Finding Joy and Luck in America

When I was in middle school I saw the television film adaptation of Amy Tan’s book The Joy Luck Club and fell in love.  I even asked my parents to buy the movie for me as a Christmas present.  Two years ago I had the opportunity to listen to Amy Tan deliver a lecture and received an autographed copy of her book.  Amy Tan’s the Joy Luck Club is her first major novel which depicts the struggle between mothers and daughters, and more broadly, the struggle within the Chinese American community to maintain their cultural heritage in America. This struggle is typically a generational conflict but is also between Chinese who immigrate to America and those born in America.

The conflict between maintaining Chinese values or deferring to American values is encapsulated in Two Kinds when American born Jung Mei says to her mother, “I am not your slave. This isn’t China.” Jung Mei’s Chinese mother replies, “Only two kind of daughter. Obedient kind and one that follow own mind. Only one kind of daughter live in this house, obedient kind.” [1]

(Clip from The Joy Luck Club)

Jung Mei’s refusal to comply with her mother’s wishes to become an accomplished pianist would have been unheard of in China, where filial respect and achievement is woven into the fabric of society.  Individual achievements are shared within your family and community and reflect their character as well your own.  Therefore, self worth is dependent on pleasing your family and community, primarily through educational, monetary success and filial responsibility.  In The English Professor Rusheng, who was born in China and teaches American English in America, is convinced that one spelling error will ruin his chances at receiving tenure, will disappoint the local Chinese community, ruin his social status and potentially his marriage.  He considers changing job fields and to start from scratch [2]. Rusheng is very aware of the Chinese cultural expectations of him and the criteria for American success in his field.

With each generation born in America and who never visit China, respect for Chinese culture seems to diminish.  The priority of those who are born in America in author Hua Jin’s Children as Enemies is to assimilate into American society, rejecting the expectations of their immigrant grandparents. Qigan Xi and Hua Xi are young siblings who are often teased at school and wish to change their Chinese names to normal American names to fit in. Their grandfather angrily tries to explain the importance of their names which were chosen by fortune-tellers in traditional Chinese practice, to no avail [1].  Assimilating into American life implies not only a danger to Chinese traditions, but can destroy family relationships and gender roles as well. The Xi grandparents arrived from China to live with their only son Gubin and his family, but quickly realize that this was a mistake.  Gubin has become compliant to his wife and children in America, which seems to rob both Gubin of his manliness and parental authority and the grandparents of their wisdom and respect [3].

On the other hand, America provides opportunity for economic advancement and better living standards then those found in China.  In Shame, Professor Meng becomes an illegal immigrant in New York, leaving his sick wife in China and his career as a Professor, in order to raise money and experience a new life as a dishwasher. He can never return to China [4]. Jung Mei’s mother is also optimistic about American possibilities in the beginning, but learns that the success is hard to come-by [5].  As these examples suggest Chinese migrants are expected to sacrifice aspects of their life in China, in return for an America life.

According to the readings, there are no easy solutions to the dilemma between maintaining Chinese values and achieving success in America. Without strong ties to China, this heritage is lost by degrees as migrants and Chinese Americans assimilate into American society. However, at the end of the Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan does provide hope of reconciliation as Jung Mei takes up her mother’s dreams and returns to China to reconnect with her lost family and discover her heritage. Through this journey she is finally able to be at once Chinese and American.

[1] Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” In Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

[2] Jin, Ha. “An English Professor.” In A Good Fall, by Ha Jin. Vintage International, 2009.

[3] Jin, Ha. “Children as Enemies.” In A Good Fall, by Ha Jin. Vintage International, 2009.

[4] Jin, Ha. “Shame.” In A Good Fall, by Ha Jin. Vintage International, 2009.

[5]Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” In Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

8 thoughts on “Finding Joy and Luck in America

  1. I think the issue of losing one’s “cultural values” is a common dilemma for families and individuals who move to the United States for a better life. It’s a hard dichotomy between having moved to a place in order to have a better life, while still maintaining values and practices from the place that was left. As we’ve talked about in classes before, I think that a lot of the time, immigrants (and not only Asian immigrants) have an incredibly difficult time deciding which aspects of culture to maintain, and which to let go for the greater purpose of assimilation. For many of these immigrant families, the first generation immigrants struggle to maintain more traditional cultural values, then children often push these values away, hoping to seem more “normal” and “American”. With time, from what I have learned and picked up on, these same children, or their children, come around and eventually want to ensure that their more traditional culture is not lost with their parents.

