Rose Hsu Jordan, "Half and Half," pages 122- 140

The defining event in Rose Hsu Jordan's life is the death of her younger brother Bing. She is distracted temporarily from her responsibility of watching him; when she checks to see what he is doing, he is in the process of falling off the wall. In the few moments in which she is unable to decide how to save him, he disappears into the ocean. She says and does nothing. Thereafter she loses confidence in her ability to make choices and is unwilling to take responsibility. She loses faith in herself and at most has hope, which is passive, waiting for what will happen to happen,
faith was just an illusion that somehow you're in control. I found the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possisbility, good or bad. I was just saying, If there is a choice, dear God or whatever you are, here's where the odds should be placed (p. 128).

In contrast her mother and father have a strong sense self-confidence, which Tan calls nengkan, or the ability to do anything they set their minds to. During the search for Bing's body, An-mei's belief in herself is so strong that she swims out to find Bing, even though she doesn't know how to swim. The next day she drives to the beach (even though she doesn't know how to drive) to bring Bing back. She throws the blue sapphire ring which her mother gave her into the sea so that the gods will return Bing alive. When Bing is not returned, An-mei loses her faith in God and uses the Bible to level a table leg.

Nevertheless, An-mei still retains her confidence and strength; for example, she advises her daughter to take responsibiliity in her divorce. Rose doesn't want to try to save the marriage because there is no hope, no reason to try. Her mother replies, "This is not hope. Not reason. This is your fate. This is your life, what you must do" (p. 139). She refuses to tell Rose what to do, "You must think for yourself, what you must do. If someone tells you, then you are not trying" (p. 140).

Rose's marriage is based on her passivity and Ted's dominance. Ironically, this dynamic is also the reason the marriage finally fails. Both families object to their child dating someone of another race. Consequently Ted and Rose construct a relationship based on their clinging to each other as a defense against a hostile world. He dominates the relationship and takes responsisblity; she is vulnerable and submissive,

I was victim to his hero. I was always in danger and he was always rescuing me. I would fall and he would lift me up. It was exhilarating and draining. The emotional effect of saving and being saved was addicting to both of us. And that, as much as anything we ever did in bed, was how we made love to each other: conjoined where my weaknesses needed protection" (p. 125).
As long as this pattern of hero-victim fits the psychological needs of both, the relationship and the marriage are successful.

In their marriage, Ted makes all the decisions, and Rose acquiesces. After he loses a malpractice suit, Ted's confidence in himself is shaken. He wants to share responsibility and pushes Rose to make decisions, "No, you decide. You can't have it both ways, none of the responsibility, none of the blame" (p. 126). She is unable to make decisions and take responsibility, "I would be confused, because I never believed there was ever any one right answer, yet there were many wrong ones" (p. 126). So Ted asks for a divorce. Rose sees that her non-action allows their marriage to fall apart,

I think about my marriage, how I had seen the signs, really I had. But I just let it happen. And I think now that fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lose. You have to undo the expectation (p. 140).
One of Rose's expecations is that she cannot act, cannot take responsibililty. As a result of loss, she will have to change her expectation, as she does in her final story. Her mother acts as an example of this principle in her response to Bing's death; her attention is shown by her keeping the Bible under the table leg for years and by her cleaning the Bible.

Jing-mei Woo, "Two Kinds," pages 141- 155

Suyuan's belief is the belief of all the Joy Luck mothers, "you could be anything you wanted in America" (p. 141). And what they want is the best life, as they understand "best," for their daughters. They believe that their daughters can have the best of both cultures--the freedom of America and the values of Chinese tradition. Lindo Jong makes the clearest statement of the mothers' hopes and of their version of the American Dream,
I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?

          I taught her how American circusmtances work. If you are born poor here, it's no lasting shame. You are first in line for a scholarship. If the roof crashes on your head, no need to cry over this bad luck. You can sue anybody, make the landlord fix it. You do not have to sit like a Buddha under a tree letting pigeons drop their dirty business on your head. You can buy an umbrella. Or go inside a Catholic church. In America, nobody says you have to keep the circusmtances somebody else gives you.

