I know The Joy Luck Club like the back of my hand … Unfortunately.
While I recite lines from The Thin Man Goes Home at the drop of a hat, I carry the script of The Joy Luck Club in my mind's eye like the scene of a horrible crime.
I cannot shake it. It will not be shook.
It is not the film's fault. It is a fine film. A moving film. A film about mothers and daughters. Chinese mothers and daughters. Asian mothers and Asian American daughters. About generational and cultural rifts in communication, and the importance of knowing one's history.
Honoring the lives that have given you life.
Remembering who you are.
This is a story I should have felt some closeness to, but I didn't. And that bothered me.
I am the daughter of a Malaysian woman. That Malaysian woman is the daughter of a Chinese woman. That Chinese woman was sold as a baby to Malays (as my mother says: It is the universal Chinese practice of not valuing your daughters as much as your sons). The stories of the women in the film are not my stories or even the stories of my mother, but they are the stories of the women in my grandmother's family.
And I was clueless about it all. I was a stranger.
The extended family I grew up with was my father's family. An African American family. "Grandma" was my father's mother. I didn't know my mother's family, knew zilch about my Asian heritage and so felt little connection. I understood that I was Asian but my Asianness was just the way people saw me. Like a costume I wore.
I wore my Asian costume and watched my Asian mother watch depressing (to a child) Wayne Wang movies in the other room. I understood that in some vague way Eat a Bowl of Tea and Dim Sum were connected to who I was, but emotionally I experienced only hostility. Resentment born out of sadness that I felt no connection. My mother loved these movies. They moved her in an important way. I hated them. These films reminded me of the strangeness of my identity: "You are ‘mixed' but you are also Asian. You look more Asian than African-American and everyone thinks you're Asian yet you know nothing about Asianness and do not feel Asian at all. Weeeeird."
I even feel uncomfortable writing this article in a way I do not when exploring African American issues. The Asian experience (in all its many forms) is not my experience, even though I am Asian. Hopefully I will feel differently one day, but this is how strong the current disconnect is.
I don't know how I would react to the movie If I saw it now for the first time. My reaction was very much about being a daughter and the mystery of my mother's culture. Like Hans Christian Andersen, it is a film that exists in my childhood. It's difficult to even think of it as a film. It just was. I didn't even really watch it. I watched my mother watch it. I watched her watching the movie about the pain and joys of immigration. Of raising a daughter in America. Of navigating two cultures. Embracing the present without forgetting the past. When you are a child you feel things. You might not know, but you know. You are aware of sadness and pain and why certain people's mothers may watch certain movies over and over and over.
As a teenager struggling with identity issues of all kinds, I was angry that my mother didn't teach us anything about her culture. My rage was a force. I kicked a hole in the wall when I was fourteen and covered it with a piece of white paper. But I understand things now. I better know the dynamics of vulnerability, isolation and power. It's a complicated world. Things that seem simple never are. As Auntie Lindo says: "Not. So. Easy"
But oppressive depressingness aside, The Joy Luck Club is a a rarity. A non festishistic Hollywood movie about Chinese women. Not as slinky cheongsamed femme fatales, nerds, pedicurists, or nameless yellow people in straw paddy hats, but as real multi-dimensional humans with histories. Yes the stories are melodramatic at times but that's part of the deal, like watching An Affair to Remember or Doctor Zhivago. It's understood. You like when the music creeps in. When the mothers look earnestly at their American daughters and give them sage advise in their heavily accented English.
I have always remembered one such advice scene in particular. The mother in question is An Mei (Lisa Lu). The daughter is Rose (Rosalind Chao). Rose has married a white American man and has put his every need before hers. This strategy for love however has not worked out and Rose is in the midst of divorce. Concerned about her daughter's lack of dignity An Mei tells Rose the story of her mother in China: Raped and impregnated by a wealthy man, becomes his concubine, disgraces her family and is forbidden to come home, lives a life of subservience as a fourth wife, and kills herself to give her daughter a better life.
"When the poison broke into her body she whispered to me that she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one."
"You're just like my mother. You never know what you're worth. Until too late. I tell you the story because I was raised the Chinese way. I was taught to desire nothing. To swallow other people's misery and to eat my own bitterness. Even though I taught my daughter the opposite, she came out the same way."
With a new understanding of her history, Rose confronts her soon to be ex husband. Drawing power from her Chinese heritage and the experiences of her mother and grandmother, she transforms herself into a strong, assertive woman. A Chinese American woman proud of her Chinese mother and her Chinese mother's culture.
The lesson here isn't nuanced. It's blindingly bright: REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.
Understanding your history is important. I am still working on half of it.
When you know where you have been, you know better where you are going.
Like Auntie Lindo says, it's "Not. So. Easy."
The one part of the Joy Luck Club that I certainly did identify with is the Asian mother style of criticism. You must always be the best. No, no. Better than the best. Like this recent exchange illustrates:
Kartina: Why do you always say "Keep improving your writing" at the end of all your emails about my articles?
Mother: Even Dostoevsky kept on improving his writing. Dad continues to improve his writing. I continue to improve my writing. Roger Ebert continues to improve his writing…like that. Get it now?
Touché, mother. Touché.
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