The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

In the follow literary criticism, Y.L. examines the recurring themes of struggle between culture and identity within Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club. Using narrative chapters in eight different points-of-view, Tan is able to detail the experiences individually and uniquely.




Amy Tan provides profound and emotionally exhilarating insight through the life of four immigrant mothers and their daughters. She creates the sensitivity of loss and hope, rendering a deep connection between Asian women and their American-born daughters with startling accuracy. Through each woman’s point-of-view, the mothers and daughters reveal their secrets to unravel the truth about their culture, ancestry, and their identity.



The four mothers, Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair, find the need to pass on their acquired knowledge and lessons learned throughout their life to their children. However, while reminiscing and revealing their memories, each mother understands not only herself as a mother or a daughter, but as her own person. Likewise, daughters Jing-mei Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair struggle to find their self-identity while conforming and staying true to their Asian culture as they learn of their mothers’ experiences.

Amy Tan portrays the struggle of communication, the fundamental obstacle between the mother and the daughter. The lack of communication, due to unwillingness and the inability to understand, fuel the gap between the traditional generation to the younger, more modern, and advanced generation. Both generations of women feel a sense of disconnection; the mothers try to express the ideologies of the Asian culture in broken English, while the daughters look on with boredom.

‘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. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.’ (40-41)

The family gatherings of the Joy Luck Club give the characters the opportunity to appreciate life through stories, mahjong games and delicious food. The daughters see these gatherings for its face value; they do not understand the importance of the traditional mahjong games and seemingly insignificant conversations. The mothers, on the other hand, view the social meetings as an escape. Through a simple get-together, each woman can forget and remember their horrible experiences and hardships they conquered to be in their current position. The mahjong games take their minds off the suffering, the delicious foods are luxuries they can only afford once a week, and the boasting and conversation provides a happy unity between them all. As the Joy Luck Club grows to include husbands and then children, this gathering soon becomes a weekly stress-reliever while remaining a constant reminder of their heritage and their sacrifices.

Additionally, the mothers pass this tradition to their children, as a memory to remember their past as they pursue their future. Jing-Mei Woo, whose mother just recently died, should fill her mother’s position at the mahjong table. In Chinese culture, each player’s seat represents a direction of the compass; Jing-Mei must fill her mother’s “East” position, representing the most important position as the ‘head’ of the table. These mothers worry about passing on the legend of the The Joy Luck Club to Jing-Mei, due to the importance of her seat in the game. It is their hope that Jing-Mei, by taking her mother’s seat, will come to realize the importance The Joy Luck Club.

Besides the verbal miscommunication, the American-born daughters also experience physical differences that irritate the bond between mother and daughter. Though they have the face of a Chinese person, the daughters are hesitant to accept their Asian culture, yet longing to be different than the average American. Through Lindo Jong’s perspective, her daughter wishes to go to China for her honeymoon; however, she fears she will “blend in” too well and the locals will automatically assume her knowledge of the language and culture. Lindo assures her that the locals will not mistake her as another local:

“When you go to China,” I told her, “you don’t even need to open your mouth. They already know you are an outsider…They know just watching the way you walk, the way you carry your face. They know you do not belong.” (253)

Waverly Jong struggles to embrace her heritage while finding pride in her cultural background in America, a country of the children of immigrants. Lindo sees that Waverly is hesitant and realizes that her daughter wishes to embrace her ancestral heritage only because it is ‘fashionable’ and ‘popular’ to be bi-cultural in America. Contrastingly, when Waverly returns to China, she wishes to be seen as American, embarrassed that her Chinese ways extend only to a few words such as houche (tasty), chr fan (eat), and gwan deng shweijyau (turn off lights, go to sleep). As her mother says, “only her skin and her hair are Chinese. Inside- she is all American-made” (254). Once again, Waverly struggles to define herself, as a foreigner to both countries. She is torn between being an American, where she looks like a foreigner, to being a Chinese, where the locals can plainly see that she is an American on the inside, unaware of the language and customs.