          She learned these things, but I couldn't teach her about Chinese character. How to obey parents and listen to your mother's mind. How not to show your own thoughts... (p. 289).

All the mothers are disappointed in their daughters and in their relationships with their Americanized daughters.

Suyuan's hopes for her daughter take the form of wanting her to be the best. Jing-mei's childhood is a succession of unsuccessful efforts to find her hidden talent and become a child prodigy. What are the reasons that she fails at playing the piano? Consider the following passage,

          And, after seeing my mother's disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations. Before going to bed that night, I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and when I saw only my face staring back--and that it would always be this ordinary face--I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made high-pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror.

          And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me--because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, wilful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won'ts. I won't let her change me, I promised myself, I won't be what I'm not (144).

This is a moment of identity, when Jing-mei sees what she accepts as her essential self. It is the same experience Lindo has when she looks at her relfection on her wedding day and sees her essential (hidden) self; Waverly and Lindo also have a perception of identity when they are looking in the mirror at the hair salon and see their physical similarity. Is Jing-mei's insight a positive or a negative perception, that is, is the identity or essential self that she sees one that will help her succeed and fulfill herself or one that will cause her to fail and not find or fulfill herself?

Her disastrous performance at the talent show is a turning point in Jing-mei's life. She refuses to continue to practice, "and I now felt stronger, as if my true self had finally emerged. So this was what had been inside me all along" (p. 152). She defies and defeats her mother by referring to her lost, dead sisters.

What is the essential self that Jing-mei identifies as her true self? Is it expressed in her failures? "In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations. . . . For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me" (p. 153-4).

Why is she pleased as an adult when her mother gives her the piano? What is the significance of her discovery that "Pleading Child" is only the first half of a song whose second half is "Perfectly Contented"? In other words, how do the two halves of the song apply to Jing-mei?

American Translation

In the tale preceding this section, the daughter looks into the mirror and has a revelation of her identification or connection with her mother. This anticipates the connection that all the daughers come to see.

Lena St. Clair, "Rice Husband," pp. 161- 181

Lena's mother Ying-ying and Lena believe she has the power to tell the futune; based on what has already happened, Ying-ying foresees the future; Lena expresses the idea of the future growing out of the present and past as "one thing is always the result of another" (p. 161). The influence of the past can be seen in the lives and characters of the American daughters, which develop from the lives and characters of their Chinese mothers. In addition, the characters and lives of Lindo and An-mei are determined in large measure by their relationships with their mothers (the past).

For a long time, Lena feels guilty about causing Arnold's death; she believes he dies of complications from a case of childhood measles because she deliberately does not eat her food. Even when she rejects this idea, she believes that "somehow, for the most part, we deserve what we get. I didn't get Arnold. I got Harold" (p. 168). Clearly, she suffers from low self-esteem or little sense of her own worth.

She surrenders herself to Harold, giving more than her share. She encourages him to start his own company and has the idea which makes the company distinct and successful. Harold, in contrast, talks about equality and splitting expenses to the penny. They agree to this arrangement, "So we can eliminate false, without obligations..." (p. 176). This arrangment, in practice, does not work out according to their theory. While Lena gives love freely, Harold measures love and in the measuring treats Lena unfairly. For example, she shares the cost of ice cream, though she never eats it; he doesn't notice. She is not an associate in the firm he founded, but an employee; he earns seven times more than she does. Recently Lena has become aware of problems in their marriage, "I love my work when I don't think about it too much. And when I do think about it, how much I get paid, how hard I work, how fair Harold is to everybody except me, I get upset" (p.173).

Lena has a major realization one morning as they leave the house. She experiences an intense feeling of love for Harold, "it was as if I were seeing Harold the first time we made love, this feeling of surrendering everything to him, with abandon, without caring what I got in return" (p. 174). In the car she tells him she loves him, and he replies, looking in the rear view mirror and backing up the car, "I love you, too. Did you lock the door?" (p. 174). Why does Lena respond the way she does, "And just like that, I started to think, It's just not enough" (p. 174)?

