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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In what ways does the "American dream" as presented in The Joy Luck Club turn out to be a fallacy?

The "American dream" is commonly understood as the belief that opportunity is endless in the United States. Anyone can be successful and prosperous as long as they work hard. The mothers in The Joy Luck Club also believe their children will know far fewer sorrows than they would if they had grown up in China. While life in the United States is pretty good, especially compared to the early years of communist rule in China, it's not as perfect as the mothers had hoped: Lindo Jong and An-mei Hsu both work hard in the fortune cookie factory when they first come to the United States, as does Lindo's future husband, Tin Jong. Suyuan Woo cleans houses when Jing-mei Woo is a child. Even George Hsu, who was a physician in China, is relegated to the position of pharmacist's assistant in the United States. Because they don't speak English or have skills that are in high demand, they all have to work incredibly hard just so their families can scrape by. Money does not equal happiness. Rose Hsu Jordan and Lena St. Clair and their spouses all have good jobs so they have expendable income available for nice houses in good neighborhoods, yet both women are unhappy. Rose is getting a divorce. Lena feels that her marriage is on shaky ground because her husband doesn't treat her as an equal although she is responsible for much his business success. Tragedy can occur anytime, anywhere. An-mei Hsu and her family suffer the loss of her youngest son, Bing, while enjoying the "all-American pastime" of fishing and playing on the beach.

Why don't the daughters in The Joy Luck Club know the true stories of their mothers' pasts?

None of the daughters in the novel know about their mothers' pasts for two simple reasons: they don't ask and they don't listen. The daughters are more interested in hanging out with their friends than hearing about how things were when their mothers were growing up. The mothers are also faced with "daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English" (Part 1, Chapter 1). When the mothers offer the stories of their own accord, three of the four daughters have difficulty understanding their meanings due to the language barrier. The mothers try again in English, but they can't fully express themselves as they would be able to in Chinese. Lena St. Clair can understand Chinese, but Lena often manipulates her translations of her mothers' remarks to avoid conflict rather than honoring their true meaning. The mothers are not always forthcoming, either. Many of them have been raised to hide rather than express their feelings. It is also painful to revisit traumatic past events. Jing-mei is the only daughter who has some understanding of what her mother had gone through before she came to the United States, but there was always a sense that Suyuan was holding something back. It was all too horrible—the loss of her daughters, the death of her husband, the assumed deaths of her entire family. She came to the United States to escape all those terrible memories, and she isn't eager to bring them up again, especially if her daughter doesn't show any interest. That can be said for all the mothers in the book, each who have suffered horrors their daughters could not possibly imagine.

What role do Chinese folktales play in The Joy Luck Club?

Chinese folktales often appear within the pages of The Joy Luck Club. Each of the novel's four parts is prefaced by an epigraph, or a short piece of text that sets the theme for the rest of the section. The epigraphs in The Joy Luck Club are all parables that illustrate the nature of mother-daughter relationships to be both full of good intentions and fraught with misunderstandings, which is the overarching theme of the book. The mothers and daughters also pepper their own stories with Chinese folktales. In each instance the folktales are used to teach lessons the daughters have trouble understanding. An-mei Hsu's mother tells her about the turtle in the family's pond that swallows tears as a way to teach An-mei to always swallow her sorrows (Part 4, Chapter 1). Decades later An-mei tells a folktale about Chinese villagers rising against magpies that eat all of their seeds and drink their tears, which is a metaphor about the need to stand up for oneself in the face of adversity (Part 4, Chapter 1). As a child Ying-ying St. Clair hears the story of the Moon Lady, who is banished to the moon for eternity as penance for being greedy (Part 1, Chapter 4). Ying-ying grows up spoiled and self-centered, which leads to an unhappy marriage. She ends up "banishing" herself to the country for 10 years as a self-inflicted form of punishment.

How is Chinese astrology used in The Joy Luck Club?

