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In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan addresses the second-generation Chinese-American woman's struggle to find her ethnic and feminine identity, telling of four immigrant mothers from China and their American-born daughters. As the mothers reveal their stories growing up in China and eventually leaving as a result of Japanese invasion, and the daughters tell of their attempts to assimilate under the powerful scrutiny of their mothers, we come to understand the awesome challenge the Chinese American woman must face - a need to become an American woman, but at the same time recognize that in becoming a woman she must reconcile and learn from her Chinese-born mother. What can the mothers give to their daughter that will help them in America? Why must the daughter hear the stories? What is truly being revealed? Is it the key to finding true identity and resolution? Amy Tan explores a Chinese American truth by answering these questions for her and for all who see The Joy Luck Club.
Amy Tan unravels the mysteries of finding one's identity when one is both Chinese American and a woman; her search for identity is manifested through the relationship with her Chinese mother. The movie is divided into four parts. Each mother, Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying - ying St.Clair, tells two stories usually about their past in pre-1949 China. Their daughters, Jing-mei (June) Woo, Rose Mu, Waverly Jong, and Lena St.Clair, tell two stories as well which usually revolve around their relationship to their mother. The first set of stories is about them growing up, and the second set of stories tells about their adulthood. This construction of mother and daughter stories suggests how the "continuation of the matriarchal line" is the key to finding one's Chinese identity for the daughters (Feng 4). An-mei Hsu further elaborates on this idea when she states, "All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all are going the same way (Tan 215)." The daughters, of course, fight what some might say is a fatalistic belief system, but the interconnectedness between mother and daughter can bring reconciliation and resolution.Â
In the beginning of the daughters' stories, it is evident that reconciliation is far from their minds. They want separation. They want to be American. It is in the daughters' stories that we identify the generational and cultural conflict that they experience. By telling the stories of both mothers and daughters, "Tan initially seems to solve what Linda Hunt, examining Maxine Hong Kingston, describes as a basic problem for a Chinese-American woman: 'being simultaneously insider (a person who identifies strongly with her cultural group) and outsider (deviant and rebel against tradition), she cannot figure out from which perspective to speak' (Shear 2)." To speak as outsiders, these daughters rebel against their mothers. Critics have noted that in writings by Asian-American women, "issues of matrilineage are closely bound with those of acculturation and race. The mother is the figure of not only maternality but also of racial consciousness (Heung 4)." The two are intimately connected. So to find ethnic identities as Chinese women the mothers must set into motion the process of helping their daughter to mature and begin the journey, though the daughters are often not receptive to the mother's attempts to educate I-hem.Â
As children, the daughters in The Joy Luck Club struggle to throw off their Chinese culture, hence their mother's authority. Veronica Wang states in "Reality and Fantasy: The Chinese-American Woman's Quest for Identity," that the object of "'confrontation" for a daughter is the mother, "the source of authority for her and the most single powerful influence from China" (Shear 2). Waverly Jong recognizes that she has learned a valuable skill from her Chinese mother, a skill from the old world that could be of use to her in the new world. Waverly, however, is not so open to her mother's concept of "luck." Represented by the red jade tablet given to her by her mother. Waverly has a hard time understanding why her mother believes that luck and tricks are more valuable than skill and "smartness" (Xu 7). To Waverly, Lindo's strategy of "sneakiness" or "trickiness" are "miserably nonheroic and shamefully Chinese" though from the mother's point of view these skills are meant to prepare her for dealing with the unpredictable (Xu 8).
These lessons from her mother are vital for Waverly to find out where her true strength lies, but Waverly, in true stereotype of American youth and their attitudes towards their elders, rebels against her mother when she thinks she is taking too much pleasure in her chess success. Waverly's comment is met with a "sharp silence," and "she herself is finally a victim of her mother's more authoritarian deployment of the tactic, as it suddenly take the form of simply ignoring her" (Shear 3). A mother's silence is a most dangerous place to be for a young girl, for in this silence she loses her identity. The search is postponed.Â
Where does Lindo Jong learn this art of silence? She learns it in China where she is victim to an unhappy arranged marriage. By staying silent and being watchful and obedient she was able to devise a plan of escape from this fate. And when she wants her daughter to have different fate in America with America's opportunities, she is met with resistance. Lindo Jong expresses a typical attitude. Her plans for her daughter are met with significant resistance. This interchange sums up most eloquently what is the central conflict within these women's lives. The daughter struggles to be her own person, but the mother recognizes that to be her own person she must accept her heritage.Â
The mothers fear that their daughters do not see them for who they are and what they have been through and thus have lost their strength and voice. When June Woo struggles with what she is to tell her twin sisters about her mother when her Auntie's give her the money to take the trip to China, the aunties, in reaction becomes crazy. They immediately drown her with what to tell for they are frightened that their daughters are as ignorant of the truths and hopes that brought them to America. The mothers and their stories reveal to us how these Chinese women attain their strength and character that they want to pass on to their daughters. The sad fact is, we hear these profound stories, but often the daughters are the last to hear them. And when they do, they see them as nothing but fairy tales. Much of what the daughters experience from their mothers is filled with shame. When June becomes the fourth comer of the Joy Luck Club to replace her deceased mother, she reflects upon her childhood experiences of witnessing this ritual where the women dress up she imagines the Joy Luck as a shamefull Chinese custom, even though her mother tells her of the stories of how she created the club to find joy while being occupied by the Japanese in China (Schell 1). So despite the fact that the mothers tell the stories, the daughters dismiss them as "Chinese" and therefore a hindrance in them becoming American.Â
June, in order to form her own separate identity, struggles to distance herself from what she sees to be strict obedience that she recognizes in traditional Chinese women. June fears that she will be dragged into this ancient Chinese culture by the sheer power of her mother and be transformedÂ
June's embarrassment of her mother reflects her assimilation and absorption of American stereotypes of Chinese women. June tries very hard to separate herself from her mother and Chinese heritage, and yet she ends up being as submissive to her mother's scrutiny and America's beliefs as her mother is forced to be in China (Schell 2). She tries desperately to please her mother and her ambitions for her, but finally she realizes that she could only be herself (Shear 6).Â
Lena experiences similar circumstances in her marriage. She finds herself giving everything up to her American husband, Harold, without getting anything in return (Schell 2). Her marriage becomes a series of balance sheets where they attempt to make everything equal, a very American ideal. Her mother, Ying-Ying St.Clair, seeing her daughter's failing marriage and taking some responsibility.
