The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club is a book about differences: between mothers and daughters, between China and America, between old and new life. It is about understanding why we are all so different, why we so often don’t understand each other.

From first pages I absolutely LOVED the book. It reminded me so much about my own country and the way things are there. The things we were taught, the things we grew up with. I guess as a new immigrant I’m more like those mothers, than their daughters:

“There is a school of thought,” I said, “that parents shouldn’t criticize children. They should encourage instead. You know, people rise to other people’s expectations. And when you criticize, it just means you’re expecting failure.”
“That’s the trouble,” my mother said. “You never rise. Lazy to get up. Lazy to rise to expectations.”

This is so true. The Chinese (Russian, Ukrainian, you name it) way of thinking in comparison with American/Canadian way.

“Everybody has TVs in China now,” says Auntie Lin, changing the subject. “Our family there all has TV sets—not just black-and-white, but color and remote! They have everything. So when you asked them what we should buy them, they said nothing, it was enough that we would come to visit them. But we bought them different things anyway, VCR and Sony Walkman for their kids. They said, No, don’t give us, but I think they liked it.”

Such a different way of looking at things and saying things… They say they don’t need anything but in their hearts they’re hoping you bring them all the presents they wished for. And they think that everyone overseas is rich, not only has money but has A LOT of it.

Auntie An-mei and Uncle George were shaken down, not just for two thousand dollars’ worth of TVs and refrigerators, but also for a night’s lodging for twenty-six people in the Overlooking the Lake Hotel, for three banquet tables at a restaurant that catered to rich foreigners, for three special gifts for each relative, and finally, for a loan of five thousand yuan in foreign exchange to a cousin’s so-called uncle who wanted to buy a motorcycle but who later disappeared for good along with the money.

The same words spoken by Chinese-born mothers and American-born daughters mean completely different things:

“I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise.”

Compare your views of ‘bad’ things happening in the life and a completely opposite view of the immigrant-mothers. A 12 year old Lindo Jong had to move-in with her future in-laws, while her family was moving far away from her. Ever since she was engaged she was considered the new family’s daughter. She was old enough to go live with her ‘true’ family:

That first day, I stood in my best padded dress at the low wooden table and began to chop vegetables. I could not keep my hands steady. I missed my family and my stomach felt bad, knowing I had finally arrived where my life said I belonged. But I was also determined to honor my parents’ words, so Huang Taitai could never accuse my mother of losing face. She would not win that from our family.

While reading about the day of the Festival of Pure Brightness I felt being pulled back by an invisible thread into my own childhood. This was what we did once a year in Ukraine. We name it differently, but the meaning and the actions are still very much the same:

That’s the day when everyone goes to the family graves. They bring hoes to clear the weeds and brooms to sweep the stones and they offer dumplings and oranges as spiritual food. Oh, it’s not a somber day, more like a picnic, but it has special meaning to someone looking for grandsons.

Did you ever have a secret wish… Did you ever wonder what ‘secret wish’ means, why is it called ‘secret’? I never thought about it before now:

“What is a secret wish?”

“It is what you want but cannot ask,” said Amah.

“Why can’t I ask?”

“This is because … because if you ask it … it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire,” said Amah. “Haven’t I taught you—that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen.”

There are so many restrictions, so many rules. I grew up with many similar ones:

“A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because it is his nature,” she said. “But a girl should stand still. If you are very still for a very long time, a dragonfly will no longer see you. Then it will come to you and hide in the comfort of your shadow.”

The fishing scene just blew my mind… I just hope it is real. Just imagine:

The rough-looking boys were removing a large, squawking long-necked bird from a bamboo cage. The bird had a metal ring around its neck. One boy held onto the bird, wrapping his arms around the bird’s wings. The other tied a thick rope to a loop on the metal neck ring. Then they released the bird and it swooped with a flurry of white wings, hovered over the edge of the boat, then sat on top of shiny water. I walked over the edge of the boat and looked at the bird. He looked back at me warily with one eye. Then the bird dove under the water and disappeared.

One of the boys threw a raft made of hollow reed flutes into the water and then dove in and emerged on top of the raft. In a few seconds, the bird also emerged, its head struggling to hold onto a large fish. The bird jumped onto the raft and then tried to swallow the fish, but of course, with the ring around its neck, it could not. In one motion, the boy on the raft snatched the fish from the bird’s mouth and threw it to the other boy on the boat.

The book is filled with information about local customs and culture I could not read fast enough to consume everything that was given to me:

Each week one of us would host a party to raise money and to raise our spirits. The hostess had to serve special dyansyin foods to bring good fortune of all kinds—dumplings shaped like silver money ingots, long rise noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life.

That candle was a marriage bond that was worth more than Catholic promise not to divorce. It meant I couldn’t divorce and I couldn’t ever remarry, even if Tyan-yu died. That red candle was supposed to seal me forever with my husband and his family, no excuses afterward.

It’s clear what has happened. A woman can have sons only if she is deficient in one of the elements. Your daughter-in-law was born with enough wood, fire, water, and earth, and she was deficient in metal, which was a good sign. But when she was married, you loaded her down with gold bracelets and decorations and now she has all the elements, including metal. She’s too balanced to have babies.

