Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1989

Part 3: "American Translation"

        The "mirror" balance of this tale group’s introductory talk-story condenses much of Tan’s evolving understanding of the competition for authority between mothers and daughters. The mirror metaphor also communicates her sense of the reversals which "mirroring" generations observe when they look backward at their parents or forward at their children. The exact sense in which the daughter sees "her own reflection looking back at her" is left ambiguous, however (159). Her mother appears to assume it would be a good thing to replicate her daughter, but could it be a disaster if the daughter is, herself, a bad child? This section contains some of Tan’s most pointed satire of contemporary American culture as three of the four daughters recount the horrific marriages they have made, mostly to American men, and the bizarre careers they have found themselves pursuing in the booming, "post-feminist" economy of 1980s California. The daughters’ lives are all, in one way or another, falling apart, and their mothers’ efforts to save them run into translation trouble.

Lena St. Clair: "Rice Husband"

        Lena’s marriage to Harold represents a kind of nineteen-eighties "rational revision" of the relationships of their parents. The divisions in their finances reflect the divisions in their lives, and Ying-Ying’s visit acts as a catalyst to expose the fact. On the way, we’re reminded that Rose Hsu Jordan’s marriage has failed, as well (169), and Lena’s fearful lack of self-assertiveness seems to doom her to be victimized by her husband. Notice the way that Harold’s career depends upon his wife’s creativity, but her job as his "employee" effectively traps her career (172-3). They appear to understand each other perfectly until they realize they understand nothing about each other. How might this relate to the problem of "translation," from Chinese to American or from female to male? The symbolic expression of the marriage’s collapse, Harold’s badly designed end-table, collapses to end this tale but the reason for its collapse and the significance of Ying-Ying’s question will be revealed only at the end of the mother’s second tale, "Between the Trees" (which Tan wrote first of all these tales—hmmm...?).

Waverly Jong: "Four Directions"

        The directions are north, south, east, and west, of course, but they’re also suggestive of how Waverly has been pulled in contrary directions by her struggle with her mother. The attempt to score points, to outwit her, has left them both almost unable to communicate, perhaps a legacy of the fight over chess. Her breakthrough, as she tries to stage it by managing to get her mother to invite Rich Shields to dinner, fails as far as she understands it, though her mother appears not to care very much. The real breakthrough comes when she believes her sleeping mother is dead. Why does this have such an enormous effect upon her, and how does her mother respond as she does to Waverly’s admission that "I just don’t know what’s inside me right now?" (201).

Rose Hsu Jordan: "Without Wood"

        An-Mei realizes Rose’s marriage to Ted Jordan is over while her daughter is still denying the fact, lost in the heimongmong or dark fog of her confused emotions. Her conversations with Waverly and Lena do little to help her at first, since both her friends have gone through similar disasters (210-11). The key to her problem, says mom, is that Rose is "without wood," not resistant enough to others’ ideas and prone to being pulled out of the ground like a weed (213). This gets literally expressed in Ted’s garden, which has run amok since he started divorce proceedings, and it’s how Rose finds her strength to turn the tables upon him. How does this give her words power over Ted, and how does it relate to the image of "weeds" in her final dream?

Jing-Mei Woo: "Best Quality"

        Another dinner party catastrophe brings June to realize her struggle with life was pointless—"I was no better than who I was"—but simultaneously she is being given a jade pendant by her mother who tells her it’s her "life’s importance" (233, 235). Aside from illustrating how effortlessly Waverly Jong can still defeat her old playmate and competitor, how does this tale’s conclusion affect our sense of what the competition was all about in the first place? Anglo-American psychology has spent over a century trying to identify the things that make some people happy and productive, and to discover why others cause us misery. What does this tale’s use of the term "life’s importance" suggest about another way to understand the secret of harmonious life? The secret of Jing-Mei’s name will be revealed in the last tale, "Two Tickets," but her mother’s comment about her choice of the crab is the key.