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The Joy Luck Club is a famous novel written by American Chinese Amy Tan. The novel tells the story of four pairs of mother and daughter in a very special order. The book begins with the formation of the “Joy Luck Club”, which was founded by four Chinese women who moved to USA due to various reasons.
They all have experienced hardships and sad moments in their life, therefore they always gather and share their life with each other, while finding relief in each other’s story.
Besides sharing stories, they also gather to have meals and play Mahjong, a traditional Chinese game that requires four players.
The book is therefore arranged in a way somewhat similar to a Mahjong game – four main chapters, each having four small parts.
This is a special technique used by Amy Tan to tell the story of the four mother-daughter pairs in between each other, which creates more contrast and makes it easier for the reader to compare the life of each pair, strengthening one of the main themes in the novel – the huge differences between a Chinese-grown mother and an American-grown daughter.
Out of the four pairs of mother-daughter, Ying-Ying “Betty” St. Clair and her daughter Lena St. Clair are the most interesting pair to me, as they displayed the progress of them overcoming the pressures they received and letting out their true nature.
The fact that the mother and daughter’s has similar experience makes it even more significant. The book also has the theme of the transformation between the generations and times, and this is clearly shown by Ying Ying and Lena.
According to a research published by the American Psychological Association on people’s experience on discriminating Asian women, out of the 107 participants in the research, only 4 said they had never experienced discrimination. The researchers identified 15 types of discrimination, 6 of which were specific to how race and gender interact in discrimination toward Asian American women in particular.
One of the 6 race-related discrimination is the common stereotype of Asian women being submissive. They are experiences which participants are considered submissive/passive/quiet, expected to be agreeable, not to speak up or stand up for themselves.
Related to stereotypes of Asian women as deferential and controllable. This is exactly how Ying Ying was educated when she was young. Another race-related discrimination is Asian women being “Invisible”. They are experiences related to participants feeling like they or their group was ignored in some way, or lacked voice, agency or power.
This is similar to the stereotype of submissive, as both of them mentioned one key point: being expected to not raise any questions or objections on things. This is well reflected in The Joy Luck Club where Ying Ying was told and even scolded multiple times to keep quiet and be obedient. Therefore, we can safely conclude that the common stereotype of Asian women is being submissive and quiet in life.
Ying Ying was born in the year of Tiger, an animal that has two sides fierce and cunning. Ying Ying knew from heart since she was born that she is meant to be like tiger-strong in life and cunning in decisions. However, she has always been told by her traditional Chinese family that “A girl can never ask, but only listen.”, “if you ask, it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire”.
This is reflected in many conversations she had with her families. For example, when she was suddenly told to behave “properly so that the gods will not punish her” by her Amah when getting ready to attend the Moon Festival celebrations, she raised a lot of questions like why is that so and what kind of “punishments” she will receive.
In today’s world, it is very normal and reasonable for a kid who was only 4 years-old to ask these questions, however, her Amah just asked her to keep quiet and stop asking. This shows the vast difference between a mother-daughter relationship that would be regarded as “global norm” and the traditional Chinese mother-daughter relationship back then.
It was these passive and obedient values that shaped Ying Ying since her childhood, forcing her to hide her true nature and accept anything that bothers her, even husbands’ unfair treatment. This deeply rooted passive attitude also made her thinks that everything is predetermined by destiny, and she as a woman, is unable to change it or even question it.
Therefore, she often chose to follow what the rest forced onto her, and follows her own feelings of her fate, neglecting her own inner self’s feelings.
Lena, on the other hand, shared a very similar life as Ying Ying had — awful husband and believes in fate, which was influenced by her mother. However, having experienced all those depressions in life, Ying Ying realised that a woman like her and Lena, born in the year of tiger, should take the initiative to stand up and fighter for her rights, instead of keeping quiet and thinking that their fates are predetermined.
Ying Ying’s early realisation of breaking the mindset of being controlled by fate benefitted Lena, as she also broke out of the mindset and actively looks for a better life, instead of just bearing with her husband who was treating her unfairly.
Ying Ying has been taught and forced to be a quiet and obedient girl who had to hide her true nature of being a “tiger” inside her heart, since she was born. This has led to a big generation gap between her, deeply influenced by the traditional Chinese view of women, and her daughter Lena, who was born in USA and influenced by USA’s values of freedom.