She knows something is wrong in their marrige but cannot express it; she does not know what to ask for. Their home and the table symbolize their relationship. Their home is used and decorated as a house but it is really a barn; Lena's marriage looks ideal to their friends, but it is falling apart. The table, which Harold designed, is out of balance, so that any weight is likely to cause it to collapse; so their marriage, whose terms Harold designed, is out of balance and collapsing. When the table does collapse, Lena tells her mother she knew it would happen. Her mother asks, "Then why you don't stop it?" (p.181). The chapter ends with Lena's statement, "And it's such a simple question" (p. 181). Lena has no answer. What she recognizes is the validity of the question, which applies to her marriage and to her life.

Waverly Jong, "Four Directions," pages 182-205

A mirror reflecting the inner or psychological state appears in this chapter: Waverly looks at the mink jacket Rich gave her and sees the flaws her mother pointed out.

A turning point in Waverly's life and in her relationship with her mother is their confrontation over chess and her losing her sense of power and invulnerability. Before the confrontation, Waverly

could see things on the chessboard that other people could not. I could create barriers to protect myself that were invisible to my opponents. And this gift gave me supreme confidence. I knew what my opponents would do, move for move. . . . I loved to win (p. 187).
Wavery loses the power struggle with her mother; she sees her relationship and struggle with her mother in terms of chess, "I stared at my chessboard, its sixty-four squares, to figure out how to undo this terrible mess" (p. 189). When her strategies or moves do not produce the results she expected, she loses confidence in her ability to know what "opponents would do, move for move." Not only does she lose her confidence and start losing chess games, but she sees her mother as a dangerous, all-powerful opponent, "In her hands, I always became the pawn. I could only run away. And she was the queen, able to move in all directions, relentless in her pursuit, always able to find my weakest spots" (p. 199).

Waverly is afraid to tell her mother about her fiance, Rich; she fears her mother's power to make her see flaws in Rich and in their relationship. Waverly shows she is indeed her mother's daughter in character in the indirect ways she tries to tell her mother about Rich's importance in her life--Waverly invites her mother to the apartment so that her mother can see that Rich is living with her.

Her view of her mother as all-powerful changes when she sees her mother asleep and vulnerable. For a moment she thinks her mother may be dead. Waverly sees that her mother "had no weapons, no demons surrounding her. She looked powerless. Defeated" (p. 200). Relieved when her mother awakens, she cries. Then she accuses her mother of putting down Rich to be mean and hurt her. Looking old and vulnerable, her mother is wounded by the accusation, "So you think your mother is this bad. You think I have a secret meaning. But it is you who has this meaning" (p. 201). Waverly is torn by her perceptions of her mother's strength and of her weakness.

On this basis of partial understanding, they have an "almost normal conversation" (p. 202). Waverly gets an insight into herself, her mother, and their relationship,

          I saw what I had been fighting for: It was for me, a scared child, who had run away a long time ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in (pp. 203-4).
She is finally able to see her mother as a human being, not the terrible figure her fear and imagination created when she was a child. That perception allows her to be more open with her mother; since she no longer feels so threatened, she can let down the defenses she built to protect herself from her mother.

At first Waverly rejects the possibility that her mother might go with her and Rich to China on their honeymoon; then she thinks, "Yet part of me also thinks the whole idea makes perfect sense. The three of us, leaving our differences behind, stepping on the plane together, sitting side by side, lifting off, moving West to reach East" (p. 205). Her attitude is ambivalent. Why? Does her change in attitude reflect a change in the mother-daughter relationship? If yes, what change? If not, what explains her changed attitude?

Rose Hsu Jordan, "Without Wood," pages 206- 220

As a child, Rose is afraid to fall asleep, because of her nightmares involving Mr. Chou and her mother. She resists her mother's advice and wisdom. Her mother insists, "A mother knows best what is inside you" (p. 210); her psychiatrist will make her hulihudu (confused) and make her see heimongmong (dark fog).

In keeping with her inability to make decisions and accept responsibililty, Rose tells each person a different reason for the divorce, and each seems true to her at the time. Her mother explains this trait as the result of Rose's having been born without wood; that is the reason she listens to too many people. An-mei "knew this, because once she had almost become this way" (p. 213); however, her mother saves her from that fate by dying for her.

