In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores the different mother-daughter relationships between the characters, and at a lower level, relationships between friends, lovers, and even enemies. The mother-daughter relationships are most likely different aspects of Tan’s relationship with her mother and perhaps a figment of her imagination. In this book, she presents the conflicting views and the stories of both sides, providing the reader and ultimately the characters with an understanding of the mentalities of both mother and daughter and why each one is the way she is.
Amy Tan explores the difficulties in growing up as a Chinese-American and the problems assimilating into modern society. The Chinese-American daughters try to become “Americanized” while casting off their heritage while their mothers watch on, troubled. Social pressures to become like everyone else and not be differently motivated the daughters to resent their nationality. They didn’t try to comprehend their culture, which was a big part of understanding their traditional Chinese mothers. The swan feather at the beginning of the book was a symbol of all hopes and dreams that the mother wanted to give to her daughter.
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This woman crossing a vast ocean, with only the company of a swan, was not scared but yet motivated. She dreams for her daughter, and this dream is the driving force of her actions. She is moved to realize this dream, that she was not even aware of the potential bad outcomes. There was no talk about hoping to have a daughter it was already destined, “I will have a daughter just like me…and she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow”, the sorrow that the woman was taught t swallow (3-4). There was no single thought of failure in her mind. Her dreams instilled blind faith in her and inherent optimism.
The swan feather symbolized Chinese culture that only brought good intentions; it was not a symbol of failure but for hope. The swan grew up to be more than expected and became “too beautiful to eat” (3). But when it was taken away, the only thing left was a feather, a symbol of something that was meant to be nothing but became more. It was a symbol for the mothers; they wanted their children to become more than they were in China. The daughters’ attitudes changed as the girls matured and realized that their mothers weren’t so different at all.
The relationships between the mothers and daughters were very conflictive. They reflected a great deal of how mothers act towards their daughters and vice versa. The book shows a very realistic view of the mother and daughter relationships in our modern world by depicting the mothers living through their daughters. Through the relationship between Suyuan and her daughter, Amy Tan suggests Chinese mothers rely on success to establish status. Suyuan was a strong and willful woman who refused to focus on her hardships. Instead, she struggles to create happiness and success where she finds it lacking.
With this mentality, she creates the original Joy Luck Club while awaiting the Japanese invasion of China in Kweilin. “The Joy Luck Club, where we feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy” (12). Her sense of the power of will could at times cause problems, such as when Suyuan believes that her daughter, Jing-mei, could become a child prodigy if only she could locate her talent and nurture it well enough. This created resentment and rebellion in Jing-mei.
Suyuan shared many characteristics with her fellow mothers in the Joy Luck Club: fierce love for her daughter, often expressed as criticism; distress at her daughter’s desire to shake off her Chinese identity in favor of an American one; and a fear that she may be alienated from her daughter either because of her actions or because of their divergent ages and cultural upbringings. “They are frightened. In me, they see their daughters just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English…They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation” (31).
Jing-mei bridges America and China; she was the other daughter’s representative of the Chinese-American generation. When she travelled to China, she discovered the Chinese essence within herself, realizing a deep connection to her mother that she had always ignored. Her fears also speak to a common fear shared by the mothers, who wonder whether giving their daughters American opportunities and self-sufficiency has alienated them from their Chinese heritage. She believed that her mother’s constant criticism was a lack of affection, when in fact, her mother’s judgmental hopes were expressions of love and faith in her. Jing-mei did not feel that she had any limitations for achieving all her goals as her mother did.
She couldn’t see, “why had she (her mother) hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable” (Two Kinds 232). “For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me” (232). As a child, Jing-mei carried the responsibility of their mother and the entire Woo family through the piano. She only saw tedious lessons and hours of practice. Still, her mother envisioned proudly sharing success stories between friends, comparing and convincing other mothers that her daughter, Jing-mei, was indeed the best. Jing-mei didn’t consider this as an opportunity but only as a burden, “I felt as though I had been sent to hell” (46).