More specifically, the mothers and daughters must also find their self-identity; not just through their ancestry, but as their own unique person. In the Chinese culture, it is said that the obedient child is the best. The mothers push their child to not be the best, but to try their best. “‘Why don’t you like me the way I am?’ I cried. ‘Who ask you be genius?’ she shouted. ‘Only ask you be your best. For your sake. You think I want you be genius? Hnnh! What for! Who ask you!’” (136). However, obedience must come with the suppression of personality. As Suyuan Woo said to her daughter, “‘Only two kinds of daughters,’ she shouted in Chinese. ‘Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!’

(142).

Obedience is a sign of respect and honor to the parents. When Jing-Mei Woo cried because her mother pushed her ‘to be someone she is not’, she sought to find her own distinctiveness in her own life. However, in Chinese culture, the elders define the path for the children to ensure success. Obedience is acknowledgment and appreciation for the parents and their sacrifices for the child. By trying to defy her mother and determine her own course, Jing-Mei severely injures her relationship with her mother.

With astounding accuracy of capturing the difficulties of an Asian-American teenager growing up in modern day America while living under traditional Asian parenting, Tan captures the reader with her vivid writing. She chronicles the tales of these eight women, detailing the ingenious vignettes of their lives. As a result, the portrayal of the rich Asian American culture and heritage juxtaposed against the struggle to find self-identity connects to many readers, specifically first-generation teenagers growing up in America. It is within the pages of The Joy Luck Club that one finds the true magic and pride in their heritage.

(Y.L. 2009)

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

In the following literary criticism, Y.L. examines the struggles of a bi-cultural background of the Chinese American experience as well as the ironic conflict between one’s fate and free will in Amy Tan’s novel The Kitchen God’s Wife. The struggle of an Asian American woman in addition to the conflict of determining one’s destiny or fate provides an inner discord for mother and daughter.

“I quickly hand Phil a tangerine, then turn back toward the window so he does not see my tears… Mile after mile, all of it familiar, yet not, this distance that separates us, me from my mother” (The Kitchen God’s Wife 57).

Amy Tan’s novel The Kitchen God’s Wife narrates the lives of Pearl Louie Brandt, an Asian American, who struggles with physical pains and the emotional tension with her mother, the main character. Her dire physical ailment also contributes to the circumstances that bring tension to other family members. However, her mother, Winnie, and her best friend, Helen, have secretly kept much of Pearl’s past hidden. Now, as Pearl learns of her mother’s life and the hardships she endured, her life begins to hold meaning as she sees true depth in her lineage. Winnie tells Pearl the horrors she has faced and in turn instills within her daughter the pride and appreciation for her life.

Pearl, born from a Chinese mother and a Chinese-American father, always had conflicting notions about her heritage. She feels much more comfortable as an American, yet, her face portrays look of a foreigner. Her marriage with an average American named Phil, most likely also sways her disposition favoring her American side. Regardless, she still feels a tie to her Chinese culture and will always feel as though she owes her mother. Pearl’s relationship with her mother is a strained one; a relationship filled with tension and obligation that masks the love they have for each other.

“I’m not really sure I still give in to my family obligations…I’ve come to resent the duty…And whenever I’m with my mother, I feel as though I have to spend the whole time avoiding land mines” (The Kitchen God’s Wife 16).

Before Winnie tells her the story of her life, Pearl does not understand her mother’s obsession with the importance of family and luck. Her mother, who runs a flower shop, writes red banners in gold Chinese characters, painstakingly creating original thoughts and well wishes for life, luck and hope. For her mother, Pearl attends her cousin’s engagement party where she will have to face all of her relatives. Due to her inability to connect with her Chinese culture, Pearl reluctantly attends out of guilt, torn between her two cultures. Her American husband, though a good man, greatly influences her unwillingness to spend time with her relatives. As a result, even though Pearl tries to put past her Chinese heritage, her strained relationship with Winnie emphasizes an underlying misery of the disconnection with her heritage. Pearl finds herself avoiding family gatherings; and while the distancing she feels with her mother and her culture saddens her, Pearl hides a secret that furthers the distance. Her guilt of neglecting to tell Winnie for years about her physical illness, multiple sclerosis increases the division. Both women withhold secrets and stories from each other, making their relationship all the more ambiguous.

