In the novel The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, the mothers and daughters share relationships that are complex and unique. Besides being family, the women share hopes, fears and a culture that extends deep for some and not far for others. On the surface, a group that seemingly has so much in common is surprisingly lacking in understanding for the other generation. The communication between the characters is not always clear, mixed up by language and generational barriers as well as the “Americanized” daughters being unable, or unwilling, to listen fully to their Chinese mothers.
The first barrier that seems to make life difficult for these women and in some cases, their spouses, is the language difference. Many of the daughters have a very slim grasp on the Chinese dialect of their mothers and in turn, some of the mothers struggle with English. In the case of the St.Clair family, the group is further splintered because Clifford, the husband of Ying-ying and father of Lena, has never learned fluent Chinese and Ying-ying has never learned fluent English, so the breakdown in communication starts with the parents and moves onto the children.
When the mothers and daughters are able to communicate and make an attempt at finding common ground, their attempts are derailed by a lack of English words to substitute the meaning of Chinese words. Some of the phrases or lessons told by the mothers lose their meaning in a way because there is no English word that means the same as what they are trying to say in Chinese. An example of this is when June tries to understand the meaning of the Joy Luck Club’s name. There appears to be no satisfying English explanation for the sentiment behind the idea of Joy Luck. It is tragic to watch some of the relationships fracture because of this type of communication barrier.
The second barrier that hinders communication is their generation gap. The mothers were raised in different times with different expectations and they struggle to watch their daughters not conform to the same ways. The mothers were taught to be strong and silent, to take care of their families and to be good workers when asked to be by their husband or families. The daughters are from a more liberated mind set and they fail to grasp why their mothers continue to do things that they themselves would never consider doing. It is because of this gap in the generations that several of the mother’s stories go unspoken to the daughters. It is not that the daughters fail to understand the stories but more such that the daughters will regard the stories as foolish or look down on their mothers because of what they have done in the past.
The same is true for the daughters, but instead of stories, they are very unwilling to share parts of their lives for fear of their mothers’ disapproval. Waverly wants to show her mother her apartment to help bring her mother to the realization that she and Rich are nearing marriage, but instead all her mother sees is negative things. Her mother notes the messy condition of the apartment as well as just a general chaos. When Waverly tries to show things that she considers being signs of Rich’s affection, her mother sees his gifts as nothing but being materialistic and she disapproves.
Differences like these express the cultural clash between these two cultures. One main difference between Chinese and American cultures is the way in which we communicate with each other. “Chinese culture can be classified as a high-context culture and American culture as a low-context culture.” (Brooklyn College) Simply put, Americans tend to say what they mean when explaining something where in Chinese culture some details may be left out. These details are left out because speaker and listener share the same assumptions and knowledge. This is a huge barrier for communication between the mothers and daughters. The mothers many times speak to the daughters expecting that they will pick up on these underlying presumptions. The mothers are still very much apart of their Chinese culture and they are upset to see how little their daughters want to have that culture in their lives.
However, it seems that the daughters are not rejecting the culture as just that they are unsure of how they fit into it. As Walter Shear mentions in his article “Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club”, what originally comes across as a culture clash may not be exactly the case. “This difficulty in communication may simply be a consequence of living in what Schell describes as an “upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone” world, but it also tends to convey a basic lack of cultural confidence on the part of the daughters and thus a sense of their being thrown back into the families they have grown up in for explanations, validations, and identity reinforcement and definition.” (Shear 194)
The daughters cannot seem to see the Chinese culture as part of them and the mothers refuse to bend to the American way of life. In fact, they resent its influence on their daughters. The example that seems to best show the American/modern way the daughters handle things is the relationship between Lena and her husband. They split everything evenly even though Lena makes less, she always is paying what they consider to be her fair share. Her mother is put off by this and cannot imagine such a thing happening between a man and a wife. Instead of vocalizing her objections too much, Ying-ying just makes a point by allowing a misplaced vase to break a table and interrupt an argument between Lena and her husband.
The novel shows two groups of women and their struggle to understand, interact and communicate with each other. The understanding and interaction are severely impaired by the inability of the two groups to communicate with each other. The language barrier, as well as the issues and differences between the generations and cultures, all play a hand in the downfall of the relationships. For some, the relationships appear to be forever flawed and destined to remain strained at best. However, for a few, the unspoken words that pass between them, or in one case, the death of the mother, seems to help to open the eyes of the women to what is seen and heard and what is actually there.
Shear, Walter. Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club. Critique. 34.3 (1993, Spring) 193-199. Retrieved on June 3, 2008Brooklyn College. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club: High Context Cultures and Low Context Cultures. Monday, December 13, 2004. Retrieved on June 4, 2008 from www.academic.brookleyn.cuny.edu