Every person comes to a point in their life when they begin to search for themselves and their identity. Usually it is a long process and takes a long time with many wrong turns along the way. Family, teachers, and friends all help to develop a person into an individual and adult. Parents play the largest role in evolving a person. Amy Tan, author of the Joy Luck Club, uses this theme in her book. Four mothers have migrated to America from China because of their own struggles. They all want their daughters to grow up successful and without any of the hardships they went through.
One mother, Suyuan, imparts her knowledge on her daughter through stories. The American culture influences her daughter, Jing Mei, to such a degree that it is hard for Jing Mei to understand her mother’s culture and life lessons. Yet it is not until Jing Mei realizes that the key to understanding who her mother was and who she is lies in understanding her mother’s life. Jing Mei spends her American life trying to pull away from her Chinese heritage, and therefore also ends up pulling away from her mother.
Jing Mei does not understand the culture and does not feel it is necessary to her life. When she grows up it is not “fashionable” to be called by your Chinese name (26). She doesn’t use, understand, or remember the Chinese expressions her mother did, claiming she “can never remember things [she] didn’t understand in the first place” (6). Jing Mei “begs” her mother “to buy [her] a transistor radio”, but her mother refuses when she remembers something from her past, asking her daughter “Why do you think you are missing something you never had? 13)
Instead of viewing the situation from her mother’s Chinese-influenced side, Jing Mei takes the American materialistic viewpoint and “sulks in silence for an hour” (13). By ignoring her mom and her mom’s advice, Jing Mei is also ignoring some of the similarities between her and her mother. Suyuan has also rejected some of the Chinese traditions. Suyuan rejects the women-repressive Chinese traditions when she tells her daughter that she “believed you could be anything you want to be in America” (141).
Suyuan continually tells Jing Mei her “Kweilin story” as a child, the story of the origins of the Joy Luck Club as well as her mother’s past hardships. Yet despite the importance of the story and the events constituting the story to Suyuan, Jing Mei “never thought [her] mother’s Kweilin story was anything but a Chinese fairy tale” (12). The story would have the same meaning to Jing Mei as if she were being told the story of Sleeping Beauty, or some other American bedtime story. When Jing Mei recognizes the similarities between her mother and herself she begins to understand not only her mother but herself as well.
There are subtle connections and likenesses from the beginning between Jing Mei and her mother that Jing Mei does not see. The book commences with Jing Mei taking her mother’s place at the mah jong table, creating a similarity between them from the beginning. Suyuan dies two months before the start of the book, and therefore is not able to tell the stories. Jing Mei has learned and must tell her stories in her place, forming another parallelism between mother and daughter. Because Suyuan is dead, Jing Mei must act in place of her mother when she goes to meet her Chinese sisters in China.
Throughout the book Jing Mei takes the place of Suyuan, showing she and her mother have a unique link even with the barrier of the living world. Jing Mei finally begins to realize her identity and past when she travels in place of her mother to China to meet her two twin sisters. Suyuan had to make the hard decision to leave her twin babies on the side of the road in hopes some kind stranger would take them in, that way she would not have to see them die. Suyuan searches for her babies all through her life in America, sending multitudes of letters; they finally get in touch with her two months after she has died.
Because her mother is not alive to meet her children, Jing Mei takes her place and the trip enables her to finally recognize her Chinese ancestry. The minute she enters China she “feels different” and can realize that she is “becoming Chinese” (306). At fifteen Jing Mei believed she was only as Chinese as her “Caucasian friends” (306). Yet her mother counters thoughts, telling her: “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese” (306). Once in China Jing Mei decides her mother was right and she “has never really known what it meant to be Chinese” (307).
She has never understood her mother or her heritage. This trip is the connecting link to understanding her life. She begins to feel natural in China, thinking to herself on the train: “I am in China It feels right” (312). Jing Mei sees the landscape, the people, the histories, and the families in China and sees where her mother was speaking from all of those years. She knows a “little percent” of her mother know (15). It becomes “obvious” to Jing Mei to see what “part of [her] is Chinese”; it is “in her family, in her blood” (331).
Jing Mei finally realizes herself when she travels to China, trying to connect with her mother and searching for her identity. The longer she stays in China, the more connected Jing Mei feels to her mother, the more she feels at home, and the more she understands what her mother was trying to teach her. At last when Jing Mei embraces her sisters for the first time at the airport, and they look at the Polaroid so view their similarities, Jing Mei realizes the part of her that is Chinese is her family. She must embrace the memory of her dead mother to grasp that part of her identity.