Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log VII

October 6
45 Minutes
253-288 (end)

Well, I had hoped for an ending that would pull things back together, and I got that. I read the two last chapters today, Lindo Jong's "Double Face" and Jing-Mei (June) Woo's "A Pair of Tickets." The significance of the title of the first comes at the end of the chapter, as she and Waverly are visiting the hairdresser, who comments how much they look alike, which comes at first as an unpleasant surprise, but then leads them to examine one another's faces, and the mother, who has previously told the story about how her own mother had praised her for her straight nose ("A girl with a crooked nose is bound for misfortune" 257) notices that Waverly's nose is crooked, like her own, which was was broken in an accident on the bus. Waverly laughs it off, saying "Our nose isn't so bad... it makes us look devious (266). She goes on to say that people think they're "two-faced." At which point says, in the passage that closes the chapter and closes the book, so to speak, on Waverly and Lindo:

     I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other.
     It is like what happened when I went back to China last year, after I had not been there for forty years. I had taken off my fancy jewelry. I did not wear loud colors. I spoke their language. I used their local money. But still, they knew. They knew my face was not one hundred percent Chinese. They still charge me high foreign prices.
    So now I think, What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks. (266)

I take that last line as a not-so-subtle indication that the long-standing hostilities between mother and daughter are at an end, that they have learned finally to accept themselves and one another.

The very last chapter belongs to Jing-mei Woo. I noticed today for the first time that while each of the other six narrators has two chapters, Jing-Mei has four. That observation leads to an obvious question: Why? And having asked the question, the answer pops to mind: as the book opens, Jing-Mei's mom has just passed away, and the aunties are asking her to take her mom's place at the Joy Luck Club. So in her Mom's absence, Jing-Mei gets to fill in for her. Which makes sense, right?

Also in the first chapter, questions were raised and left open about Jing-Mei's two sisters: why they were abandoned, and what happened to them. Those questions are answered by Jing-mei's father when the two of them return to China to meet their long-lost relatives and re-establish their connection to their Chinese heritage:

My sisters look at me, proudly. "Meimei jandale," says one sister proudly to the other. "Little Sister has grown up." I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go. (287-8)

I don't know that I'm ready yet to attempt an overall reaction to the book. I need some time to process, and I'll be interested to see what the students have to say as well. I do think that Amy Tan has done a good job of working out the complicated dynamics of this particular version of the immigrant experience, and in so doing has honored the obvious sacrifices made by the mothers on behalf of their daughters. I've been reading several other books (Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars) at the same time that I've been reading this one with this one  and the thing that seems to be sticking in my head that all three of them have in common has something to do with how difficult it is to appreciate and understand anyone else's subjective experience. Try as we might, the interior lives of even the ones we love best are in some senses unknown to us, much less the interior lives of the thousands and thousands of other souls who occupy the world of our immediate surroundings. It's deeply mysterious. On the last page of Prep, Sittenfeld has her narrator, Lee Fiora, make this observation shortly after graduation from prep school as she stands in the Park Street station in Boston waiting for a train:

I remembered it was Monday. And rush hour—that was why the station was so crowded. Around me on the platform, people passed by, or stopped in a spot to wait: a black man in a blue shirt and a black pinstriped suit; a white teenager with headphones on, wearing a tank top and jeans that were too big for him; two women in their forties, both with long ponytails, both wearing nurse's uniforms. There was a woman with a bob and bangs in a silk shirt and matching jacket, a guy in paint-speckled overalls. All these people! There were so many of them! A black grandmother holding the hand of a boy who looked about six, three more white guys in business suits, a pregnant woman in a t-shirt. What had they all been doing for the last four years? Their lives had nothing to do with Ault.

It seems to me that Amy Tan, in a similar way, is trying to honor the experience of the women whose sacrifices made their daughters' more comfortable but perhaps less heroic lives possible. It concerns me that in the last forty or fifty years the culture of parenting that I grew up with has been to a large degree replaced with a culture that is less about sacrifice on behalf of your children and more about fitting your children into a life whose primary purpose seems to be professional advancement and personal satisfaction on your own behalf. I'm overgeneralizing, of course. But it's out there, and I think that it's one of the less overt but nevertheless significant meta-messages of The Joy Luck Club.

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