    1. We’ve been talking a lot about the children of immigrants moving away from traditional values. This semester, we’ve also talked about how the grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants are swinging the pendulum in the other direction, trying to recapture lost traditions. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit, and I think the pendulum hasn’t swung as far as we’d like. I think the grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants have largely engaged in a pick-and-choose of values and traditions. Our generation embraces their heritage when it’s convenient, and then embraces American assimilation when it’s convenient. For example, I’d have friends go take a Yiddish class “to feel more connected to their heritage” and then go grab a bacon cheeseburger for lunch. I’m not passing any judgment on whether that’s good or bad, but I do think it’s an interesting cultural phenomenon to note.

      1. Amanda, I agree with you that there is often a lot of convenient observation of heritage in the United States. As exemplified in many of these readings, American and the World as a whole, move at such a fast pace that cultural and historical heritage is fleetingly observed. This reminds me of the grandfather in Ha Jin’s “Children As Enemies” when he states, “In America it feels as if the older you are, the more inferior you grow” (Jin 80). While American has quickly embraced and moved towards a high-speed and interconnected world, I believe that museums, through discussion and learning, can serve as a bridge between the past and the present. As museum professionals, our job is not only to preserve and share history, but to connect it and make it relevant in an ever-changing world instead of just “convenient.”

      2. I have also noticed this selective adoption of cultural traditions, and I wonder if it is a function of youth. I know that for myself and many of my peers, our late teens and early twenties were a period of intense experimentation with our identities. A lot of this experimentation was inconsistent and didn’t really fit who we are. As we have grown older, I have noticed a lot less of this as we settle into our careers and relationships. This is not to say that fully grown adults don’t take a selective approach to their ethnic heritage, but that their identities are usually more stable.

        I think another this is that this is very much an American phenomenon. We live in a country where you are free to pick and choose your identity. There are certain places where if you’re a Jew no matter what. In America, it is different.

  2. The link between someone’s name and their identity has been a recurring theme this semester. We kicked off the semester with the exercise where we explained how we received all the versions of our names, proper and informal alike. Many of the stories we’ve read and people we’re learned about this semester considered their name to be an integral part of their identity, or struggled when it did not seem to match their version of who they were. Gatsby changed his name in an effort to recreate himself. Malcah Zeldis, the folk artist we learned about during Paul’s guest lecture, gave herself that name after living on a kibbutz in Israel for several years. Jennifer Finney Boylan spoke eloquently about the changes not only to her body, but to her name. Junior felt like he had to go by his given name, Arnold, to really fit into his new whitebread school. Given these and other instances of name playing into identity, I was very affected by “Children as Enemies.” Their desire to completely Americanize their names, to the point where their Chinese names left almost no trace, seems like the ultimate rejection of culture. It once again reaffirmed how defining a person’s name really is and how powerful a tool changing it can be.

  3. I can’t help but thinking about the brouhaha that ensued in January over the release of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. While many criticized the text after a release of an excerpt by the Wall Street Journal, author Amy Chua’s extended subtitle explains the underlying themes: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

    In each of these stories it is easy to pass judgment on the decisions and reactions made by the characters as overly critical, overly harsh, overly Chinese in an American setting. But at the heart of all of these stories lies the same theme that Chua discovered in her writing: the bitter clash of cultures.

  4. I think that your blog and our upcoming class discussion are very timely. As we have seen with the recent publication of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the issues you bring up are still around. In fact, Amy Chua discusses in her book that she would make her daughter practice the piano for hours on end, without dinner or bathroom breaks, until she learned a piece to her mother’s satisfaction. Chua’s “tough love” parenting style reflects Jung Mei’s mother’s style in “The Joy Luck Club.” She is strict with her children because she wants them to succeed and believes that the best way to ensure success is to force them into it.
    Although Chua absolutely does not speak for all Chinese mothers, her “tough love” parenting philosophy has won both criticism and praise in the United States. She has struck a cord with American mothers who believe that this country is raising a generation of lazy, complacent children. At the same time, she has come up against other American mothers who believe in letting their children find their own way and not pressuring them. I also think that the conflict between mother and daughter in the Joy Luck Club transcends American/Chinese cultural differences and any specific time and place. It is a universal, timeless theme that practically all mothers and daughters can relate to in some way.

  5. I also saw Amy Tan speak two years ago. I wonder if we were at the same museum related event. 🙂 I was really struck by her topic. She spoke about memory and museums. She said that her books are about memory between generations and cultures. In her opinion, museums have the same job as her books. They should perserve memory. I think that Amy Tan would disagree with you. She believes in the importance of understanding your Chinese self. Her books work to help her understand her mother and her Chinese background. She writes to inspire others to remember their origins.

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