Many characters in The Joy Luck Club reference animals of the Chinese zodiac, which has been in existence since c. 4,000 BCE. Unlike the Western zodiac, which assigns "signs" based on the month in which a person is born, the Chinese zodiac goes by year based on a lunar calendar. Each year is assigned one of 12 different animals: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, or the Pig. People born in 1980, for example, were born in the Year of the Monkey. Each animal is assigned a particular set of characteristics, or temperaments. Dragons, one of the luckiest signs, are said to be ambitious and hardworking, for example. Amy Tan uses Chinese astrology in The Joy Luck Club to provide characterization. Ying-ying and Lena St. Clair were both born in the Year of the Tiger, which means they are fierce and cunning yet able to wait patiently for the right moment to strike. Ying-ying loses her "tiger spirit" during her first marriage, so much so that she feels she has become a ghost. Instead of teaching her daughter how to be a tiger, her daughter only learns what her mother emulates: nervousness, fear, and passivity. Ying-ying has to revisit the tragedies of her past in order to free her own tiger spirit so she can also release Lena's. Chinese astrology is also used in the novel to show the distance between the mothers and the daughters. Waverly Jong is a Rabbit, which means she is sensitive to criticism. That doesn't jibe at all with Lindo Jong's Horse personality, which is known to be "obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness." According to Chinese astrology, the odds of mother and daughter getting along in even the best of situations is very slim. The characters in the novel use Chinese astrology to explain these differences, which serves as a type of healing. Many mother-daughter pairs feel these same frustrations and have no corresponding way to explain such differences between blood relatives.

How does Amy Tan avoid the stereotypical portrayal of Asian women in The Joy Luck Club?

It is easy for authors to fall into stereotypes of particular ethnicities when they aren't a member of that population themselves. Tan, however, is Chinese American, just like the daughters in the novel, and her parents are Chinese, just like most of the parents. Her characters, therefore, are multifaceted, which helps them avoid two of the most common stereotypes about Chinese women: the dragon lady and the china doll. "Dragon ladies" are portrayed as being fierce villains who are deceitful and manipulative. In another author's hands it would be easy to see the mothers in The Joy Luck Club as pushing their children so hard the kids eventually snap. Tan avoids this by showing important events from the mothers' points of view. They are not villains in any sense of the word, just mothers who are trying to give their children the best lives possible. Though the mothers may appear harsh at times when speaking to their daughters, their wounds and insecurities are visible in their memories and inner thoughts. "China dolls" or "lotus blossoms," as they are sometimes called, are the opposite of dragon ladies. They are portrayed as being submissive objects of affection who need to be protected. There is a sense that Clifford St. Clair feels this way about Ying-ying St. Clair. As he tells it, he "saved" her from her life as an impoverished peasant, and she allows him to believe she is a "wounded animal" in need of rescue. Ying-ying actually comes from a very wealthy family and has an indomitable inner strength. She chooses to keep this to herself so as not to suffer anymore pain but ultimately ends up unleashing it to help her daughter find happiness. Ying-ying never needed anyone to save her because she had the power to save herself the whole time.

How do the daughters in The Joy Luck Club react to their mothers' superstitions?

Superstitions are found throughout the world, but they are especially important and prevalent in Chinese culture. This is evident in The Joy Luck Club as the mothers warn their daughters about the evils that can befall them if they do the wrong thing. Some of the daughters brush off the warnings, but others take them to heart. Jing-mei Woo dismisses her mother's criticisms "as just more of her Chinese superstitions, beliefs that conveniently fit the circumstances" (Part 1, Chapter 1). She associates Suyuan Woo's superstitions with criticisms of her character. She doesn't like being told by her mother that she has "too much water," which is why she never finishes anything she starts. It doesn't seem like a real reason, nor does it help her make any changes. The superstitions couched as lessons only serve to push mother and daughter apart. Lena St. Clair, on the other hand, listens carefully to every word of superstition her mother tells her as a child. She fears "bad men" who want to impregnate her and kill her family, lightning that looks for children to strike, and tether balls that have the potential to rip open skulls. She sees these things with her "Chinese eyes, the part of [her she] got from [her] mother" (Part 2, Chapter 2). Ying-ying St. Clair's superstitions, as well as her deep unhappiness, turn Lena into a fearful child who always expects the worst.

How does language difference influence the relationships between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club?

