Term Paper: Amy Tan's Kitchen God's Wife

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Kitchen God's Wife By Amy Tan

Demonstration of the 'Immigration Experience' in the Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

The Chinese-American experience has never been more truthfully illustrated than in Amy Tan's depictions of mother-daughter relationships in her novels. Well-known for her ability to project conflicts, feelings, and understandings between different generations of Chinese living in America, Tan also managed to include, as background stories, historical events and incidents in Chinese history, making her novels not just an interpretation of the Chinese-American immigrant experience, but also as chronicles of Chinese-Americans' histories, general or specific.

These two forms of illustrations in Tan's novels is consistently portrayed in the novel, "The Kitchen God's Wife." In this novel, Tan centered once again on the lives of a mother and daughter pair, Weili and Pearl, as they harbored conflicts and misunderstandings toward each other. Interestingly, at the core of the two protagonists' conflict with each other is a history that brought into light the hardships that Chinese immigrants went through prior to immigrating to America. Also set during the Sino-Japanese war at Nanking, "Kitchen" was also a demonstration of the root causes that prompted Chinese to immigrate to America, a history considered as both Weili's and Pearl's personal histories.

With these two elements in mind, this paper provides a discussion and analysis of the "immigrant experiences" of Weili and Pearl. While Pearl is already considered an assimilated member of the American culture, her identity as Chinese-American persists, making this 'immigrant experience' not only applicable to her mother, but to her as well. This paper posits that the immigrant experience is best demonstrated through two recurrent themes in the novel: cultural conflict and the persistence of reality over 'made-up' history, or fictional personal history.

The first theme is further discussed as comprising of two issues persistent in the novel. The theme of cultural conflict was developed in the novel as a result of the conflicting attitudes that Weili and Pearl have against each other. That is, Weili is considered as a secretive and oftentimes, mysterious individual whose numerous secrets about her life resulted to a lack of openness from her part, making her relationship with her daughter Pearl suffer. In relation to Weili's secretive nature, it can then be said that another factor contributing to the cultural conflict between Weili and Pearl was the latter's willingness to know her heritage and mother's personal history, which Weili had vehemently forbidden herself to divulge to anyone.

The second theme, which contrasts reality from fiction, was a technique that Tan used in order to separate past from present, to discern truth from falsity, to determine the lies that Weili created, and secrets she has harbored through the years. Under this theme, this paper posits that 'fiction' or Weili's 'made-up' history developed as a result of her conscious effort to forget her past, without her knowing that this also led to an increased animosity with her daughter Pearl.

Theme #1: Cultural Conflict: Secretive Weili vs. Open and Searching Pearl

Conflict is a theme that has constantly appeared in Tan's novels. More specifically, conflicts between mothers and daughters have been a recurrent theme in the author's novels, and "Kitchen" clearly showed this conflict through Pearl's high integration with American culture and society, as compared to her mother's conscious effort to remain Chinese in her identity even in the midst of a strong American cultural influence.

As explicated earlier, one of the root causes of conflict between Weili and her daughter was the opposing attitudes they have over issues, whether they are trivial or important ones. A most explicit example of these opposing attitudes was set early on in the novel, wherein Pearl pondered over whether to tell her mother that she is sick with multiple sclerosis or not. Their differences were reflected in their interpretations of the ying-gai concept, which Pearl elucidated as follows (29):

Ying-gai was what my mother always said when she meant, I should have. Ying-gai meant that she should have altered the direction of fate, she should have prevented disaster. To me, ying-gai meant my mother lived a life of regrets that never faded with time.

The tone of resentment that Tan used in Pearl's voice mirrored the fragile and poor relationship that mother and daughter had over the years, resulting to Pearl's development of an opposing view towards the ying-gai concept. This kind of understanding only validates the level of misunderstanding extant between Weili and Pearl: in her inability to share her meanings and experiences with her daughter, Weili had unknowingly created in Pearl an opposing nature, which caused her to resent everything that represented her and her heritage.

While Pearl's resentment and opposition to her mother was apparent in the novel, implicit in these events in the novel was the evident intersection of Pearl's life with that of Weili, despite their attitudinal differences. As illustrated later in the novel, the act of sharing secrets created a very meaningful turn in the novel, wherein all histories were unraveled, and understanding reigned over both characters. In their eventual effort to understand each other through shared secrets (that is, Weili sharing her dark past in China and Pearl disclosing her illness), they are creating a state of "in-betweenness," wherein both Weili and Pearl created a bond that linked Weili's Chinese heritage and Pearl's Chinese-American, a form of 'hybridization,' wherein "culture sympathy and culture-clash" occurs (Lee, 2004:116).

In addition to this newfound connectedness between Weili and Pearl, analyses of their relationship in the novel was also founded to be based on "talk-story," a process wherein Pearl was able to discover her mother through her personal history (Dunick, 2006:5). More importantly, talk-story was utilized in the novel as a process towards self-discovery, allowing Pearl to learn about the identity of her father, and her mother's history during the Sino-Japanese war. This talk-story was exemplified in Weili's story, wherein she engaged in talk-story to illustrate her hardships and the unfortunate events that made her so secretive about her life (64-5):

have never had luck like that. I refused to marry a good man...for my first husband. I married the wrong one instead...So that was the kind of family I had. What advice could they give me? I didn't say to Helen: I could have married that man...I didn't say, Was it safe that I did not? Or was it because I didn't know I had a choice?

These talk-stories became 'unspoken' stories that created misunderstandings not only between Weili and Pearl, but also between Weili and other people she considered part of her family. As illustrated in this section, both the path towards 'hybridization' and the expression of talk-stories became the paths through which Weili and Pearl were able to mend their differences, and eventually accept each other's differences, and share the personal history that makes them linked not only in America, but also in China.

Theme #2: Reality versus 'Made up' history/Fiction

Another important theme that emerged in the novel was Weili's persistence to stick with her 'made-up' history, narrating her accounts of Chinese life and heritage but discounting the parts that included her first husband Wen Fu, and her children that had died as the war worsened and intensified. Again, the concept of talk-story emerges from this theme; however, talk-story in this sense was a comparison of truth and falsity, as relayed by Weili in the novel. However, the focus of this section is on Weili's psyche, understanding how she insisted on keeping her personal history a secret, even to her own daughter Pearl.

Kitchen" illustrated Weili as an individual who was too cautious to a fault. Her development of 'made-up histories' was a result of her conscious effort to prevent herself from committing the mistakes she did in the past, of which her marriage to Wen Fu… [END OF PREVIEW]

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