In Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, the gaps are more than generational: they are also cultural, a misaligned mix of a past of which no remnant exists and a present which fails to reach the dream. The past in which the mother’s originated has vanished as massive change swept through China. The isolation of China has not made that apparent yet, and the censorship of news dating back many decades made the past that the mothers remember unbelievable to their daughters. By the same measure, the present of the daughters has failed to reach that dreamed of level which the mothers envisioned for their offspring.
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The novel spans more than two whole generations, yet it seems to be more, because the overlap is raw and painful. The factors which influence and intensify this illusion are:
- The mother’s expectations are totally unrealistic: “The major source of friction between Tan’s mothers and daughters is the mothers’ desire for their daughters to be successful by American measures while remaining culturally Chinese.” (Huntley, p. 62)
- Unfortunately, their American daughters do not feel the same connectedness to their heritage, and they do not recognize a symbiotic relationship between mothers and daughters; these second-generation Americans see only that their mothers appear to be trying to live through their children. (Huntley, p. 63)
The Mothers’ Stories: How They were Distanced in Childhood from Family
- Separation: As a child, An-Mei is raised by her grandmother; she has only confused memories of her mother. One day, when her grandmother is dying, her mother appears and removes her to Shanghai; An-Mei is then adopted into a new family where her mother is the fourth concubine of a wealthy merchant.
- In contrast to An-Mei, Lindo is removed from her natal family through marriage, not adoption. At age two, Lindo is engaged to a young boy who is a stranger to her. A bride in an arranged marriage at sixteen, Lindo finally succeeds in freeing herself through a ruse by which she convinces her husband’s family to find a concubine for him. (Bloom, pp. 29-30)
- Like Lindo, Ying-Ying is chosen as a bride by a stranger, a man who associates deflowering her with the act of kai gwa (“open the watermelon”). A “wild and stubborn” girl in her youth, Ying-Ying’s spirit is destroyed in this brutal marriage. Later, when she is pregnant, her husband leaves her for another woman; she decides to get an abortion. (Bloom, pp. 29-30)
- Unlike Lindo and An-Mei, Suyuan Woo (June’s mother) sees her family dispersed as a result of cataclysmic historical events. During the Japanese bombardment of Kweilin during the war, she is forced to flee south without her husband; discarding her possessions along the way and desperate for food, she finally abandons her twin daughters on the road. Later in America, her new daughter, June, grows up with the knowledge of a truncated family, haunted by her mother’s words: “Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.” (Bloom, pp. 29-30).
- “These stories of disrupted family connections, of divided, multiplied, and constantly realigned perceptions of kinship, constitute a pattern clearly diverging from the monolithic paradigm of the nuclear family” (Bloom, p. 30).
The mismatched expectations, such as those mentioned above:
- All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved.
- The daughters do not understand why their mothers seem ancient and irrelevant in the modern world
- Language creates a further gap, as the Anglophone daughters cannot understand their mothers
There are more gaps between mothers and daughters, and linguistic gaps which exacerbate the first. The expectations of the mothers are totally unrealistic, since one must be either traditionally Chinese or modernly American. It is virtually impossible to be both.
Clearly the gap between mothers and daughters is increased by their lack of communication. In some ways, the daughters know that they represent validation for their mothers. Waverly takes it one step further, accusing her mother of trying to live life through her. “Why do you have to use me to show off? If you want to show off, then why don’t you learn to play chess.” Chapter 5, pg. 99 An additional problem with that is the impossibility of it all. Just as the daughters cannot possibly be both totally American and traditionally Chinese, the mothers cannot live vicariously through daughters whom they do not understand.
The framing of the stories within the novel points to the dual nature of these families whose mothers are traditional Chinese of a type which no longer exists even in China, but whose daughters have no touch of Chinese apart from their genetic make-up and appearance. They have no connection to the heritage and history of their mothers, and their mothers have no connection to the realities of the new modern world of their daughters. The daughters find the stories of their mothers unbelievable while the mother find the daughters’ incomprehensible and inconsequential. It is true that the daughters will never live up to the impossible dreams of their mothers, yet the mothers do not know how to let go of those dreams.
- The Joy Luck Club from BookRags Book Notes. ©2000-2006 by BookRags, Inc.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Amy Tan. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
- Huntley, E. D. Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.