Ask any typical-looking Asian students around campus whether they are Chinese or Japanese and the reply will probably be universal: “Neither, I’m Chinese-American.” In reality, developing a clear concept of exactly how they define themselves as a “race” has become a difficult thing to do in this day and age for most Chinese-Americans. Many have become so well adjusted to the American way of life, that the only thing still tying them to their ancestral roots is physical appearance and the answer to the SAT questionnaire about ethnicity background. This is the basis for the overall theme of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. The Joy Luck Club is a group of varied stories rooted in the culture clash between four women whom adamantly follow Chinese refinement and their respective daughters, who are Americanized. Throughout the story, it becomes obvious that the daughters have become Americanized and are veering away from the sacred culture with which the mothers have come to appreciate as the basis for what keeps them stable throughout the endless trails and hardships they face. The differences in the upbringing of those women born during the first quarter of this century in China, and their daughters, born in the American atmosphere of California, are differences that form a metaphorical brick wall between the two generations’ lives. Faced with this wall, both sides have a hard time relating to one another.
From the beginning of the novel, Suyuan Woo tells the story of “The Joy Luck Club,” a group started by the four Chinese mothers during World War II, where “we feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy.” (p. 12). It is obvious that over the years this weekly event has become more than just a game of Mah Jong and an extra helping of dinner for these women. It is the tie that binds them together; it is what keeps them grounded in what little Chinese culture is left for them to have and hold. Growing up during perilous times in China, they all were taught “to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat their own bitterness.” (p. 241). Though not many of them grew up terribly poor, they all had a certain respect for their elders, and for life itself. These Chinese mothers were all taught to be honorable, to the point of sacrificing their own lives to keep any family members’ promise. They all were taught “to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat their own bitterness.” (p. 241). This is in comparison to the American daughters who grew up with little to almost no culture. Lindo Jong, whose daughter, Waverly, doesn’t even know four Chinese words, describes the complete difference and incompatibility of the two worlds she tried to connect for her daughter, American circumstances and Chinese character. She explains that there is no lasting feeling in being born in America, and that all being a minority means is that you are the first in line for scholarships. Most importantly, she notes that “In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you.” (p. 289). Living in America, it was easy for Waverly to accept American circumstances and to grow up as any other American citizen. As a Chinese mother, Lindo wanted her daughter to learn the importance of Chinese character. She tried to teach her Chinese-American daughter “How to obey parents and listen to your mother’s mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities . . . How to know your own worth and polish it, never flashing it around like a cheap ring.” (p. 289). The American-born daughters never grasp on to these traits, partly why their story lines become so different from their purely Chinese parents.
“Rules of the Game” is a set example in which the mother-daughter cultural conflict is evident. Waverly’s mother is constantly showing off her daughter because she is a national chess champion.In a Chinese society, a woman’s social standing is measured by how successful the children are and also how well you care for your spouse. Waverly’s mother constantly boasts about Waverly’s mastery of the game of chess. However, this conflicts with the accepted American norm of modestly equaling politeness. Because of this, Waverly interprets this constant praise as exploitation.
In another episode, “Waiting Between the Trees,” the cultural clash emerges again. This time, however, it is over spouses. Ying-Ying, the mother, admits that her daughter, Lena St. Clair, “sprang from me like a slippery fish, and had been swimming away ever since” (p. 274) when she was born. Lena chooses American ways of life over her Chinese culture, not realizing that her Chinese family education and tradition will have influence over her future. There was always a serious lack of communication in the St. Clair household. Both sides, parents and daughter, only tried to keep peace and stability growing up instead of really getting to know each other. Lena always ignored the fact that children learn to act as their parents do before them regarding marriage. Because of this, Lena inherits her mother’s attitude and rushes into a superficial marriage just as her mother had done two times before.
When June makes her trip to China at the end of the book, it is her way of undermining any obstacles standing in the way and finally reaching out to her mother’s culture. By completing her mother’s promise to return to China and honor her sisters, June is transferring what she had absorbed from her mother and her tradition. One of the most important and pivotal quotes is on page 306 with the line: “And I think, My mother is right. I am becoming Chinese”.