For example, Ying Ying described herself as a “small shadow” and rarely speaks to Lena, who on the other hand, is too engrossed into her own world of ‘American freedom’ to speak with Ying Ying, The lack of verbal communication between them has resulted a gap in their relationship, affecting their understanding of each other.
It was all due to the immensely different environment that Ying Ying and Lena was raised in. However, Ying Ying’s lack of verbal language is not only caused by her family teaching but is also due to some major emotional shocks she received in her childhood.
When she was 4, she attended a Moon Festival celebration. She realised that she was cheated and all those things that she believed to be true are not. That night’s incident left such a deep scar in her mind that many years later when she recalls her childhood, she “could not remember what I wanted that night from the Moon Lady, or how it was that I was found again by my family.
Both of these things seemed an illusion to me, a wish granted that could not be trusted··I never believed my family found the same girl”. These thoughts show how emotionally lost was Ying Ying and how she had lost trust towards her family and even doubt her own identity. She suffered from great depression from then onwards, making her even quieter and burying her true nature deeper.
Lena, on the other hand, was raised in the American environment, which values freedom. Unlike traditional Chinese families, US ones do not have an expected behaviour of women. Girls are allowed to play and run just like boys, and it is rather open-minded compared to Chinese families.
Having grown in such an environment, Lena sensed her mother’s sorrow deep in her mind since she was little. She also discovered that her mother was always very mysterious and superstitious, especially in predicting results from omens that she senses.
Ying Ying also told Lena a lot of ghost stories, so much so that Lena also started to be superstitious and even start seeing illusions of scary images. She was too young to bear with the utter difference in American ideology and Ying Ying’s Chinese pessimistic mindset, which was shaped by a series of terrifying and depressing incidents that happened in her childhood, as mentioned above.
As a result, Lena started to become superstitious too, and always imagines the worst result from what she observed, just like Ying Ying. For example, her neighbour was a family that likes to quarrel a lot, and to most of the families around the world, quarrels between child and parents are completely normal.
However, Lena often gets scared by the noises they make as she always imagined it as the mother physically harming the daughter or even killing her. This caused Lena not be able to sleep well until she realised that they were just quarrelling like what other American families does every day.
This shows how her pessimistic mindset, inherited from Ying Ying, affected her understanding of the American world and her daily life. Thus, Lena was at first, similar to Ying Ying, superstitious and believes in fate while always looking into the worst extreme of things,
Hence, it can be argued that it is the clash of their ideologies that resulted in Lena’s childhood to be filled by negative imaginations and iterations of observations, affecting her growth and her future. While Ying Ying’s nature of keeping silent caused an invisible emotional wall being built up between her and Lena, preventing them from communicating wholeheartedly with each other which may help them relief each other’s emotional stress.
Furthermore, the chapter name “The voice from the wall” is also symbolic to this hidden “wall” in their family, as Amy Tan tries to portray their relationship as a pitiful one by making a reference to the voices of arguing of their neighbouring family, which actually shows family unity and hidden love beneath those arguments, forming a contrast with Ying Ying’s family.
This is something that Ying Ying and Lena lacks all the time – the ability to exchange their emotional thoughts, which can also be regarded as a wide generation gap. This is also an example of use of symbolism as a narrative technique.
Both Ying Ying and Lena experienced emotional changes in their marriage, specifically from believing their husband is the fated choice therefore they should love their husband, to realising that they were being abused by their husbands and having the thought of standing up against their husband.
Ying Ying has a broken self-identity, she sees things full of doubt and distrust, while such mindset transferred onto Lena and became Lena’s pessimistic and submissive life attitude. Ying Ying could hardly trust anyone due to being cheated in her childhood that made her think that she is powerless against life.
Therefore, she chose to not trust in herself but fate, and follows whatever she feels her fate would be. This resulted Ying Ying forcing herself to accept and love a man who she later found out, was not even loyal to her.
