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The Joy Luck Club | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, what does the swan represent in Part 1, Prologue?

The parable in the prologue to Part 1 is about a duck that turned itself into a swan by stretching its neck. The woman in the story buys the swan so she can show it to her future daughter as an example of what can be achieved if one stretches oneself. The swan represents the mother's hope that her daughter's future in the United States will be better than the life her mother had in China. "[O]ver there nobody will look down on her," the mother swears. But the swan is taken from the mother when she reaches America's shores. The move to a new country prevents her from imparting important lessons to her child. The mother, a native Chinese speaker, cannot communicate with her daughter, who only speaks English. Without the physical evidence of the swan, the mother cannot effectively guide her child.

How is the original version of the Joy Luck Club connected to the "new" incarnation of the club in the United States?

Suyuan Woo started the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, China, as a means of forgetting the horrors of war, even if only for a few hours each week. To her and her three friends, choosing to be happy made more sense than simply sitting back and waiting to die at the hands of the Japanese army. The women were looked down upon by their neighbors for these weekly celebrations during a time of such great pain and suffering, but Suyuan knew it was the stories of hope they shared during their meetings that got them through such a difficult time. Suyuan and her husband moved to San Francisco in 1949 and joined the First Chinese Baptist Church. There Suyuan met three other women—Lindo Jong, Ying-ying St. Clair, and An-mei Hsu—who had left behind "unspeakable tragedies" in China. None of the women spoke much English, and they undoubtedly felt unsure of themselves in the United States. All of them had made major sacrifices to get this far in their lives, and much of it was in an effort to improve the lives of the future generation. Suyuan once again saw the need for a support network of comfort and hope, which is why she establishes a new "chapter" of the group in the United States.

What is significant about the use of Jing-mei Woo's Chinese name in The Joy Luck Club?

Jing-mei's American name is June, which is what most people call her. In Part 1, Chapter 1 Lindo calls her by her Chinese name. Ying-ying points out "[t]hey all go by their American names," but Jing-mei doesn't mind. This isn't because she identifies with the Chinese part of her heritage or because she wants to honor her mother's legacy, but because "it's even becoming fashionable for American-born Chinese to use their Chinese names." Her appreciation for her Chinese name is because of a fad—it doesn't actually mean anything to her. Each of Jing-mei's chapters are headed with her Chinese name, not her American name, yet all of the other daughters are referred to by their American names (though it is unknown if they have Chinese names in the first place). This is meaningful. While all of the daughters come to accept their mothers over the course of the book, Jing-mei is the only one who also embraces her Chinese roots. By the end of the book she no longer thinks of herself as strictly American, nor does she want to.

How does Tan's use of the "five elements" mentioned in Part 1, Chapter 1 help establish personality traits of some of the major characters in The Joy Luck Club?

The five elements of which Jing-mei speaks in Part 1, Chapter 1 are fire, wood, water, earth, and metal. In Chinese culture these five materials are the basis of all interactions in the universe. Suyuan tells Jing-mei everyone has different compositions of each of the elements. People with too much fire have bad tempers, people with too little wood are influence too easily by others, and people with too much water "flowed in too many directions." The characters in The Joy Luck Club often describe themselves and others as having too much or too little of a particular element, which influences their personalities. In Part 1, Chapter 1 Jing-mei says her mother always thought Jing-mei had too much water because she started, but didn't finish, several different college degrees. This association with water tells the reader Jing-mei is restless and unable to commit to one path. In Part 1, Chapter 3 the matchmaker tells Lindo she is too balanced to bear children because her mother-in-law, Huang Taitai, gave her so many gold bracelets, which made up for Lindo's metal deficiency. When her mother-in-law takes away the bracelets she feels light and free again. When you lack metal, Lindo says, "[y]ou begin to think as an independent person." Her metal deficiency is a sign of her natural inclination to act in her own best interest. In Part 3, Chapter 3 An-mei tells Rose she is confused all the time because she is "without wood." Instead of listening to her mother and growing strong and straight, she bends toward the ideas of others, which makes her "crooked and weak." This comparison helps the reader understand Rose's tendency to look for advice instead of trusting herself, as well as her natural instinct to distrust her mother's "Chinese" advice.

In Part 1, Chapter 2 of The Joy Luck Club what does Lindo Jong mean when she says, "I was like the wind"?

The rainy, windy weather on the day Lindo marries Tyan-tu is a sign of bad luck. From the neighbors' house, Lindo watches as the wind pushes sheets of rain through the emptying streets and into the river. She smiles, realizing "it was the first time [she] could see the power of the wind." Even though she couldn't see the wind—an intangible, invisible force—she could see its effects. When she looks in the mirror moments later she sees the same thing in herself: she possesses an invisible force that can change the direction of her own life. Her secret thoughts and feelings cannot be stopped by anyone else, and their power is what gets her through (and ultimately out of) her unwanted marriage.

What is significant about the gold bracelets Lindo Jong buys herself in Part 1, Chapter 2 of The Joy Luck Club?

