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.