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American Circumstances in “The Joy Luck Club” by Wayne Wang Essay

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

In the book, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, she writes about a group of four Chinese families who immigrate to the States, taking advantage of “The Better Life”. As said by Jing-Mei, “My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America.” (Tan, 141), her mother was not the only one who thought this. Exploring the cultural differences of China and the USA, Tan creates an accurate account of four women, growing up as first generation Americans, using the stories of their parents to show the contrasts.

The thought that America was a place of dreams was what drove people to the States, “In America, you cannot say you want to stay there forever… You must say you want to be a scholar and come back to teach Chinese people what you have learned.” (Tan, 294) And when they got to America, many felt as if they must prove themselves better as well as keep their “Chinese face” (Tan, 294). In the story, Waverly started playing chess and she became extremely good at it. Her mother kept hounding her about her game, even if she won, her mother always found something to criticize. “Ma, it’s not how many pieces you lose… Better to lose less, see if you really need.” (Tan, 98) The stress to be the best was always there for me as a child.

The expectations were not only different in the field of smarts, but in life as well. It’s not always said, but most Chinese parents expect their child to marry another Asian person. This happened in both Waverly and Rose’s stories. With Rose, her mother thought to mention “He is American… a waigoren.” (Tan, 124) when she found out that Rose and Ted were dating. But it isn’t all in just one direction; there are many other ethnic groups that lean towards a marriage with someone of the same race. Like in the case of Ted’s mother, “She assured me she had nothing whatsoever against minorities… But Ted was going to be in one of those professions where….other might not be as understanding as the Jordan’s were…” (Tan, 124). And then there are those that are ignorant as well, “Mrs. Jordan, I am not Vietnamese!” (Tan, 125) Others have had several bad experiences and wish that their offspring won’t have to go through the same experiences. Their encounters have left them with a last impression and so they stereotype everyone, and they think that they have to warn their child. This happens with Waverly, when her Mother first goes to her apartment after Rich had moved in, “You want to live like mess, what I can say?” (Tan, 186) Lindo Jong didn’t agree with the American lifestyle and belief system, and to make it worse, her daughter was living with the waigoren!

There are so many other ways that the Chinese culture differs, from the treating of elders “Obey your family. Do not disgrace us.” (Tan, 48), to the way we expect to be treated “I smiled. But to Chinese ways of thinking, the guest bedroom is the best bedroom.” (Tan, 274), to different traditions “At last year’s Chinese New Years, my mother had cooked eleven crabs, one for each person…” (Tan, 222), to the value of any or everything “To Chinese people, fourteen carats isn’t real gold. Feel my bracelets. They must be twenty-four carats, pure inside and out.” (Tan, 42) But even with all these differences, there is no line drawn up between the two. American culture is quickly embracing it’s Chinese members through things like a Chinese New Years celebration every year, and many cities are introducing Chinatowns into their downtown core. With differences, there must also be similarities. Both cultures value individuality, the way people are treated and, sadly, riches. Just because you are Chinese, or anyone else for that matter, it does not mean that you cannot strive for the best of both worlds? What is stopping you from taking the best out of each side and combining it into some supernova? There may be many differences between the two cultures, but if people let differences stop them from achieving their goals then nothing would be the same now.

Lindo Jong’s story is an illustration of the importance of hsin and the way she circumvents it with her integrity intact. She laments that in America promises are virtually meaningless, or at least work by a different system than she is used to (Tan 42). In her backwater province of China, duty meant “stupid, old-fashioned customs” such as matchmaking of wives who would “raise proper sons, care for the old people, and sweep the family burial grounds” (Tan, 45). This is the sum and total of what most women in Confucian society could expect–unless they learned to manipulate the system, which is exactly what Lindo Jong does, and does honorably.

Lindo’s conflict is between her individual wishes and the expectations of her immediate community. She knows her “standing,” which is in the kitchen, and she must endure it in order that her mother not lose face. At the wedding, her mother gives her a luck-pendent, a chang, with an admonition to be obedient in the new family. But Lindo “lacks metal,” one of the Taoist elements said to determine one’s personality–a determination that is outside Confucian parameters–and this allows her to “think as an independent person” (Tan, 59). Because she is able to think in an alternative system, she can value her self-identity above the communal identity. The pendant her mother gives her directly opposes her mother’s words: the pendant is the point of transference of the mother-tradition, and with its “luck” comes the key to unlocking or adapting the Confucian women’s role without losing face.