On Stockton Street, we wandered from one fish store to another, looking for the liveliest crabs.

“Don’t get a dead one,” warned my mother in Chinese. “Even a beggar won’t eat a dead one.”

I poked the crabs with a pencil to see how feisty they were. If a crab grabbed on, I lifted it out and into a plastic sack. I lifted one crab this way, only to find one of its legs had been clamped onto another crab. In the brief tug-of-war, my crab lost a limb.

“Put it back,” whispered my mother. “A missing leg is a bad sign on Chinese New Year.”

The story about crab was absolutely hilarious. Next time I’m visiting “T & T” I hope to see how local Chinese are choosing their crabs. I always notice the crabs and the broken limbs scattered over the floor, but I have no idea if the crab with the limb(s) missing was ever chosen for supper.

We all seem to know our parents love us and it is customary for them to show it by saying “I love you!” all the time and by buying us presents they normally cannot afford. Apparently, Chinese mothers are different:

I was not too fond of the crab, every since I saw my birthday crab boiled alive, but I knew I could not refuse. That’s the way Chinese mothers show they love their children, not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab.

To tell you the truth Ukraine is very similar: one of the ways you can show your love to the family and relatives is to eat everything that is given to you. (No matter how much you ate before that, no matter how much you hate this particular dish, no matter what…) And you should always remember to say how much you loved the dish and how much better it was in comparison to somebody else’s cooking:

”Just be sure to tell her later that her cooking was the best you ever tasted, that it was far better than Auntie Su’s,” I told Rich. “Believe me.”

The story about the turtle was probably the most beautiful tale, I’ve ever heard:

“The turtle feeds on our thoughts,” said my mother. “I learned this one day, when I was your age, and Popo said I could no longer be a child. She said I could not shout, or run, or sit on the ground ato catch crickets. I could not cry if I was disappointed. I had to be silent and listen to my elders. And if I did not do this, Popo said she would cut off my hair and send me to a place where Buddhist nuns lived.

“That night, after Popo told me this, I sat by the pond, looking into the water. And because I was weak, I began to cry. Then I saw this turtle swimming to the top and his beak was eating my tears as soon as they touched the water. He ate them quickly, five, six, seven tears, then climbed out of the pond, crawled onto a smooth rock and began to speak.

“The turtle said, ‘I have eaten your tears, and this is why I know your misery. But I must warn you. If you cry, your life will always be sad.’

“Then the turtle opened his beak and out poured five, six, seven pearly eggs. The eggs broke open and from them emerged seven birds, who immediately began to chatter and sing. I knew from their snow-white bellies and pretty voices that they were magpies, birds of joy. These birds bent their beaks to the pond and began to drink greedily. And when I reached out my hand to capture one, they all rose up, beat their black wings in my face, and flew up into the air, laughing.”

“ ’Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.’ ”

I wish I was able to read Chinese as it would have been so much easier to understand littlest details that are invisible to the regular reader. The book offered some comfort in learning the different meanings for the words based merely on pronunciation:

She said this word, sz, so hatefully I shuddered. It sounded like the sz that means “die.” And I remembered Popo once telling me four is a very unlucky number because if you say it in an angry way, it always comes out wrong.

“And what does Ma’s name mean?” I whisper.

“ ‘Suyuan,‘ ” he says, writing more invisible characters on the glass. “The way she write it in Chinese, it mean ‘Long-Cherished Wish.’ Quite a fancy name, not so ordinary like flower name. See this first character, it mean something like ‘Forever Never Forgotten.’ But there is another way to write ‘Suyuan.’ Sound exactly the same, but the meaning is opposite.” His finger creates the brushstrokes of another character. “The first part look the same: ‘Never Forgotten.’ But the last part add to first part make the whole word mean ‘Long-Held Grudge.’ You mother get angry with me, I tell her her name should be Grudge.”

Do you know that by reading someone’s face you can tell their fortune? There is so much poetry in the words, you just cannot stop but follow:

My mother—your grandmother—once told me my fortune, how my character could lead to good and bad circumstances.


She touched my ear. “Your are lucky,” she said. “You have my ears, a big thick lobe, lots of meat at the bottom, full of blessings. Some people are born so poor. Their ears are so thin, so close to their head, they can never hear luck calling them. You have right ears, but you must listen to your opportunities.”

She ran her thin finger down my nose. “You have my nose. The hole is not too big, so your money will not be running out. The nose is straight and smooth, a good sign. A girl with a crooked nose is bound for misfortune. She is always following the wrong things, the wrong people, the worst luck.”

She tapped my chin and then hers. “Not too short, not too long. Our longevity will be adequate, not cut off too soon, not so long we become a burden.”

She pushed my hair away from my forehead. “We are the same,” concluded my mother. “Perhaps your forehead is wider, so you will be even more clever. And your hair is thick, the hairline is low on your forehead. This means you will have some hardships in your early life. This happened to me. But look at my hairline now. High! Such a blessing for my old age. Later your will learn to worry and lose your hair, too.”

She took my chin in her hand. She turned my face toward her, eyes facing eyes. She moved my face to one side, then to the other. “The eyes are honest, eager,” she said. “They follow me and show respect. They do not look down in shame. They do not resist and turn the opposite way. You will be a good wife, mother, and daughter-in-law.”

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