November 20, 2013

NG | Rethinking Amy Tan

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It’s time we stopped reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

This is hypocritical for me, because I myself read it when I was a bookish sixth grader. I loved it. The Joy Luck Club made concrete a certain unease I had as a Chinese kid living in America: that I was different somehow.

Unlike my previous columns, which lean faux-academic, this one is more personal. Race is an unavoidably personal topic, especially when it’s about the one you belong to. And with Chinese characters that struggled to understand themselves, The Joy Luck Club helped shape my self-image and answer my insecurities. Ultimately, the book is about daughters and mothers understanding each other, but I grabbed onto the mothers’ complete foreignness as grounds for my own teenage rebellion. One of the mothers, An-Mei Hsu, sees her own mother cutting off a piece of her flesh for some mystical medicine. Lindo Jong, another mother, expresses resentment for her arranged marriage to a childish, hysterical, and spoiled “boy.” These images were immediately repulsive, and made me want nothing to do with what I thought was my heritage.

So I resented all the aspects of my life that were different and thus “too Asian,” like going to Chinese school on Sundays, playing “Asian” music instruments like the piano and how “fobby” other students were. Later in high school, I re-read the same exact book but could find nothing but disdain for it and embarrassment for my past self-hate. At high school, others also rolled their eyes at The Joy Luck Club because the book that was supposed to give us a voice pigeonholed our identities instead. I would read things like:

“On her journey she cooed to the swan: ‘In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English.’”

As a first-generation immigrant, I can understand the sentiment to leave present comforts for something better. But really? According to this passage, in China, the woman’s daughter is perpetually disadvantaged because she will never be equal to men. In America, her daughter won’t be looked down upon if she speaks “only perfect English.” In that moment, Tan associates an undoubtedly better life outside of 1980s China with a complete disposal of our heritage. But there is no other way that relation can stand on its own without being propped up by resentment and self-hate. In Tan’s world, there is no possibility of fitting in by learning both Chinese and English: We must learn “only perfect American English.”

A few weeks ago, a blog post entitled “The Asian-American Awakening: That Moment When You Realize You’re Not White” bounced around Facebook. It speaks the uncomfortable truth that there will always be a well-meaning individual who asks “where you are really from” despite the way we dress or act. Tan tackles inter-family pressures about culture, but fails to explicate that it is the relationships we have outside the family that are more vexing. I completely agree with the blog post that, as Asian-Americans, we don’t talk enough about ourselves. We need more conversation about who we are, but that conversation doesn’t involve The Joy Luck Club. I don’t think Tan is malicious when, for example, she takes great pains to write the mothers’ dialogue in broken English, but I don’t think she realizes how it is harmful. The book’s dangerously simple opposition between the extreme foreignness of the mothers and the daughters’ desires to be different feels off. The resentful urge the daughters have “to be different” ignores that difficult conversation that hey, maybe sometimes we like the parts of ourselves that are “Asian.” Identities aren’t, and shouldn’t, be that simple.

In the book, Waverly Jong (in a moment that’s supposed to be positive) “could finally see what was really there” in her mother. She sees “an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword.” I look at my own parents and try to find foreignness. Aside from my mom’s amazing dumplings and my dad’s huge library of classical Chinese texts, I come up empty. Both love Masterpiece Theatre, and sometimes randomly burst out a verse from “California Dreamin’.” The most annoying thing is that I have to say these things to “prove” my parents aren’t unpalatably foreign. But then I realize most of the things I resent as “Asian” are things others (who usually aren’t Asian) tell me are “Asian” with a sneer — and wonder why I even care. Then I take a hard look at myself and wonder who I really am.