The Significance of Language on Character Development in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club
The essay “Mother Tongue” and the novel Joy Luck Club are both written by Amy Tan who is the second generation of Chinese immigrations. “Mother Tongue” sheds significant light on her novel Joy Luck Club that can help in the understanding of the novel and the development of the four daughters. In her essay, she explains that language is much more than merely a means of communication, because society values standard English so much over broken English.
This linguistic hierarchy results in conflict, misunderstanding, and ultimately threatens the rich Chinese heritage which the four mothers hold inside. In order for the daughters to develop as women who can embrace both their Chinese heritage and their American heritage, they find a common language to share with their mothers. In “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan shows that she herself learns to navigate and integrate both cultures, a task that the women in Joy Luck Club are striving toward.
Although mothers and daughters in both texts struggle to understand each other, the adoption of a common language allows them to maintain a family bond and both culture heritages.
The Joy Luck Club begins with the mythical story of a woman who has witnessed a duck turn itself into a goose. The parable frames the huge importance of the role of language throughout the novel:
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. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her. And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English (Tan 17).
The Woman has a meaningful parable to tell, but has kept it to herself, waiting until the day when she can explain it in “perfect American English.” Perfect English is not attainable for an adult who has little exposure to the language until later in life, and this embarrassment and her devaluation of her own language proves extremely detrimental. This experience is common among many immigrant women as Jing-Mei’s Mother notes in the novel Joy Luck Club: “My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English” (20). The mothers’ embarrassment and reluctance to use their “broken English” becomes a major barrier to their daughter’s development, as it inhibits both their knowledge of the world and their relationship with their mothers. However, they still use the adoption of a common language to communicate each other. They finally understand each other by the numberless experiences, misconception, and conflicts which they have gone through.
Jing-Mei Woo, the character of Joy Luck Club, exemplifies this struggle in the beginning of the novel when she speaks about a conversation that she and her mother have after her mother uses a Chinese expression: “It was one of those Chinese expressions that means the better half of mixed intentions. I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place” (19). The first page of Jing-Mei Woos narrative demonstrates the linguistic barriers that have and will continue to separate her from her mother. This conflict ensues in the next parable that opens “The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates.” The mother tells her child not to ride her bicycle because her mythical book predicts that she will get injured doing so. The daughter asks to see the book, and her mother responds saying: “It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me” (87). Again, this is another case that the American daughter misses out on important knowledge and connection with her cultural heritage because the mothers and daughters do not share a common language by which they can express themselves. After growing up, the daughters begin to understand their mothers, and create a unique adoption of a common language to communicate with their mothers which only uses between the daughters and the mothers. The daughters also start to accept and be proud of their mothers’ language and culture instead of looking down of them because of family bond. Both the daughters and the mothers spend most of the time to take this lesson-finding a common language to communicate each other.
In “Mother Tongue,” Tan explains that one of the keys of Tan’s success with her family is in her appropriation of English as way for her and her mother to express themselves: “But to me, my mother’s English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It’s my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, and full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.” (109) Unless the old generation of women in Joy Luck Club can adopt a similar attitude that allows for both the new and old generation to be understood in their own terms, than a whole heritage in the new country.
Moreover, Tan touches on the way that society would view these women if they attempted to tell their stories: “Like others, I have described it to people as ‘broken” or “fractured” English. But I wince when I say that. It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than “broken,” as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I’ve heard other terms used, “limited English,” for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions of the limited English speaker.” (109) As Tan points out, it is no wonder that the woman in the parable feels reluctant to speak in “broken English,” given that her audience and even if it is only her daughter would not recognize the value of the story if it were communicated in an undervalued language. The woman feels as if she cannot pass on the story because the next generation cannot understand its significance if the speaker does not demonstrate total fluency in both English and American culture. This mythical woman who waits to tell her story represents the loss of her entire heritage, and the text that follows portrays the struggle of both the old and the new generation to reconcile these language barriers, because without language, culture cannot survive. Tan in “The Mother Tongue” speaks of the way the many types of English have come together in her life and the common language that her and her mother have found:
I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as “simple”; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as “broken”; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as “watered down”; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. I want to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her inten, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts. (113)
It is only when the new generation of Chinese Americans come to understand that different ways of speaking should be valued rather than degraded, that the daughters will be able to benefit from the knowledge of their mothers. The mothers and the daughters must learn to find a “family language,”
As Tan puts it, where standard syntax is not valued over imagery, where certain Chinese expressions live on, and where non-verbal communication can be just as poignant. One example of this occurs between Lindo and Waverly Jong at the end of their narrative in Joy Luck Club, indicating the progress that the daughter and the mother have made to understand each other. Lindo, mother of Waverly, asks her daughter to explain her choice of words: “What is this word, ‘devious’?” I ask. “It means we’re looking one way while following another. We’re for one side and also the other. We mean what we say, but our intentions are different” (266).
By means of careful explanation and patience, Waverly has helped her mother appropriate American English, but in a way that allows her to represent herself holistically as a Chinese woman who immigrates to the United States. Otherwise, if Lindo chooses to become Americanize, she will sacrifice the Chinese culture. The ambiguous feeling makes Lindo and the mothers in Joy Luck Club do know how to identify themselves and confuse who they are because they are in the between of American culture and Chinese culture. Therefore, the best way for Lindo and the mothers in Joy Luck Club is to find the adoption of a common language which she can uses with her daughter to maintain their family bond but still keep her own Chinese culture.
By the end of the Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei also comes to realize a lesson. Whereas she begins her narrative pointing out the linguistic differences between herself and her mother, she ends her narrative in the embrace of her sisters, finding a common non-verbal language that lets them all see deeper into who her mother was. When she is reunited with her sisters, at first she expresses doubt about her ability to connect with her sisters: “How can I describe to them in my broken Chinese about our mother’s life? Where should I begin? (287). But when she sees her sisters for the first time, she realizes that despite the language barrier, they share something far more profound: “As soon as I get beyond the gate, we run toward each other, all three of us embracing, all hesitations and expectations forgotten. “Mama, Mama,” we all murmur, as if she is among us” (287). In this moment Jing-Mei has come to share a common language with her sisters, one that her mother also could have shared.
Throughout the Joy Luck Club we see both the daughters and the mothers struggle to find a common language, in which they can tell of their lives, experience, hopes and joys. We see the progression in Joy Luck Club from misunderstanding and conflict between the mothers and daughters to understanding and enrichment. As we see with Jing Mei and the Wongs, the adoption of a common language plays a crucial role in this process. A key part of the cultural work of writers such as Tan who seek to engage and subvert this hierarchy between standard English and “broken English,” is to identify such problems and make both the “correct English speaker” as well as the “broken English speaker” to make efforts in their own lives to subvert this linguistic hierarchy which threatens so much cultural heritage, as seen in the Joy Luck Club.
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