Another example of her veiled melancholy for her mother’s heritage is depicted in the Kitchen God altar scene. Winnie gives her the statue of the Kitchen God, a deity to worship for luck. Phil suggests that they dispose the Kitchen God or let the girls play with the statue. However, Pearl, who finds no faith within this statue, is reluctant to give it up. The statue truly symbolizes her faith in her Chinese heritage. Though the Kitchen God has always been there in the background of her life, Pearl is reluctant to part with it, though she is pressured to throw it away. Pearl realizes the symbolic meaning of the Kitchen God; this statue represents her heritage, ancestry, and culture, which is an undeniable part of who she is. Regardless of her American husband, her culture will remain her foundation.

While Pearl deals with the inner conflict of her bi-cultural heritage, Winnie, in turn, still struggles with the life she endured. The hardships and horrors that Pearl’s mother experienced emphasize the irony of self-determination and destiny in her life. In Chinese culture, the worship of deities is common, as well as the belief in fate, destiny, and luck. While Pearl has become to have the mind of an American, her mother still believes in these Chinese traditions. It is clear that her mother puts a major emphasize on luck, with her flower shop and the greeting phrases she writes upon the banners as an example. A large portion of her sales, the banners symbolize that luck is weighted heavily in her life. Winnie claims repeatedly of how Helen, her best friend, has been ‘luckier’ in life. That contradicts, then, Helen’s husband who married her out of guilt after impregnating her sister who later died through abortion. As a result, Tan explores the irony of Winnie’s faith in luck and how luck has treated her throughout her life.

In Winnie’s life alone, her actions and situations are repeatedly contrasted against her luck. Her encounter with Gan, another pilot she met during the war, is fate. “I was a married woman, yet I had never felt love from a man, or for a man. And that night I almost did. I felt the danger, that this was how you love someone, one person letting out fears, the other drawing closer to soothe the pain” (203). He was a nice man who she met by lucky fate; but, fate played a cruel joke for she was still married to Wen Fu at the time. But Gan had professed a secret of his, his dream that he would die before the age of twenty- four and nine bad things would happen to him before he died. Winnie knew after Gan died that she was his ninth bad fate: that he loved her and she loved him, but they could never have each other.

Often, Winnie’s determination comes out of a situation that happens only by chance or circumstance. For example, Winnie chooses to leave Wen Fu, her arranged husband who is sexually, verbally, and physically abusive. Winnie had stayed with Wen Fu for quite a long time, accepting her status as his wife, as long as she did not have to see him very often. Finally though, when she could no longer take the torture, she divorces him. This action is her free will, her own decision. However, it is Winnie’s poor fate that brought Wen Fu and her together; originally arranged to marry Winnie’s cousin, Wen Fu unexpectedly married Winnie due to her cousin’s poor health.Yet though WInnie has put much reliance upon herself, she, again and again, trusts fate and destiny to guide her life in the right direction. It is ironic that such an individual, so courageous through all her terrors, would ever put her life in the hands of such an intangible entity.

Both Pearl and her mother deal with their own heartaches; Pearl struggles with her cultural identity while Winnie struggles with her past. Both women find solace within each other’s memories; through Winnie’s story-telling, she relieves the burdens she kept to her Helen and herself. Likewise, Pearl learned about her past, her beginning, and her in turn, her future. The Kitchen God’s Wife represents the final culminating end where finally, Winnie controls her own destiny out of her own free will; she can no longer be controlled by a paternal deity. As a result, Winnie frees herself and appreciates the freedom from the suppressive patriarchal society. From Winnie's self liberation of her past, Pearl and her mother find an even stronger bond, inseparable, that holds them; a bond of heritage and tradition, love, and truth.

(Y.L. 2009)