Before Harry Potter sorting hats, before Sex in the City, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club provided readers with a quartet of women with which to classify themselves.
- a Waverly, the ambitious former chess-champ overachiever?
- a Lena, the half-Chinese, half-Irish-American girl who became a passive spectator of her own life?
- a Rose, the Asian Juliet who’s married her white Romeo only to never feel quite good enough for her posh in-laws—or for him?
- or a June (Jing-mei), failed pianist, failed copywriter, failed everything who never seemed to live up to her mother’s grand expectations?
I thought I was a June when I first read it in university.
Okay, so the book provided me with a way to sort myself—me, and maybe other second-generation readers of Chinese descent. But it must have struck a nerve with a wider population, because Tan’s 1989 novel was wildly successful. The book appeared on public school curricula, and excerpts were used in the SAT. It spawned a movie, for which Tan cowrote the screenplay. There were roles for AT LEAST eight Asian women. Ming Na was June! Rosalind Chao was Rose! In a genius casting move, Andrew McCarthy was Rose’s ex, with echoes of Bland—I mean Blaine, the rich, white milquetoast he played in Pretty In Pink.
People talked about Joy Luck—people talked about it with me. But of course, the book’s popularity was a trap as much as it was a gift, because it meant other people—white people—would classify me along those lines.
They probably thought I was a Waverly.
The book is told in alternating first-person voices. After the death of her mother, Suyuan, June is asked to take her place at the Mah Jong board. June’s “aunties”—the mothers of Waverly, Lena, and Rose—reveal that they have found the twin daughters from Suyuan’s first marriage, who she left behind in China while trying to escape Mao Zedong’s forces. The aunties want June to reconnect with the twins in her mother’s place.
Each mother then begins to recount the things she left behind, and the daughters tell stories of their childhoods and the baggage these mothers brought with them—the psychic weight of each personal history.
It’s funny that I began by focusing on the daughters, because the mothers are equally important in this story. In fact, theirs are the details—theirs is the suffering—that many readers remember. An-mei’s disgraced mother cuts off a piece of her arm to make a soup to feed her own ailing parent. A teenaged Lindo is wedded to a confused and childish groom and abused by a mother-in-law desperate for a grandson. Ying-ying marries a cruel and brutal philanderer and aborts fetus after fetus to avoid ties to the man. Her second husband is a white American man who changes her name to Betty, alters the birth year on her papers, welcomes her passivity, and overlooks her severe depression. And Suyuan, the only one who is not alive to tell her own story, is haunted by her failure to save her twin daughters.
Patriarchy—in case you were wondering—is pretty terrible.
I remember June, Lena, Rose, and Waverly’s stories because those are the ones that had the texture of mine. Like June, I was the kid who fell apart during piano recitals.
I kept thinking my fingers would adjust themselves back, like a train switching to the right track. I played this strange humble through two repeats, the sour notes staying with me all the way to the end.
I’m told that most people have naked-at-the-exam dreams. My nightmares involve a piano.
Or, like Lena St. Clair, I was the kid who heard my mom’s tales. I was overwhelmed by her anxiety and depression.
…I began to see terrible things. I saw these things with my Chinese eyes, the part of me that I got from my mother. I saw devils dancing feverishly beneath a hole I had dug in the sandbox. I saw that lightning had eyes and searched to strike down little children… And when I became older, I could see things that Caucasian girls at school did not.
Like Lena, I felt like I had Chinese eyes—and while I didn’t see devils, I always felt my parents’ fear, the consequences of things that had happened to them. But it was hard to explain the weight of such a different history to the white kids, teachers, and neighbors who surrounded me. For a long time, I didn’t. Because here’s the thing: when there aren’t a lot of stories about people like you, you don’t have a vocabulary to explain it. You don’t have a way to tell people why your mom boils the water before you are allowed to drink it. Why she screams at you when you don’t eat an apple down to the very core before throwing it away, when you use too much paper. The consequences of worry and privation—of large events from distant countries—make it into your daily life. The water in your part of Canada is safe to drink. You are not starving. There is no visible reason for your mother’s behavior. The reason is in a past that your classmates don’t know, that their parents never experienced, that doesn’t seem to figure in books, TV, movies, or conversation, that doesn’t seem to exist.
Maybe part of you doesn’t exist. So why is it so loud?
First reading The Joy Luck Club was a relief—such a fucking relief.
It wasn’t just about wanting to find stories about people who looked like me. It was about making it easier for me to say more about myself and to be myself. It wasn’t so lonely to be that—to be me—if some of me seemed to be in a book. Never mind that Amy Tan was at least a generation older than me, that my parents were from Taiwan, not China, and I lived in Canada, not the United States.