I found two observations that could be made about Jing-mei; one, she only felt love from her mother with success, and two, the difference in their thinking. China raised Suyuan, where one would want to make a spectacle of a talented daughter. In contrast, America raised Jing-mei; even with such outstanding ability, she would be satisfied with herself without such an announcement. Her childhood failures moulded her adult life, she never won as a child, and it became the same when she was an adult. Lindo Jong, whose daughter, Waverly, doesn’t even know four Chinese words, describes the absolute difference and incompatibility of the two worlds she tried to connect for her daughter, “American circumstances and Chinese character” (The Joy Luck Club-movie).
She tried to teach her Chinese-American daughter, “How to obey parents and listen to your mother’s mind. How not to show your thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities…How to know your worth and polish it never flashing it around like a cheap ring” (289). Lindo learns from an early age the powers of “invisible strength” of hiding one’s thoughts until the time is ripe to reveal them. Of believing in one’s inner force even when one finds oneself at a disadvantage (283). She later teaches these skills of “invisible strength” for which she uses the wind as a metaphor to her daughter Waverly. Thus, Lindo perhaps experiences the most significant crisis of cultural identity of any of the characters.
She regrets giving Waverly both “American circumstances and a Chinese character,” stating that the two can never successfully combine. Waverly inherited her “invisible strength,” her ability to conceal her thoughts and strategize from her mother. However, she was not without imperfection; she had her insecurities and fears, which she felt were caused by her mother. She was in constant fear that she wouldn’t match up to what her mother expected of her. Waverly grew up in America, where American customs influenced her way of thinking. She wanted desperately to please her mother and would change her lifestyle; she even married a Chinese man to have her approval.
Still, she felt this was not pleasing to Lindo. When Waverly divorced him, she thought that her mother would blame her. She was scared to introduce her fiancï¿½, a white man, to her mother because she thought that Lindo would disapprove of her decision and his nationality. As a child, Waverly became a national chess champion. Whenever she and her mother went shopping, Waverly’s mother would always brag to others that her daughter was a chess champion and try to take all the credit for Waverly’s success. Waverly resented being shown off like some prize or trophy, “I wish you wouldn’t do that, telling everyone I’m your daughter” (101). Her mother became nonchalantly angry with her and would not speak to her.
Waverly decided to get back at her by refusing to play chess, but still, her mother would not end her silent treatment. When Waverly announced that she was ready to play chess again, her mother outsmarted her by refusing to let her play. Even though their “invisible strength” was shared, it was also used against each other. Waverly has always seen her mother as an unbeatable enemy trying to ruin her life and destroy her hopes and happiness. In reality, Lindo wanted to be closer to her daughter, and she used her criticism to show Waverly that she deserved better.
Waverly finally saw not an enemy with sneaky attacks and secret weapons, but “an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in” (203-204). After this exposure, Waverly finally understands her mother’s love for her and the pain Waverly had caused her, and the gap between them is bridged. Ying-Ying was a mother who was lost spiritually and never seemed to regain herself fully. At an early age, she lost her sense of independent will. This was an outcome of a deceitful marriage and the tragic loss of a son.
She knew she had no future left, so she lived like a ghost, not caring about anything; she had lost herself. Ying-Ying’s profound belief in fate and her destiny led to a policy of submissiveness and even listlessness. Even after giving Lena’s birth, she lived like a ghost, but she called it her “black side” (The Joy Luck Club movie). Because she was born in the year of the Tiger, Ying-Ying had a gold side, “leaps with its fierce heart,” and a black side, which “stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come” (The Joy Luck Club-movie).
When she was young, she only knew how to use her gold side, her fierce and headstrong side. But after she killed her son, she had to learn to use her black side. For years afterward, she survived using her black side by “waiting between the trees” and using her cunning. Only after Ying-Ying realizes that she has passed on her passivity and fatalism to her daughter, Lena, does she take any initiative to change. Instead, she raised Lena, not knowing her worth. “She [my daughter] has no chi…how can I leave the world without leaving her my spirit? So this is what I will do. I will gather together my past and…see a thing that has already happened.