The mothers realize that to tell the stories of their fives and their past that they ensure both ethnic continuity and the power of being a woman (Xu 1). Without a memory of the past and her heritage, Lena "allows herself to be borne by the bustle of life, she doesn't know who she' and cannot hold herself together (Xu 1)." However, Lena is not the only daughter who suffers from what some might refer to as an "identity crisis."Â
Rose Hsu Jordan's marriage to Ted is also in peril. She, "like her mother, An-mei, has too little wood, and as a consequence, she bends to other people's ideas" (Xu 4). This concept of character elements being represented by elements of nature, referred to as Wuhsing, is a distinctly Chinese belief Ideally each person should have their elements in balance, but of course this is rarely the case. For this reason, names are often given to children to offset an imbalance. Rose's name is given to her to "add wood to her character (Xu 4)." Her marriage to Ted breaks up because he becomes annoyed by her lack of decision. An-mei tells her daughter to make hcr decision, but rather than listen to her mother's advice, she delays the process and goes to see a psychiatrist--a very American thing to do. She finds herself quite frustrated with this process, for even though she feels she is making strives in terms of fantasizing about avenging herself against Ted, the psychiatrist (Xu 4). It is in this frustrating experience that Rose has a dream where she sees her mother planting trees and bushes in planter boxes, adding wood to both of them. We then see how the mother-daughter relationship is defined by being Chinese American (Xu 4). She is both reunited with her mother, the key to her feminine strength and her ethnicity in the Chinese wisdom of Wu-hsing.Â
The mothers have much to pass down to their daughters. The mothers' main difficulties in their lives are struggles with what fate has handed down to them. But for the daughters, the main struggle is in making choices (Shear 5). According to Rose Hsu Jordan, America offers too many choices with so much to think about, so much to decide. The daughters are basically making similar decisions as their mothers did in China in terms of moving out of family relationships, but these decisions involve thoughts about divorce, why their marriages are failing, do their husbands or future husbands fit into their lives (Shear 5). All of these concerns are undoubtedly very common concerns for women. But these women's decisions are tainted with the fact that they are Chinese. The daughters' struggle with choices could possibly be a result of a lack of "chi". Ying-ying St.Clair, mother of Rose, realizes that the reason her daughter has no backbone is because she is lacking "chi." Chi refers to a fundamental self-respect, a desire to exceed, a willingness to stand up for one's self and one's family (Shear 5). Ying-ying blames herself for not telling her daughter about her life in China and all that happened there that still haunts Ying-ying to this day.
Both the beginning and the end from the point of view of June Woo suggest that the mother's goals of passing down strength and heritage to their daughters has been complete. When June replaces her mother at the mah jong table, the two generations of Chinese Americans, separated by age and culture, are bound together by "family ties and continuity of ethnic heritage (Xu 11)." The family reunion in China suggests a journey of growth, ethnic awakening and a return to home, not just for June, but metaphorically for all the daughters in the book. The experience is a revelation - "a sudden unveiling of the authentic meaning of being 'Chinese' (Xu 11)."
Being Chinese becomes a lofty goal rather than something she has been trying to shed all these years. The other daughters experience similar moments of revelation, though more subtle, where they become more receptive to their mothers and to the wisdom of their cultural heritage opening up their lives to change, growth and authenticity (Xu 12).Â
June's trip to China and reunion with her two half sisters reinforces the idea that for the second generation Chinese American woman coming to terms with one's identity both as a woman and Chinese is the path to true joy. In seeking out her mother's history and presence in the sister's, June is able to find the feeling that she has been searching for--that she is complete. She belongs to her family and that family inherently belongs to the larger family of China. How is she able to do this? In the death of her mother, she is sent on a quest, a search, to remember the stories, to find out the truth, to bring her mother's dreams to fruition and in the process find herself It is indeed a glorious celebration of feminine strength and ethnic identification.Â