"All My Good Intentions"
Chinese Mothers and their American Daughters
Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club
“”No choice! No choice!” She doesn’t know. If she
doesn’t speak, she is making a choice. If she doesn’t try, she can
lose her chance forever.
I know this because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.
And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.” (Tan 241)
In desperation, mother An-Mei Hsu describes her frustration over her own mother-daughter relationship in Amy Tan’s The JoyLuck Club. Four Chinese born mothers and their four American born daughters tell stories from their own point of view about their relationships with one another: mother-mother, mother-daughter, and daughter-daughter. The way these stories weave in and out of the past and present, and how these women’s lives unfolded tell much of what women are taught to think of themselves, and how it shapes their lives. How a mother hopes to give her daughter strength, respect for herself, and a bond between mother and daughter, as told by the mothers, is reflected back by how each daughter processes what she perceives her mothers’ lessons to be.
All of the mothers came to America to escape the horrors of war. They hoped for the prosperity and ease that living in the United States would afford them. With them they brought the sacred teachings of Taoism and Confucianism. Peter Tavernise defines these ancient traditions in "Fasting of the Heart: Mother-Tradition and Sacred Systems in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club." Jing-mei describes her limited understanding of these concepts as, “The elements were from my mother’s own version of organic chemistry.” (Tan 19) Tavernise states, “Just as in the Confucian ritual system, very little of the mother-tradition in the text is told explicitly from mother to daughter: ritual actions are supposed to be observed, absorbed, read, and understood in order to be transformed, preserved and handed down in turn.” (http://www.mindspring.com/~petert/tan.html The American born daughters were taught religious elements in a Christian church. The cultural aspects of their mother’s beliefs could not be absorbed in this way for them and Rose tells of how it also affected her mother after the drowning of her son, “But later, after my mother lost her faith in God, that leatherette Bible wound up wedged under a too-short table leg, a way for her to correct the imbalances of life.” (Tan 122)
The mothers struggled with how to put their Chinese heritage into their daughter’s lives. When the ladies of the Joy Luck Club give Jing-mei the ticket to go to China to meet her mother’s lost twin daughters, they tell her, “But most important, you must tell them about her life. The mother they did not know, they must now know.” (Tan 30) Jing-mei responds, “What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything. She was my mother.” (Tan 31) Horrified, the mothers answer, “How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!” (Tan 31) Even though we spent years in each other’s lives, we cannot say what our mothers are like, and it is sad. We may spend years trying to figure out what it was we think our mothers did to us in therapy. To her daughter Rose, An-mei says, "Why can you talk about this with a psyche-atric and not with mother?" (Tan 210) “I know how it is to live your life like a dream. To listen and watch, to wake up and try to understand what has already happened. You do not need a psychiatrist to do this. A psychiatrist does not want you to wake up.” (Tan 272)
I find it very interesting that the younger women in the book are in their thirties. This is a time of life after which we might think we know who we are, and that depends on how well we have gained independence from our mothers. But that independence is gained because very often we push away everything we think our mothers taught us. "I won't let her change me, I promised myself. I won't be what I'm not," says an angry Jing-mei. (Tan 144) Sometimes, we don't know who we are, or who to be. Lena certainly suffered from her mother's incapability to be there for her during a very crucial time in her development. "Because, even as a young child, I could sense the unspoken terrors that surrounded our house, the ones that chased my mother until she hid in a secret dark corner of her mind. And still they found her. I watched, over the years, as they devoured her, piece by piece, until she disappeared and became a ghost." (Tan 105)
The mothers are sensing that this is the time to make things right with their daughters, before it is too late. Some of the daughters, in their own stories, came to realize that they could finally make some sense of what their mothers intentions were. Things that had been passed down from mother to daughter in China and then mother to daughter in America, began to have some meaning, and did not seem old fashioned anymore. Cultural pride and the hardships that women face because of their gender were things that the mothers wanted to help their daughters understand, especially, “…nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.” (Tan 3) The woman saving the swan feather for her daughter all those years mirrors what I would like to say to my own daughter, “…it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.”(Tan 3-4) To me, that sums up the meaning of this book and the mother-daughter relationships in it.
The cultural aspects of this book show how frustrating it is to raise children in a society different than that of the parents. Lindo says, “I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?” (Tan 289) After telling her daughter, Waverly not to throw out her unfinished coffee or she will be throwing her blessings away, Waverly comments, “Don’t be so old fashioned, Ma. I’m my own person.” (Tan 290) The relationship between this pair is troubled by the way that Lindo, who wanted to be like her own mother, is hurt by what she sees as Waverly not wanting to be at all like her mother. In China, these women were taught that to become a woman it was an honor to become like her mother. In American society, the goal is to become our own person, and to blame mother for whatever is wrong with us.
The cultural training of submissive Chinese woman runs through the older women’s stories. They were taught that girls were to be quiet and obedient or they would shame their families. Today there is a web site, China Bride, which is a service devoted to men who are looking for the stereotypical Asian woman and I found it quite interesting in this day and age. (http://www.chinabride.com/gen/main.html) Tan depicts the aging mothers as wanting their daughters to have a voice, to have choices, to cultivate strength. Ying-Ying says, "I raised a daughter, watching her from another shore. I accepted her American ways. With all these things I did not care. I had no spirit.” “Now I must tell my daughter everything. That she is the daughter of a ghost. She has no chi. This is my greatest shame. How can I leave this world without leaving her my spirit?” She will fight me, because that is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.” (Tan 286)
When Jing-mei goes to China to meet the babies that her mother longed
to find, she realizes some of the things her mother wanted for her all
her life. "My mother's long- cherished wish. Me, the younger
sister who was supposed to be the essence of the others." (Tan 323)
Chinese character and thought, respect for family, and a mother’s love
for her daughters became clearer to Jing-mei. As they meet for the
first time, the three sisters all feel the spirit present but not seen,
the connecting element, the mother that had brought them each into the
world. "And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is
so obvious. It is my family. It is our blood. After all
these years, it can finally be let go." (Tan331) Jing-mei knew her
mother’s meaning, in all that her mother had done. And the rest of
the women of The Joy Luck Club hope that their daughters will find their
mother’s meaning as well, before they are gone on to the next world.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York. Ivy Books. 1989.
Tavernise, Peter. "Fasting of the Heart: Mother-Tradition and
Sacred Systems in Amy
Tan’s The Joy Luck Club." 23 March 2000. http://www.mindspring.com/~petert/tan.htm
The China Bride Page. 23 March 2000. http://www.chinabride.com/gen/main.html