Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, and follows protagonist June’s attempt to fill her late mother’s spot with her aunties at their weekly mah-jong game. Through this, eating wonton and consuming chaswei, June uncovers a secret about her mother, forcing the women to explore the complex relationship they have with each other, and by extension, the complex family dynamics of traditional parents with their westernised children. This book contains sixteen interwoven stories about conflicts between Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters, exploring the familial conflicts that can arise between a ‘modernised’ child and their ‘traditional’ mother.
The novel contains four sections made up of four chapters, mimicking the game of mah-jong, which is played in four rounds with at least four hands each. Tan demonstrates her literary skill through her beautifully woven spiderweb of each familial conflict. The narrative alternates between early twentieth-century China and the contemporary United States, yanking the reader between the harsh realities of wartime Guizhou or the rural villages of Shansi, and the familiar comfort of San Francisco. This juxtaposition highlights the extent of the generational divide.
I have never truly understood what people mean when they say they felt “seen” by a book until I picked up this novel. Tan manages to not only reflect almost every emotion I have felt growing up in a family of mixed South East and East Asian cultures, but explores the generational conflict that often arises. This novel turns the mirror back onto the reader and subverts the question almost all children have growing up; what if we also do not understand our parents?
As a result, The Joy Luck Club tackles the self-imposed whitewashing many children of immigrants can find themselves experiencing. The shame of coming from a family in which the father believes in using old Chinese medicine or a mother whose superstitions hide in her shadows, or as one of the characters questions “how could I tell him my mother was crazy?”. The protagonists dismiss the beliefs of their mothers in a way that felt eerily similar to how I always internally dismissed my mothers calls for me to connect with my roots more. Tan forces the reader to confront how their internalised racism has impacted their relationship with their parents, the representation of their motherland.
As the world becomes smaller and social media becomes more popular, many children are forced to face racism sooner. Even things as seemingly harmless as food will motivate people of East Asian descent to distance themselves from their heritage. Younger and younger, children are having their peers pull faces at the foods their parents have packed, a small piece of the homeland half the world away. Universally, Tan explores the desire to be seen and heard as one is. Through The Joy Luck Club, Tan explores the traumatising and long-lasting impact this cultural divide, self-imposed or not, can have on their relationship with their mothers.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng