Cultural Clashes in The Joy Luck Club

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            Author Amy Tan began writing the short stories that eventually became the novel The Joy Luck Club as a way of understanding the turmoil of her relationship with her mother (Lew).  Those stories eventually spawned a best-selling book and a feature film which serve to not only shed more light onto the unique dynamic between mother and daughter, but to also point out how members of different generations, even from the same heritage, can cause rifts in their relationship through cultural differences.  In Tan’s novel, the mothers were born and raised in Chinese society, though their daughters were born in the United States.  The change in venue creates two very different types of women and displays just how different Chinese and American culture truly are as well as how the differences between the two cultures can cause severe misunderstandings in communication based on the inherent values of each type of society.

            China has what is described as a “high context” society (Melani).  A high context society is described as one where the people form extremely tight-knit communities and share much of the same general knowledge, therefore much is assumed in communication with each other.  There is very little written communication and in the majority of the oral communication there is a sense of inherent knowledge, therefore many points of conversation are assumed and therefore left out of the actual conversation itself.  The speaker assumes that the person they are conversing with has the same knowledge that they do, so when they speak, they only highlight the main points of the conversation, leaving the rest to the listener to infer based on their own cultural knowledge.  Also in China, there is a strong sense of ritual, combined with their belief in ancestor worship which leads to the idea that the family or society elders are to be well respected not only because of their age, but also because of the fount of knowledge that they represent for the younger generations.  Children are expected to learn much from their elders with regard to cultural knowledge and values.  This shared belief assists in unifying the Chinese society and the continued spread of the same cultural knowledge and values.  This type of society makes change extremely difficult.  It also does not encourage action to take place because once the action is started, such as a reprimand, it is often severe and not able to be stopped (Melani).

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            In contrast, American society is very loose, unlike the formality of Chinese society.  American society is referred to as a “low context” society (Melani), wherein nothing is assumed, therefore explanations are expected rather than frowned upon.  Americans seek out individuality while the Chinese see themselves as an extension of their elders.  Americans also in conversation, do not assume that the person with whom they are conversing shares any of the same inherent knowledge as they do, therefore the conversations are often more involved and detail oriented in order to assure the understanding of the listener.  An American speaking to a person of Chinese cultural values would have a very difficult time understanding the flow of the conversation as the conversation would not have the same type of context that typical American conversation does.  This disconnect in communication is at the heart of the stories in The Joy Luck Club.

            In her novel, Tan illustrates the difficulties in communication between the Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters.  The mothers attempt to speak to their daughters, to treat them in the same way that their mothers regarded them in China, however these mothers do not have the same cultural context surrounding them which would assist in the development of the daughters in the traditional Chinese way.  While it is understandable that these mothers would want to teach their children in the same way that they were taught, they are not allowing for the differences in cultural context.  That these women are attempting to force traditional Chinese culture on daughters who have been raised in the very different American society creates difficulty for the mothers in reaching their daughters on an intellectual level as the children are not equipped with the same inherent knowledge as their mothers and therefore do not understand what their mothers are saying until much later when they are adults (Huntley).  The culture clash, between the American culture that the daughters were raised in and the Chinese culture that the mothers are attempting to instill in them creates a rift between the two generations based on misunderstanding.

            The misunderstandings based on cultural learning translate even into the written word.  Tan wrote this book for both herself and her mother and wanted the text to be simple enough that her mother could easily understand the points of the book without inferring anything else into the text, believing through the context of her cultural learning that something would be missing from the text with the assumption that it would be inferred.  Tan wanted to make sure that her mother understood her true feelings not only about their relationship but also about her beliefs concerning the gap between Chinese and American culture.

”When I was writing, it was so much for my mother and myself,” she (Tan) said. ”I wanted her to know what I thought about China and what I thought about growing up in this country. And I wanted those words to almost fall off the page so that she could just see the story, that the language would be simple enough, almost like a little curtain that would fall away.” (Lew)

            In Tan’s novel, the mothers never adapt to American culture, though the daughters, who once rebelled so hard against Chinese culture, eventually come to grasp an understanding of the differences between the two vastly different societies and learn to understand and respect where their mothers’ ideas and attitudes came from (Harsha).  Though there are many harsh lessons for the daughters along the way because they did not understand their mothers’ warnings nor their use of storytelling as a way to cheat the silence that is assumed for women in traditional Chinese society, they eventually come to grasp the nature of their mothers’ warnings and see where their lives and their relationships could have been better were they able to have this understanding earlier (Addien).  Not only is the miscommunication based on culture evident in the storyline of the book, it is addressed through the narratives between the members of the Joy Luck Club and their daughters as they explore the misunderstandings that occur in those relationships and attribute them to cultural differences (Huntley).  The novel not only brings to light the intense cultural clash that can occur between women raised within two separate cultures, but also explores it further to show that despite the misunderstandings that are occurring with regards to communication, the women at their cores are not that different, they are just unable to verbally express themselves in such a way that it is clearly understood by the other party.  Critics of the novel all give Tan high praise for her work to bring this issue to light, an issue that plagued the relationship between Tan and her own mother, and for crafting the story in such a way that it is able to be clearly understood by people of different cultures.  The many differences that do occur between Chinese and American cultures culminates in the language barrier that is formed by American language being extremely detailed and literal while Chinese communication consists of the minimum amount of knowledge needed to understand the point with the unspoken understanding that the remaining information is already known and can easily be inferred by the other party.  This communication barrier forms the basis for Tan’s stories as well as the breakdown of the invisible wall that impedes communication between the two cultures.

Works Cited

Addien. “The Joy Luck Club.” 11 March 2002. Everything 2. 18 May 2009 <>.

Harsha, Sri. “Book Reviews: The Joy Luck Club.” 15 September 2008. Book Stove. 18 May 2009 <>.

Huntley, E.D. Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Greenwood: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Lew, Julie. “How Stories Written For Mother Became Amy Tan’s Best Seller.” The New York Times 4 July 1989: Section 1, Page 23.

Melani, Dr. “Amy Tan: Overview.” 13 December 2004. Brooklyn College and University. 18 May 2009 <>.

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