The pain that cut my spirit loose, I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more precise. And then my fierceness can come back…I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and lose her tiger spirit. Then, of course, she will fight me because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit because this is why a mother loves a daughter” (286). Lena feels ignored by her mother, who lies in bed or on the couch all day, and she longs to be seen and loved by her mother. She learned an important lesson from her neighbours as a child.
She would constantly hear the mother and daughter yelling, screaming, fighting, and throwing things. She was shocked by the difference between her neighbour’s noisy confrontations and her relationship with her mother, marked by silence and avoidance. She realized that the confrontations were an expression of love between mother and daughter; she realizes the importance of expressing one’s feelings, even at the cost of peace and harmony. Lena and her husband’s relationship were in turmoil, but she didn’t express it. Ever since they started dating, they always split the cost of everything. This misunderstanding was covered up by Lena’s willingness to go along with the status quo, and many other things in their lives were also concealed by false appearances.
The balance sheet on their refrigerator was a sign that made it possible for her mother to redeem herself for her. The economic metaphor illustrates how poor her marriage was in the balance of what mattered. Like the table that Harold built, the marriage is showy without being functional. When the table falls, it illustrates the breaking of the marriage and the freeing of her mother’s spirit, which gave Lena the strength to leave the marriage (Reuben Chapter 10). An-mei was raised the Chinese way; she was taught to “desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, and to eat her bitterness” (The Joy Luck Club-movie). Although she tried to raise her daughter oppositely, Rose still turned out the same way: passive and unassertive.
As a child, she was trained to swallow her tears (because they only feed someone else’s joy), conceal her pain, and distrust others. An-mei wanted Rose to have a strong spirit as her mother had wanted for her. She told Rose to speak up, to stand up for herself, something that she could never have done if it weren’t for her mother’s suicide. However, Rose did not listen to her at first, and instead, she poured out her tears to a psychiatrist, her sorrow feeding someone else’s happiness. But finally, she listened to her wise mother, and her spirit became strong. It becomes evident that Rose is a very indecisive person with no backbone.
She finds herself unable to assert her opinion, stand up for herself, or make decisions because of a tragedy that she felt was her fault. Rose allowed herself to let her husband make all the decisions being big or small. He finally gets tired of his unopinionated wife and files for a divorce that she doesn’t argue against initially. Her mother’s diagnosis is that Rose is “without wood” and listened to too many people. Her mother once said to her, “A girl is like a young tree. You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak.
You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away” (The Joy Luck Club-movie). Rose learned that she must try to save her marriage or do something about it because it was her fate to do so. Before Rose listened to her mother, she was confused, and everything around her seemed to be in a dark fog. She was so confused because she listened to all the wrong people, everyone but her mother. But when Rose follows her mother’s advice to “speak up,” she takes a stand against Ted, defying his wish for a divorce, and takes control of her own life. She finally listened to her mother, who had been right all along.
It was exciting and fulfilling the way the diverse threads were knitted together in a single tapestry. The Joy Luck Club’s message is hope, which the emotional completion is found through tragedy. A lot of bad things happened throughout this story, but in the end, the tears are of happiness and new beginnings, not of loss. This story was plotted to be accepted as nothing more than the imperfect reflection of the world we live in. Not only does this story have great insight into the Chinese way of thinking and living, but it has also shown the great contrast that occurs from generation to generation in passing on ideas and traditions.
- Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 10: Late Twentieth Century, 1945 to the Present – Amy Tan.”
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- The Joy Luck Club. Dir. Wayne Wang. Perf. Rosalind Chao, Joan Chen, Frane Nuyen, Tamlyn Tomita, Kieu Chinh. Hollywood Pictures, 1994.