Term Paper: Exploration of One Aspect of Amy Tan's Work

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Amy Tan

Mother-Daughter Conflict and Fragmented Cultural Identity within Three Works by Amy Tan

The Chinese-American writer Amy Tan, author of such popular and critically-acclaimed novels as the Joy Luck Club (1989); the Kitchen God's Wife (1991); the Hundred Secret Senses (1995) and the Bonesetter's Daughter (1996), two children's books, and numerous short stories and essays (Huntley 19) often focuses in her work on conflict-ridden relationships between uneasily-assimilated Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born, better-assimilated daughters. A dominant theme in Amy Tan's work, and the one which I shall explore here, is that of the Chinese mothers' hopes, wishes, and ambitions for their Americanized daughters; the daughters' frequent rejection of those same hopes and wishes in quest of their more individuated, Americanized identities; and the mothers' and daughters' alternately frustrated; alternately angry, alternately tender efforts to better understand and therefore make a limited peace with one another. In exploring this dominant theme within Tan's work, I shall focus especially on three early works of Tan's: her first novel the Joy Luck Club (1989), the short story, "Two Kinds" (1989), and her second novel, the Kitchen God's Wife (1991).

Typically, the thoroughly Americanized daughters of Amy Tan's novels and stories seek, starting as children and adolescents, to distinguish themselves powerfully from their mothers, and discourage their mothers from "living through them." Waverly Jong, the child prodigy Chinese chess champion in the Joy Luck Club, spends so much time studying chess that she has only one household responsibility: to accompany her mother to the market for groceries each Saturday: "My mother would proudly walk with me, visiting many shops, buying very little. 'This is my daughter Wave-ly Jong,' she said to whoever looked her way'."

One day, Waverly, fed up with her mother's public boasting about her, asks her mother on the way home from shopping: "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'." (Tan 99).

Waverly's mother, misunderstanding her daughter's angry outburst, thinks Waverly is saying she is ashamed of her Chinese mother, especially to be seen with her in public. But Waverly means simply that she would like her mother to stop bragging about her because she herself feels embarrassed by it. The misunderstanding brought about by this heated exchange, however, clouds the mother-daughter relationship for years afterward. Neither one can or will forget about it, even long after Waverly grows up and leaves home. To Waverly's Chinese mother, family solidarity and pride is her most important value. But to her American-born and thoroughly Americanized daughter, individuality and independence are far more important, and she resents what she sees as her mother's smothering attitude. In this early scene in the novel, Waverly is not in fact rejecting her mother, but instead simply asserting her own separateness from her, a distinction Waverly's mother finds impossible to understand.

A similar theme occurs within the short story "Two Kinds" (Literature: The Human Experience 424-432). Excerpted from the Joy Luck Club, this story focuses solely on the Joy Luck Club's main character Jing Mei (also known by her Americanized name, "June) as a child of about six or seven years old. In this story Jing Mei takes her first steps toward independence from what she sees as her Chinese mother's domination. Jing Mei's mother insists, despite Jing Mei's clear lack of musical talent, that her daughter persist in trying to become an accomplished pianist. Jing Mei lacks sincere interest in piano playing, although she does enjoy wearing pretty dresses at piano recitals and curtseying gracefully to the audience at the end of a piece (428-9), the trappings of playing the piano in public. In preparation for an upcoming piano recital, Jing-Mei carefully plans her wardrobe and perfects her curtsey, but neglects to practice her musical piece. She is in love with the idea of playing piano before others, yet she lacks the dedication needed to play well. As a result, she plays abysmally at the recital. Her family, especially her mother, is publicly humiliated by Jing Mei's disastrous performance. Right them and there, Jing Mei promises herself that she will quit piano forever.

The following day, however, when Jing Mei's usual practice time of 4:00 P.M. arrives, her mother treats her as if nothing at all has happened, and insists, as usual, that Jing Mei practice: "Four clock,'" she reminded me as if it were any other day. I was stunned, as though she were asking me to go through the talent-show torture again. I wedged myself more tightly in front of the TV." (430)

Jing Mei, her feelings still raw from yesterday, refuses to budge from her spot near the television. Her mother then drags her, kicking and screaming, to sit at the piano, where Jing Mei shouts tearfully: "You want me to be someone that I'm not... I'll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!" The mother's answer and Jing Mei's subsequent angry retort, vividly illustrate much of the conflict within this story, and within Amy Tan's works in general: that of whom and what the daughter "should" become, in the eyes of her Chinese mother, versus whom and what the Americanized daughter wishes to become, if only for herself.

Also apparent within this same tearful scene at the piano are cultural tensions and misunderstandings from which many, similar, mother-daughter conflicts in Amy Tan's work spring:

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!

Then I wish I weren't your daughter. I wish you weren't my mother,' I shouted.

As I said these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last. ("Two Kinds").

The high-volume argument represents a turning point in the lives of both mother and daughter, though for different reasons. Jing Mei's, sudden outburst, in which she finally, forcefully, begins to declare her separateness from her mother (i.e., your dream of my playing piano is not my dream) marks the beginning of Jing-Mei's defiant, troubled march toward authentic selfhood, an Americanized identity to which her mother can never completely relate. On Jing-Mei's mother's part, her daughter's rebellion against any future music lessons represents not so much a rejection of the Chinese part of herself as a rejection of her mother's vision of the American Dream as it relates to her children. For Jing-Mei's mother believes:

you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get a good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.

Of course you can be prodigy, too,' my mother told me... '(424).

And indeed, Jing Mei at the outset enjoys entertaining the idea of being a child prodigy, say a Chinese Shirley Temple, as much as her mother does. But in truth Jing Mei is not a prodigy, nor does the American-born child possess her mother's determination, so typical of immigrants to America, that success will eventually, but inevitably, follow if one simply insists on success by demonstrating continuing, tireless perseverance.

As Harold Bloom observes of this story:

Two Kinds' has the irony, as a title, of meaning also two worlds, China and the United States. The daughter, understandably in flight from a love so possessive that it

Could destroy, is also obsessed by an unwarranted yet inevitable guilt.

And yet she must rebel, since the musical genius that her mother demands is simply not there. (2)

The Joy Luck Club (1989) has four mother daughter pairs in all (the daughters are Jing Mei; Waverly; Lena; and Rose). As the story unfolds, each of the mothers in turn tells her story laced with tragedy about life in China before coming to America. It is through the telling and receiving of these stories, as a part of their common heritage, that the mothers and daughters eventually (at least to an extent) better understand and come to make peace with each other and themselves.

Structurally, as Wendy Ho explains, "the stories of these four pairs are inter-woven in four major segments, with the mothers and daughters telling their stories of how they came to be in life" (101). Much of the narrative of the Joy Luck Club, especially the main character Jing Mei's past conflicts with her mother, who has recently died when the story begins, is, for Amy Tan autobiographical. As Tan recalls of her own Chinese immigrant parents' early expectations of her and her two brothers: "We should always think like a Chinese person but we should always speak perfect English so we can take advantage of circumstances" (Huntley 2). As Tan's parents, typical of immigrants, believed, a child of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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