The character of Lindo Jong also reveals her tragic past through Tan’s use of flashbacks and recollections of her youth in China. Lindo has been betrothed to the son of a wealthy man, an arrangement she was not very fond of. She went through with the marriage and “sacrificed [her] life to keep [her] parents’ promise,” (Tan, 49) living in unhappiness until she devises a plan to release her from the marriage without bringing shame to her family. By revealing Lindo’s unhappy youth through flashbacks,

Tan demonstrates to the reader her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness to keep her family’s honor and her inner strength to continue leading an unhappy life for so long just to avoid breaking a promise. Lindo passes on this invisible strength she acquires through her experiences to her daughter Waverly as she encourages her to practice chess and to “rise above her circumstances” (Tan, 89). Though poor and only a child, Waverly does not let these “circumstances” prevent her from becoming a national chess champion at age nine. Lindo encourages Waverly to rise above her own unfortunate “circumstances” even as a child. After being forced to rise above the tragic circumstances of her unhappy marriage by using her inner strength, as a mother Lindo feels obligated to try to pass these virtues on to her daughter by teaching her a valuable lesson through experience as any other mother would do to protect her child from a tragic life of unhappiness.

Through Tan’s use of flashbacks, the reader also learns of the greatest tragedy of An-Mei’s life: the death of her youngest son, Bing. Her daughter recalls the events of this tragic day through flashbacks as well as her mother’s refusal to give up hope. When the family spends a day at the beach, young Bing manages to wander from his siblings and gets too close to the water where he is sucked up by waves, never to resurface. The efforts of family members to find him among the waves prove s fruitless; however, mother An-Mei is reluctant to let go of the slightest possibility he could still be alive.

Even later, she is persistent in searching for her son’s body so that he can have a proper burial ceremony. The rescuers called off the search for Bing after a few hours, “but her faith…convinced her that what these Americans couldn’t do, she could. She could find Bing”(Tan, 126). The unfortunate death of her son reveals An-Mei’s strong faith and hope when odds are against her that this tragedy could still have positive characters in The Joy Luck Club by taking a step back from the situation and not being directly involved us. Tan forces the reader to take this step back to find that the good intentions of most mother’s can come into perspective and so that there is a realization that mom’s are and were people too.

Every person comes to a point in their life when they begin to search for themselves and their identity. Usually it is a long process and takes a long time with many wrong turns along the way. Family, teachers, and friends all help to develop a person into an individual and adult. Parents play the largest role in evolving a person. Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, uses this theme in her book. Four mothers have migrated to America from China because of their own struggles. They all want their daughters to grow up successful and without any of the hardships they went through. It is through these the experience and acumen that is imparted by these mothers’s that their daughters become satisfied and complete with themselves. The American culture has influences over the daughters, to such a degree that it is hard for any one of them to understand or appreciate her mother’s culture and life lessons. But when they come to grips with that the key to understanding their own mother then they begin to understand themselves and become come comfortable and a person who is the combination and amalgamation of all of their elements: Daughter, Adult, Woman, Chinese, and American. And in turn the mother’s legacy is left, and fulfilled life and happy descendants who will impart the knowledge they have gained to the next.

Waverly Jong does not maintain her previous marriage and acts impatiently towards making a decision for another marriage. She marries Marvin, her high school sweetheart, because she loves him. She also wants to please her mother because she wants her daughter to marry a Chinese man. She is not able to maintain her marriage since she does not try hard enough. When she sees him become lazy and chasing after golf balls, she does not stop him, but instead lets him go and gives him a chance to run away from family responsibilities. This is shown when Waverly says: “My feelings for Marvin never reached the level of hate. No, it was worse in a way. It went from disappointment to contempt to apathetic boredom. It wasn’t until after we separated, on nights when Shoshana was asleep and I was lonely, that I wondered if perhaps my mother had poisoned my marriage.” (Tan, 192).

This emphasizes that though Waverly is separated from Marvin, her feelings for him are never going to reach the level of hate. She blames her mother for her marriage to Marvin, which in fact is her own fault. She now plans to marry Rich Schields, her fiancé, without thinking about the great impact this will have on Shoshana. This shows that she is really impatient. Conversely, Waverly mother’s marriage proves to be successful because she follows the Chinese tradition and gets away with her first marriage by making up the story of pregnancy. This way she keeps her parent’s honor as well as her mother’s face. Thus, Waverly’s decision is quick and she has not been able to sustain her previous marriage, while Lindo is steady in making decision.

Rose Hsu Jordan does not listen to her mother and makes an opinion based on other people’s sayings. Her marriage is unsuccessful because she listens to too many people instead of her heart for making a decision. Even in her marriage, Ted, her husband, makes all the decisions and she is so dependent on him. The garden imagery represents her marriage. Rose is like an unorganized garden, but Ted is a well-maintained garden. The weeds in the garden represent the deep-rooted problems in her marriage, which cannot be removed. “My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people. She knew this, because once she had almost become this way.” (Tan 213).

This statement proves that Rose lacks wood, meaning she listens to other people instead of her mother and that’s why she is unable to fix her problems in her marriage. “‘A girl is like a young tree, ‘ she (her mother) said.’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, and running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away. (Tan, 213) This underlines that her mother wants Rose to become straight and strong. She does not want her to grow weak and bendable to listen to other people like a weed running in many directions. On the contrary, her mother’s marriage remains successful because she listens to her heart for making a decision and so she marries Uncle George.

Work Cited

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Burbank: Vintage Books. 1991.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'American Circumstances in “The Joy Luck Club” by Wayne Wang'. 2 September.

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