Monday, June 6, 2011

He was hulihudu. The power of my words was that strong.

I recently finished re-reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club for my China Rican reading challenge. It's a series of connected stories about mothers and daughters, about remembering the past and looking forward to the future. Four women came over from China around the 1940s and together formed the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mahjong club where they could remember their homes, gossip about their neighborhood and brag about their children. The story begins with Jing-Mei Woo taking the place of her recently deceased mother, Suyuan Woo, who started the Joy Luck Club. She's worried she can never fill her mother's shoes and when she had mentioned someone once commented how alike Jing-Mei and her mother were, Suyuan responded "You don't even know littler percent of me! How can you be me?" (15). And thus we hear the histories of the 4 members of the clubs: An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, Ying-Ying St. Clair and Suyuan, whose story is told through her daughter.

Jing-Mei isn't the only one worried about not understanding her mother and the other half of the book is dedicated to stories from the Joy Luck Club member's daughters (Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong and Lena St. Clair), tales from their childhood in San Francisco and then their lives in the present. The theme between all of the families is tension between the generations. None of the daughters feel that they know their mothers and indeed the stories told in the mothers' stories are not shared with their children. Only Jing-Mei hears the full story about her mother and only after she is gone. The mothers feel this disconnect as well, a rift between Chinese customs and American life. Lindo Jong 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?" (289).

I preferred the mothers' stories. Maybe because China is so foreign to me or because all of the stories take place pre-1940s but whatever the reason, they felt more like legends or fairy tales, with morals and lessons to be learned. Every action, every event has some deeper meaning. The daughters' stories are modern, especially when they are older and their stories deal with their careers and relationships. These are still well written and interesting stories, but compared to the mothers' stories they're mundane. The don't have the spark that their mothers' histories have.

It's easy to forget that parents have lies before kids. Logically, you know this is the case.. You can be told the stories and see the pictures, but really accepting and understanding this as truth is a different. I know my mom was someone before she was my mom. She grew up a little of everywhere, from Taiwan to Libya to the States* and I can be told this is the case but every once in awhile it will hit me that it's true. My mom recently took a trip to Egypt and has a picture of herself on a camel. I thought it was great and we never traveled around much when I was little so I forget she has spent plenty of time outside the US. She sent the photo to my aunt who responded with "Who cares. You did that when you were in the 4th grade" and it hits me that these aren't her first trips. They're just her first trips since I've been here and clearly I'm the center of the universe so nothing happened before I was around. Everyone just waited quietly in dark rooms until I arrived.

Jing-Mei comes to a similar realization. She remembers her mother saying a bomb had fallen on the family home and killed everyone, so they had no family back at home. She recalls her mother "had said this so matter-of-factly that I had thought she had long since gotten over any grief she had." It's not until Jing-Mei prods, asking how can she really know that they all died and that they didn't get out of the house in time that her mother tells her the story of going back to search through the wreckage and finding a doll that had belonged to her niece. "She cried if that doll was not with her always. Do you see? If she was in the house with that doll, her parents were there and so everybody was there, waiting together, because that's how our family was" ( 313-314). She knows the basic story of her mother's life in China, but it's difficult to relate to it as real people when it's her mother.

Amy Tan's prose is simple and beautiful. It's not overly decorative or overly complicated, but she paints vivid pictures of her character's lives. As I said, I prefer the mothers' stories and I think from the way they're written, Tan preferred writing these as well. They're stronger, more lyrical than the modern daughters' stories.

And thus one down in my China Rican reading month. Next up something from the Puerto Rican side.

Title quote for page 219

*Military family

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Ballantine Books, 1989.