Joy Luck was not the first or last work to tackle East Asian immigrant experiences, but because people knew what it was—white people knew what it was—it was an easy, popular reference point. Joy Luck was what I could use when I needed an illustration of what is had been like to grow up with grandparents who didn’t have twinkling blue eyes and plates of gingerbread on their tables.
But it was just one book. Sometimes that was limiting.
Was I a Waverly, a June, a Lena, or a Rose?
Sometimes, it was just easiest to choose from what I was given. Was I ungrateful if it wasn’t enough?
“It didn’t reflect my experience,” my friend Desirée, also second-generation Asian, told me.
Desiree’s family was Filipino Chinese. Mine was from Taiwan. Our families were two tendrils on the mass of ivy that was Chinese diaspora.
I remember a few things about that moment. I remember thinking, If you don’t identify with this book, then what else is there?
What else is there?
I remember her pursed lips as she contemplated my paperback copy.
Desiree was such a Waverly, I thought. So particular. So smart.
So—as it turns out—right.
Because now that I know more—now that I’m the age of the daughters in Joy Luck—I realize it wasn’t always my experience either.
In my earnest, youthful enthusiasm, I told my mom to read the book. My mom was barely keeping it together at that point. I think she may have glared at me before going back to the endless cycle of cleaning, worrying about money, working, and anxiety that characterized her life then.
I’m glad now that she didn’t take me up on it.
There’s a small mention of Suyuan’s mysterious first husband right near the beginning. June is recalling the story her mother tells her about how she ended up on a road, how she had to abandon her twin daughters:
The man who was my husband brought me to Kweilin because he thought we would be safe. He was an officer with the Kuomintang and after he put us down in a small room in a two-story house, he went off to the northwest, to Chungking.
Many, many years after I’d read The Joy Luck Club—read it over and over—I came across that sentence again. “He was an officer with the Kuomintang.”
It’s a throwaway, really. But that is where I got an inkling that this story—the story I’d told myself was mine—was not.
In Tan’s book, the then-ruling political party of China, the Kuomintang, flee Mao. But my family fled the Kuomintang.
I’ve used “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” like they’re interchangeable, but in many ways, they’re not. Both sides of my family had been in Taiwan for hundreds of years. But in 1949, the mainland Chinese Kuomintang fled China and ended up governing the island of Taiwan. The Kuomintang would bring martial law to the country. My parents, native Taiwanese, would see some of their family members imprisoned, their goods confiscated, their rights taken away.
I note this not to dredge up old wounds. My mom doesn’t recoil at the mention of the KMT. She is friends with people a lot like Suyuan. Being an immigrant in North America often forges ties among people who might have been at loggerheads in other countries, while in Taiwan itself, the various parties coexist, intermarry, intermingle. But still, the differences in time, in context, made a difference in my family’s history, in what we were and are.
I erased some of those differences when I didn’t look further than Joy Luck—I erased a part of myself. I can still identify with Rose, Lena, Waverly, June, and with Suyuan, Lindo, An-mei, and Ying-ying. But now I know more. I’ve read more, and I want more.
It’s not a desire to just see myself, or to see that I exist, that makes me seek out books by authors of many races and backgrounds now. I want to reach out, and I want to be reached. Yes, young me could have used more books, more different kinds of books, more characters of my own and other races, more children and rebellious teenagers and adults kissing, or solving mysteries or navigating the lunchroom, or fighting dragons. My friends could have used more stories that helped them talk to me and me talk to them.
My mom could have used books. Because there was so much she couldn’t voice—so much more to her than anxiety, and anger, and depression, and mothering—and I know she felt alone.
My parents visited me recently. It was, for a number of reasons, tense.
They heard me reading Dumpling Days by Grace Lin to my daughter. It’s a wry and insightful semi-autobiographical novel (aimed at middle grades) about a Taiwanese-American girl’s mixed experiences during a visit to her parents’ homeland. My daughter loves it and wants to read from it almost every night.
My mom snagged it—sometimes, she and my daughter pulled it from the others’ hands—and sped through it in a matter of days.
When she was done, she came to me with a sad smile on her face. “When you went to Taiwan, did you feel this way?” she asked hesitantly.
There was more to the question. Did you hate it? Or perhaps, Did you hate this part of me?
“I was older, and I knew the language,” I told her, “so it was different for me.”
But I told her that the book filled in gaps. It told me a stories that I didn’t know and gave me answers for questions I didn’t know to ask.
My mom nodded. We didn’t really talk about it again.
But when I read more to my daughter, my mom was listening, sometimes correcting my pronunciation, laughing, sometimes just standing still. And the story, for that brief moment, held all three of us together.
Top photo: flickr / amar