception of it from what is commonly held by today’s Americans. The mothers wanted the “American Dream” to be available to their daughters. While their daughters assimilate into American culture, the mothers become more withdrawn and concerned about how the Chinese traditions they tried to instill in their daughters are not going to be passed to the next generation. The mothers sacrificed so much to have a better life in America, but their daughters do not know about their migration to this country and the traditions that are held sacred to them. To the mothers, the “American Dream” is for the next generation to have the choices and the freedom to make those choices and have whatever they want without forgetting their roots and their culture. The general observation is that the mothers:

“… see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. The see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these close American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.” (Tan 31)

Ying-yong, Lindo, An-Mei and Suyuan want their daughter to be successful educated women with a modern liberal outlook and mannerisms. They want them to take advantage and possess liberty, equality, and freedom like every American but retain their Chinese heritage. They wanted their daughters “to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character.” (Tan 288) Their daughters on the other hand see the “American Dream” as not only being part of the liberal American society but being completely Americanized, thereby acting and looking as one. Also they daughters believe to achieve this status,, they must minimize and abandon their Chinese heritage, customs, values and traditions.

Their mother's version of the “American Dream” is basically for their daughters to be as American as possible but to remember were they really came from; from a Chinese culture. But the mother’s find it hard to instill their Chinese heritage in their daughters because they reside in a liberal society were they are not confined by society to act a certain way but they have the freedom of rights to act as they choose.

Both the mothers' and daughters' views of the "American Dream" are realized in one person, Jing-mei "June" Woo. She is the only daughter to have a real Chinese name, and an American nick-name, instead of both incorporated into one, as the other daughters do. Her mother, Suyuan Woo, was able to instill Chinese behavorial traditions of respect and discipline, and June was able to be American, in short, because her piano teacher was deaf. Later on June would adapt to the Americanized society around her, but she would still respect those around her in a subordinate fashion, as is customary in China. Point in case, in the story Best Quality, the more Americanized daughter, Waverly, immediately takes the finest quality crabs available. The crabs continue to be passed around, the finer ones being taken by those who want them, but when it comes to June there are two crabs left, a "large crab with a faded orange color, and number eleven, which had the torn off leg" (Tan 227); June takes "number eleven," out of respect for her mother, but her mother then insists June take the larger one. Later on, June confronts her mother on this, and why the dead-before-being-cooked 'number eleven' was even cooked at all;

""What if some one else had picked that crab," [asked June.]
My mother looked at me and smiled. "Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already knew this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different."" (Tan 234)
The meaning behind this is that June isn't as American as the other people there. She is Chinese. She is American. She is the epitomy of a Chinese-American culture that hopes to realize the "American Dream."

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