03 May 2014


Locus Focus: Take Ninety-Nine!

"If you don't know where you came from, then you don't know where you're going." The friend who quoted that old, ironically unattributable saying to me added that Where You Came From is not just the place where you were born and raised, but the place where your ancestors lived and died--and he argued that even the chasms of centuries do not sever the connection between you and your forebears.

Now, I'm hardly equipped to trace four or five fictional characters' lineages all the way back to the dawn of time, so I thought I'd let another month of May Is for Mothers give me the wimpy limit of one generation back. But even this easy challenge is turning out to be harder than I thought . . .

The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan

"My family has always live in Taiyuan, from before the days of even Sun Wei. Do you know Sun Wei? . . . He went to battle with Genghis Khan. And when the Mongol soldiers shot at Sun Wei's warriors--heh!--their arrows bounced off the shields like rain on stone. Sun Wei had mde a kind of armour so strong Genghis Khan believed it was magic! . . . So now you know what is inside you, almost all good stuff from Taiyuan."

"I guess we've evolved to just winning in the toy and electronics market," I said . . . "You see it on everything. Made in Taiwan."

"Ai!" she cried loudly. "I'm not from Taiwan."

And just like that, the fragile connection we were starting to build snapped.

We've had China as featured setting before (See Locus Focus #28), but this is the first time I've felt that writing about "China" as a single cultural unit is as bad as thinking that "Africa" is a single country. But if the second-generation immigrant daughters of the four Chinese women in The Joy Luck Club have difficulty understanding the land of their own mothers, then it's going to be an uphill slog for me and for all other non-Chinese.

I first read Amy Tan's debut novel in high school, at an age when I could understand the daughters' desire to be American rather than Chinese, born of their mothers' determination to build new lives for themselves in America even as they knew their longing for China would never go away. Half a lifetime later, my vistas are wider: I can now also see the daughters' hesitance to claim an inheritance that they are painfully aware they never learned how to value, and the mothers' fear that "all the good stuff" that they carried with them across an ocean--and that their own mothers, and their mothers' mothers, carried with them across so many generations--will be refused by their own daughters.

This is normally where I go into "Well, what did you expect?" mode. The mothers physically left China; how can they be surprised that their daughters feel no strong cultural ties to it? But they are also right that knowledge of where you come from is essential to your identity, and it's clear that the daughters are as just as frustrated by their inability to reconcile their American half with their Chinese half. The resolution that Tan sets up for this conflict is . . . you guessed it . . . a trip back to China.

Although we are not all ethnically Chinese, not all immigrants, and certainly not all daughters, The Joy Luck Club can still speak to us because we all have mothers. And it can sometimes be a shock to realise that our mothers led full and amazing lives before we ever entered the picture. Will we ever get to know these strangers as they also deserve to be known? What I love about Tan's novel is that it answers yes, and that it wraps this affirmation into a beautiful moment when a young woman looks upon a land she has never seen before and finds that she remembers it.

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Image Source: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan


Sheila said...

Have you ever read Homesick, My Own Story? It's pretty much the same thing, in reverse.

I have always been proud of my mother's family history, and can trace it all the way back to England. I know almost nothing of my dad's, though. I do know it gives me a special kind of joy to know that my great-great-great-grandmother Phyllis Clarke was a published poet, that my great-grandfather, grandfather, and grandmother were all gardeners, and that my great-great-great grandmother on another side was Native American. I like feeling I am walking in their footsteps in some sense .... even as I reject my family's military tradition and the Protestantism of most of it. I guess I pick and choose.

Enbrethiliel said...


Homesick was the first novel that got me to write about China for Locus Focus! =D

It's great that you know so much about your ancestors. My lineage gets really fuzzy at around the great-grandparent mark. But I do know that the Spanish side, which came over to the Philippines a century ago, was originally from Seville--which helped me understand my own identity. Several years ago, I was talking to a Spaniard about the different regions in Spain, and when I asked about Seville, he laughed and said: "The Sevillians are frivolous! They could sing and dance all day, if you let them!" Until then, all I had known was that the Spanish Inquisition had had its roots in Seville! =P But seriously, if "singing, dancing and the Spanish Inquisition" were all that I inherited from my Spanish ancestors, it would explain so much! LOL!