The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is a book that weaves eight stories together over two generations. The Joy Luck Club is actually a mah-jong group of four immigrant Chinese women, each with their own tragic pasts. Their stories branch into their four daughters, all American-born Chinese women. The book centers around their mother-daughter relationships, family and love, sacrifice and strength, and hope for a better life.
And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own 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 that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist.
Three interesting themes I found between all the relationships in the book were: Communication and Foreignness, Friendship and Rivalry, and Passiveness and Marriage.
Communication and Foreignness
A common factor in all four mother-daughter relationships is the absence of real communication. It is not just the language barrier that defers true understanding to occur, but really it is a different cultural identity that separates the mothers and daughters. The daughters see themselves as American with American values and beliefs, while the mothers are still strongly rooted to Chinese values. It is cool, however, that the daughters share their mother’s flaws and strengths. The only difference is that these flaws and strengths play out in America.
Suyuan x Jing-Mei
For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.
Suyuan is a woman with impeccable inner strength. She lives two lives- a tragic one in China, and starts a new life for herself in America. She pursues her own happiness regardless of the circumstances and is the founder of the Joy Luck Club, who celebrates joys in times of despair. Jing-Mei, on the other hand, is not a go-getter. As a result of Suyuan’s efforts to realize the genius in her, Jing-Mei loses confidence because she does not naturally excel in anything she tries. For example, Suyuan pushes Jing-Mei to learn the piano and in return Jing-Mei rebels by not practicing correctly. Suyuan tells Jing-Mei that she is lazy and does not try, whereas Jing-Mei is frustrated at her mother’s high expectations. This causes a relentless cycle where Jing-Mei gives up on her endeavors before they are completed and she is not able to reach her full potential.
While Suyuan is a strict mother, it can be argued that she only wants the best for her daughter, who does not take advantage of all the opportunities America has to offer. When Jing-Mei stops pursuing higher education, Suyuan still tells the Joy Luck Club that she will be returning to school because she believes Jing-Mei can achieve greater success. She also gives Jing-Mei a jade necklace, one that is light-colored but will deepen over time. The jade necklace represents Suyuan’s perception of Jing-Mei in the way that Jing-Mei will improve over time. However, this idea is not communicated to Jing-Mei and it is not until Suyuan’s death that she realizes there was much more to her mother and her self.
Lindo x Waverly
I am ashamed she is ashamed. Because she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me.
Lindo wants Waverly to have the best of both worlds- to flourish in American opportunities but to retain a Chinese character. While Waverly certainly flourishes in America as a child prodigy in chess, she lacks the Chinese character her mother wants. Unlike Lindo, who still upheld respect to her mother-in-law during her unhappy arranged marriage, Waverly likes to assert her independence over Lindo. Waverly tells Lindo not to brag about her being a chess genius when she herself does not know how to play chess. When Lindo gives her advice, she tells her that she is her own person. The way Waverly sees herself in charge is a very American way of thinking. Therefore, the communication between the two of them is not very strong as Waverly does not listen to her mother very well. Although she does not show respect for her mother to the level Lindo did, it is clear that Waverly values Lindo’s opinion because she desperately seeks for Lindo’s approval in her romantic relationships.
Lindo and Waverly are very similar. Lindo sees herself as a clever and crafty woman who was able to get out of her unhappy marriage without breaking the promise of marriage or disrespecting her in-laws. She values herself highly and has a selfishness to balance her own desire and her obligations. Waverly also shares a selfishness and self-confidence, but unlike Lindo, Waverly is not restricted to a pre-arranged marriage or filial promises to her parents.
Friendship and Rivalry
Suyuan x An-Mei x Lindo x Ying-Ying
Friendship is not a major theme in this book, but it rides under the surface. From only a quick glance, it can seem that there aren’t any friendships in the book at all. The four mothers play mah-jong together, but from their conversations, it almost seems as if they actually secretly hate each other. Often times, their conversations revolve around complaints about their daughters- only they are actually bragging through not so subtle means.
I experience this personally too as I often hear my own mother saying things like, “Loewe is never at home to help out or clean. She is always out working.” Without looking too deep into it, my mother’s comment may sound like she is complaining about my lack of presence at home. Others can argue she is actually bragging about my job. If this was not subtle enough, the next person is supposed to add onto the conversation by saying something along the lines of, “At least Loewe works. My child blah blah blah”.
So, like many conversations between women, it is a secret battle of bragging rights. While this system of friendship seems to lack depth, it is indisputable that these 4 women share a deeper friendship. Jing-Mei also realizes this when she finds out the 3 of them helped raise money for her to go to China to find her long-lost sisters after her mother’s death.
Jing-Mei x Waverly
Perhaps because of how their mothers like to compare their daughters, the daughters also share a rivalry. As a child, Waverly tells Jing-Mei that she is not a genius like she is. As they grow up Jing-Mei continues to see her deficiencies in comparison. The daughters are competitive in how they want to look like they live a happier career and marriage than each other, even if the truth is that they are all struggling with the same things.
Passiveness and Marriage
Traditionally, women are passive. This passiveness is especially dominant in Asian cultures, where sons were perceived to be more precious than daughters. This passiveness and connection to femininity is featured in all the marriages during the mothers’ lives and interestingly, is also one of the main struggles their daughters deal with in modern American society.
Rose x An-Mei
Yesterday my daughter said to me, ‘My marriage is falling apart.’
And now all she can do is watch it falling.
An-Mei suffers from one of the more tragic pasts out of the 4 mothers. Following her own mother, An-mei was taught to swallow her tears and lived in a very restricted and unhappy environment. Because of this, she wants Rose to stand up for herself. Unlike her, Rose is not stuck in old-time China. Unfortunately, Rose is just as passive as her mother even though she was raised in America. This is due to the death of her younger brother, which Rose feels responsible for. Rose likes to play the damsel in distress and lets her husband make all the decisions. When he becomes tired of this and asks for a divorce, Rose is unable to do anything.
Lena x Ying-Ying
Ying-ying lives a passive life as a mother and describes herself to be a ghost. She lets her husband change her name, fill in her immigration forms, and put words in her mouth. Even though she has the ability to see fated happenings, she simply lets these happenings happen. For example, she knows her first husband will not be a good man, but she does not prevent the marriage, not because of suppression, but more because she herself did not care enough.
Lena grows up seeing her ghostly mother, wanting to save her but never being successful. She grows up to become a passive wife in her own marriage, where she often gets the short end of the stick because her husband earns more than she does. Lena and Ying-ying’s marriages run parallel and Lena also becomes ghost-like as her husband decides everything for the two of them.
Same Story, a Different Time
Overall, it was very interesting to find the daughters live a replica of their mother’s life with an American twist. Amy Tan opens a small window into the memories and ideals of Chinese women- their hardships, transformations, and parenting.