Huang Taitai, Lindo's mother-in-law, "loaded [Lindo] down with gold bracelets and decorations" after her and Tyan-yu's wedding. The jewelry is not just for decoration. It is a reminder that her marriage binds her not only to her husband but also to his family. When Lindo does not become pregnant, the matchmaker claims "a woman can have sons only if she is deficient in one of the [five] elements" that make up each living being, according to Chinese tradition. When Lindo came to the Huangs, she was deficient in metal. The gold jewelry brought Lindo into balance, which is why the matchmaker believes Lindo can't get pregnant. In fact Lindo and Tyan-yu have never consummated their marriage, so the bracelets are not a factor. But Huang Taitai reclaims the gold bracelets thinking this will increase the odds of a pregnancy. This does not work, but Lindo feels "lighter, more free." She doesn't mind relinquishing the fine jewelry because it means she has her independence back. Lindo begins collecting gold bracelets after she moves to the United States and starts having children. This is an act of defiance against Huang Taitai and the traditions that trapped Lindo in her marriage. She buys 24-karat gold bracelets, pure gold through and through, not like the 14-karat gold her daughter, Waverly, wears. These bracelets are a symbol of strength during the unhappiest days of her life and of her strong sense of self-worth and independence.

How does Lindo Jong manipulate the Huangs to escape her marriage in Part 1, Chapter 2 of The Joy Luck Club?

Lindo makes the Huangs believe it benefits them to get rid of her. She uses their belief in superstitions to convince them that it is bad luck for her to remain. Lindo invents a dream that portends that "Tyan-yu would die if he stayed in this marriage!" He's convinced, but his mother needs more persuasion. Lindo uses her mother-in-law's belief in the power of ancestors to convince Huang Taitai. Lindo first claims that the ancestors knew that Huang Taitai would not believe her because Lindo does not "want to leave the comforts of [her] marriage"—a complete fabrication. She then invents a series of signs, or omens, from the family ancestors, "proving" that she is not Tyan-yu's "true spiritual wife." Lindo has also noticed that one of the servant girls has gotten pregnant through an affair. Lindo bends the servant girl's situation to her advantage by including the real pregnancy in one of her fictional omens. As a result of these factors Lindo succeeds in convincing the Huangs to release her from the marriage.

What is the significance of the outfits Ying-ying St. Clair's mother makes in Part 1, Chapter 4 of The Joy Luck Club?

Ying-ying's mother makes two special outfits for the Moon Festival, which Ying-ying's Amah refers to as "tiger clothes." Ying-ying was born in the Year of the Tiger, and at four she has a tiger's bold, stubborn, and energetic personality. The jacket and pants her mother makes her are yellow with black trim, while her mother's own outfit is the inverse, black with yellow bands. In Part 4, Chapter 2 Ying-ying says the tiger's colors represent its two natures. The gold, or yellow, is for its "fierce heart," while the black side "stands still with cunning." Her outfit for the Moon Festival celebrates her boisterous spirit, while her mother's black garment shows the restraint of age and responsibility.

How does the epigraph in the Part 2, Prologue of The Joy Luck Club address the theme of mother-daughter relationships?

An epigraph is a short quotation, saying, or story at the beginning of a book or a chapter. It's meant to impart the theme of the text following it. The four epigraphs in The Joy Luck Club are all parables, or stories with a lesson. "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates" is about a mother who tells her daughter not to ride her bike around the corner because she will get hurt. The daughter doesn't listen, hops on her bike, and immediately falls off it. This particular parable highlights the discord common in many mother-daughter relationships in the novel. The mother imparts wisdom to protect her daughter, but the daughter misreads her mother's concern as an attempt at control. In each of the stories that follow, the daughters do not heed the warnings or advice of their mothers. They suffer for it, just as the little girl in the parable suffers. Regardless of culture, generation, or nationality, the relationship between a mother and her daughter is always fraught with difficulty.

Why does Lindo Jong tell everyone Waverly Jong's skill at chess is "luck" in Part 2, Chapter 1 of The Joy Luck Club?

Lindo knows very well how hard her daughter works at chess, and she's under no illusions that Waverly's skills are the result of luck. Yet she tells people that because, as Waverly says, it's "proper Chinese humility." Chinese culture does not celebrate personal independence, as in the West, but instead focuses on group values and how one is perceived by relatives and acquaintances. It's not a good thing to stand out from the rest of the group. Bragging about one's successes or talents (or those of a loved one) is therefore unacceptable, in part because it might cause the humiliation of someone else. This isn't the only instance of "Chinese humility" on the part of the mothers in the novel. In Part 1, Chapter 1 Ying-ying tells the rest of the Joy Luck Club about Lena's new home in an upscale neighborhood but makes sure to mention "it's not best house in neighborhood." In Part 3, Chapter 3 "[a]s is the Chinese cook's custom," Lindo tells her guests her famous, delicious pork dish is bland and "too bad to eat." Rich, a Western white man who doesn't understand the intricacies of Chinese culture, doesn't know he's supposed to disagree by praising the dish.

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