The mothers in The Joy Luck Club are all native Chinese speakers, but their daughters, who are all born in the United States, are native English speakers. The daughters can all understand Chinese words but not necessarily their meanings. "My mother and I never really understood each other," says Jing-mei Woo in Part 1, Chapter 1. They could translate what the other person said, but Jing-mei "seemed to hear less than what was said," while Suyuan Woo heard more. When Jing-mei says she might finish her bachelor's degree someday, Suyuan takes that as confirmation she's going back to school immediately. Without a common language the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club are unable to fully understand each other's intentions, which leads to many hurtful misunderstandings. Of the daughters only Lena St. Clair can fluently speak Chinese. She is often asked to translate English for her mother, Ying-ying St. Clair, but instead of telling her what was really said Lena tells her lies "that will prevent bad things from happening in the future." For example, when Ying-ying gets yelled at in the grocery store for opening jars and smelling the contents, Lena tells her "Chinese people were not allowed to shop there" (Part 2, Chapter 2). She's trying to save her own face instead of explaining cultural customs to her mother. But if Ying-ying doesn't know how she's supposed to behave in the United States she will continue to embarrass Lena, which will only serve to drive them further apart.

What role does competition play in The Joy Luck Club?

There is an unspoken rivalry between two of the mother-daughter pairs in The Joy Luck Club. Lindo Jong and Suyuan Woo are best friends but also highly competitive with one another. This relationships trickles down to their daughters, who are more enemies than actual friends. It begins in earnest when Waverly Jong begins to play chess. She's exceptionally good at it and soon is being hailed as a prodigy around Chinatown. Lindo naturally displays proper Chinese humility by ascribing it to luck, but she can't help but rub it in Suyuan's face a little bit. "She bring home too many trophy," Lindo says about Waverly. "All day I have no time do nothing but dust off her winnings." Suyuan is convinced her daughter, Jing-mei Woo, can be a prodigy too, so Jing-mei is forced into piano lessons. But Jing-mei doesn't want to be a prodigy so she resists all her mother's efforts. This leads to a massive fight between mother and daughter, and the damage is never really repaired.

How does a difference in culture contribute to the rift between mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club?

The mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club share a common heritage, but they have two completely different cultures. The mothers view themselves as Chinese while the daughters view themselves as American. As such each group follows the social dictates of their chosen group. Suyuan Woo, Lindo Jong, An-mei Hsu, and Ying-ying St. Clair were raised believing in the importance of listening to their own mothers, whose task it was to mold their daughters into capable women who would marry well as a means of moving up in the world. When they try to pass this on to their American-born daughters they are treated as if they are old-fashioned. Compared to the American ideals of independence and individuality, they are. The daughters relate more to the American influences outside of the home than what their mothers are trying to teach them, and each group is left feeling hurt and misunderstood. The more the mothers stand their ground the more the daughters rebel, which turns into a never-ending cycle that moves them farther and farther apart. For this reason the book has much greater appeal than to the Chinese immigrant experience alone because this theme mimics the experience that many mother-daughter pairs are having as cultural expectations are changing for what it means to be a woman in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In what ways does The Joy Luck Club draw from Amy Tan's own life experiences?

The Joy Luck Club is a work of fiction, but its inspiration is based in reality. Amy Tan is the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, John and Daisy Tan, who moved to the United States before the communists took over the Chinese government in 1949. There are many parallels between Amy and her family's experiences and the experiences of the characters in the book: Though she was born to Chinese parents, Tan understands Chinese but doesn't speak it, just like the daughters in The Joy Luck Club. Her mother, Daisy, left China to escape an abusive husband and his concubine. In the process she was also forced to leave her three daughters behind. In the novel An-mei Hsu's mother has to deal with an abusive concubine of her own, and Suyuan Woo has to leave her twin baby girls behind while trying to escape the Japanese army. Daisy's mother killed herself when she was nine. The same thing happens in the novel to An-mei. Tan's parents belonged to a social group called the Joy Luck Club that focused on playing the stock market. This inspired the name of the mah jong club (and the novel itself), as well as their dabblings in the stock market. Tan first visited China in 1987. It was during this trip that she met her half-sisters for the first time, just like Jing-mei Woo, who travels to China to meet her half-sisters.

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