An-mei compares a girl to a young tree. She advises Rose,

You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away (p. 213).
An-mei speaks out of her experience with her own mother. She listens to her mother's death-bed words; as a result, her spirit is strengthed, and she learns to shout or assert herself. She rejects the false friendship of Second Wife. She wants Rose to have the same relationship with her that she had with her mother. An-mei wants to strengthen her daughter as her mother strengthened her. She wants her daughter to speak up, to shout, just as she learned to.

Rose is torn between American and Chinese values, but American values impose a heavy burden,

        Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better.

        It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing (p. 214).

A culture like China's that looks to the past for wisdom, guidance, and values will be one with few choices; the choices and their consequences will be known, for the most part.

Rose is unable to make choices concerning the divorce and retreats into sleep. One function of sleep is that it allows us to contact our unconscious selves; our hidden or suppressed parts may become available to us temporarily. Rose has lost touch with her essential self, the part that makes decisions. In sleep, she re-establishes contact with her essential self. When she finds out that Ted has been having an affair, she achieves cerainty, "All the questions: gone. There were no choices. I had an empty feeling--and I felt free, wild. From high inside my head I could hear someone laughing" (217). She asserts herself, by insisting that Ted come to the house to see her.

Ted wants the house, which she loves. Having connected with her essential self, Rose knows what she wants and is able to express it. She refuses to sign the divorce papers to give him what he wants, "You can't just pull me out of your life and throw me away" (p. 219). She is following her mother's advice; she has stopped listening to others and is speaking up for herself. She is also using the weed image of her mother's speech, but she is using it in a different meaning, to express her essential self. Her assertion causes Ted to be hulihudu, i.e., confused, in a fog. She experiences a sense of her power through the effect of her words on him. In this, she is like her mother; both of them assert their newly-found identities in language.

What is the significance of Rose's dream after the meeting with Ted of Old Mr. Chou and her mother? What or whom do the weeds which her mother has planted under the fog represent? Why are the weeds "running wild in very direction" (p. 220)?

Jing-mei Woo, "Best Quality," page 221- 236

Suyuan gives Jing-mei a jade pendant representing her life's importance. The lack of communication between the generations is shown by the fact that she does not know what her mother means by her life's importance. Neither does a Chinese bartender wearing the same pendant know. Jing-mei comments, "It's as though we were all sworn to the same secret covenant, so secret we don't even know what we belong to" (p. 222). This describes the plight of the American-born child in a Chinese immigrant family and partly grows out of the difference between American and Chinese cultures.

The experience of the Chinese mothers is quite different. When An-mei is given a sapphire ring by her mother and Lindo is given a red chang by her mother, both know what their mothers mean by the gift. Both keep the jewelry and give it to their children--An-mei throws the sapphire into the ocean for the return of Bing, and Lindo gives her necklace to Waverly for good luck in the chess tournaments. Suyuan expects her daughter to understand her, "See, I wore this on my skin, so when you put it on your skin, then you know my meaning" (p. 236), the way mothers and daughters in China understood each other.

Jing-mei is of two minds about the necklace. One part of her wants to give the necklace back; another part feels "as if I had already swallowed it" (p. 236). Does her feeling of swallowing express some understanding or closeness with her mother which develops as they talk in the kitchen after the crab incident?

At the dinner which Suyuan cooks, what is the significance of Waverly's taking the best crabs? of Jing-mei's taking what she thinks is the worst crab? What realization does she come about to herself as a result of Waverly's comments about the the ads she wrote? Her mother says, "Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already know this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different" (p. 234). Is this a put-down of Jing-mei? How does this statement affect Jing-mei?

Jing-mei cooks a dish her father likes to express her love and to comfort him. As she works in her mother's kitchen, she learns the truth of her mother's complaints about the tenants and their cat. She experiences what her mother experienced; is this a sign of her growing closeness to and understanding of her mother?

Tan Syllabus

Introduction Tan, Online overview
Part I The Joy Luck Club, pp. 3-121
Part II Tan, pp. 122-238
Part III
Tan, pp. 239-332
**Supplemental Reading**
      The Other in The Joy Luck Club

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