This pessimistic mindset was passed onto Lena and it led Lena into the similar marriage problem as Ying Ying. Lena met Harold and decided to marry him, as she regards Harold as her husband in fate. However, she soon realised that Harold was treating her unfairly through what seems “fair” on the surface. Harold would list out and spilt evenly their family spending to both of them.
Although it seems like it is completely fair, Harold actually earns seven times more than Lena, despite working in the same company, due to Harold’s much higher ranking in the company than Lena. This can be regarded as a form of cheat to Lena, as from the surface everything is fair and balanced. It is surprisingly similar to Ying Ying’s childhood and her marriage.
Ying Ying was cheated by her feeling of her own fate, as her first husband, a vulgar man who she thinks is her husband in fate, betrayed her serval years later. Through Lena and Ying Ying’s stories, we can see the theme of cheating clearly, which brings out a turning point to break out of their mindset of being controlled by destiny. They started to doubt the very existence of fate and destiny, and soon find out that they are easily changeable, even if they exist.
Ying Ying saw Lena stuck in a similar situation in her marriage, and shared her own story and thoughts to Lena, who then eventually decided to break out of the shadow casted by her overpowering husband and decided to argue with him and be an emotionally strong women.
From their experience of coping with the emotional change over their marriage, it can be concluded that Ying Ying, for once, broke out of being silent and encouraged and supported Lena in overcoming the problem. Both of them thus coped with changes while being supportive towards each other, showing an advancement and step-forward in their bond and relationship.
Story telling was widely used to flash back into Ying Ying’s stories, to create a stronger contrast and a clearer sense of difference between Ying Ying’s life and Lena’s one. Story telling also allows the reader to understand better on the characters, namely Ying Ying in this case, and hence make more sense of her personality and behaviour towards certain things.
For example, in “Waiting between the trees”, Amy Tan used story telling to allow Ying Ying’s failure in marriage to be told, so that Lena can be persuaded to not let the same mistake of not standing up against unfair treatment happen again, which may cost her life-long happiness.
Amy Tan also used symbolism to highlight a character’s thought. For example, at the end of “The Rice Husband”, Lena came home discovering that a vase has fallen and broken. When Lena said she expected it to fall and break, her mother asked, “Then why don’t you stop it?”
This an example of a symbolism used as the vase represents the broken and unfair relationship between Lena and Harold that Ying Ying saw, and the fact that Lena said she expected this means that Lena realised and still allowed Harold to treat her unfairly, possibly due to her submissive mindset.
Therefore, Ying Ying’s rhetorical question “Then why don’t you stop it?” were to reinforce her stand and highlights her encouragement towards Lena to fight for her rights against Harold.
Ying Ying’s love towards Lena is shown by her sharing her life story with Lena, despite them being some of her worst memory of life, to encourage Lena to stand up against her husband who treated her unfairly. Ying Ying said, “I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side.
I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose”. This shows that those memories of failed marriage and depressing life are “pain” to Ying Ying, yet she is going to recall those stories and share it with Lena to “cut her tiger spirit loose” which means to encourage Lena to strive and fight for her rights, instead of being submissive like herself.
Though Ying Ying has remained submissive for years, she realises that she has passed on her mindset to her daughter, which may cost her daughter her happiness. Ying Ying’s decision to revisit those painful memories also allowed Lena to discover a kind of deep love between the mother and daughter and the importance of expressing one’s feelings, even at the cost of peace and harmony, which is the reason why her neighbour always quarrel in “the voices from wall”.
This is also a form of invisible strength that Ying Ying has taught Lena to use -to express one’s feeling out and do not be afraid to argue or raise objections on others. This is a strength that was deeply buried under Ying Ying’s heart due to the traditional Chinese family’s teaching.
Ying Ying and Lena are reflections of each other, as they share a similar life pattern, while also being each other’s saviour who solved each other’s psychological problems. They show a huge change in the mindset, from passively believing in fate to actively striving for a better life.
Such a large change and the fact that the change is from conservative to openness is very rare in a typical Asian family, hence it avoided the stereotype of Asian women which are generally conservative and obedient to their ancestors’ teaching.
Therefore, Amy Tan avoided the stereotypical portrayal of Asian women through showing a huge change in the mindset of Ying Ying and how she encourages Lena to grow and live in the American way, pretty much opposite of her own family teachings.
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