A Motherly Role
A reoccurring theme in Amy Tans novels is mother-daughter relationships. In each of her three novels she represents different roles of the mother and the effects of each; The Joy Luck Club depicts mothers living through daughters, The Kitchen Gods Wife portrays mother teaching daughter through past experience, and finally The Hundred Secret Senses displays non-existence of the mother in the relationship.
This excerpt from The Joy Luck Club shows what kinds of things, from real accomplishments to the uncontrollable features of nature.
“Auntie Lin and my mother were both best friends and arch-enemies who spent a lifetime comparing their children. I was one month older than Waverly Jong, Auntie Lins prized daughter. From the time we were babies, our mothers compared the creases in our belly buttons, how shapely our earlobes were, how fast we healed after we scraped our knees, how thick and dark our hair was, how many shoes we wore out in one year, and later, how smart Waverly was at playing chess, how many trophies she had won last month, how many cites she had visited” (27).
Jing-Mei, the piano player in The Joy Luck Club, felt the most pressure from her mother, because her mother had to follow behind the word of the prodigy in town. “Of course you can be a prodigy, too ” Jing-Meis mother, Suyuan, tells her after receiving the news of Waverly, the chess prodigy (141). The expectations for Jing-Mei have heighten now that her mothers friends daughter has been held in such a spotlight, as to be called a prodigy. Suyuan takes it upon herself to make her daughter rise above the accomplishments of her peers, and prove to the mothers their family is high in the running competition, whether Jing-Mei approves or disapproves. Suyuan decides that with piano lessons she and her daughter will rise above Lindo and Waverly. Jing-Mei only sees tedious lessons and hours of practice, but her mother envisions proudly sharing success stories between friends, comparing and convincing other mothers that her daughter, Jing-Mei, was indeed the best.
Every detail and aspect of their lives were picked out an compared and for the one daughter that lost these comparisons, a lowered self-image was the result. Jing-Mei never believed in herself, because she felt, since her childhood, she had failed her mother.
“In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations. I didnt get straight As. I didnt become class president. I didnt get in to Stanford. I dropped out of college.
For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me” (155-156).
For the mothers this competitive nature was meant to build confidence and secure the success of their daughter, for the weaker and less confident personality, like Jing-Meis, the inability to come out on top, effected her self-image and her capabilities for her success. It is her childhood failures that molded her adult life, she never won as a child and it became the same when she was an adult.
The competition between the families are intense. One mother reports magniloquent success stories of their daughter and another mother returns her news to surpass the last.
“She bring home too many trophy, lamented Auntie Lindo that Sunday. “All day she play chess. All day I have no time do nothing but dust off her winnings.” She threw a scolding look at Waverly, who pretended not to see her.
“You lucky you dont have this problem,” said Auntie Lindo with a sigh to my mother.
And my mother squared her shoulders and bragged: “Our problem worser than yours. If e ask Jing-Mei was dish, she hear nothing but music. Its like you cant stop this natural talent” (148-49).
Such debates are common, and a similar element in all gossip was, as this excerpt so distinctly shows, was fractiousness.
Through the piano Jing-Mei carries the responsibility of not only her mother but the entire Woo family. Jing-Mei does not consider this as a privilege, but as an unwanted burden. “I felt as though I had been sent to hell,” was her remark after the suggestion of lessons (46). The daughters opinions about lessons are not as enthusiastic as her mothers, but Jing-Mei must, as an act of a daughter, do as she is told. If Suyuan is successful in presenting her daughter as accomplished, then Jing-Mei will win favor from her mothers friends. If the mothers feel they must try to transcend Jing-Meis accomplishment by “suggesting” their daughters to display their talent, like Suyuan did after hearing of Waverly, then Suyuan has met her goal.
When a disappointing outcome of failure and disgust is given, the emotional trauma is not an event easily forgotten. Often times the result ends in anger toward the mother and the feeling of rejection. Questions like these from Jing-Mei to her mother often arise, “Why cant you love me? Im not a genius! I cant play the piano. And even if I could I wouldnt go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!” (146). By the reaction of Jing-Mei two observations can be made; one, that she only feels love from her mother with accomplishment, and two, the difference in their thinking. China raised Suyuan, would want to make a spectacle of a talented daughter, while American raised Jing-Mei, even with such a notable ability, would be satisfied with herself without such an announcement.
Through the relationship between Suyuan and her daughter, Amy Tan clearly suggests Chinese mothers rely on success to establish status. Others thoughts determine their statue, and the mother will go to extremes to be accepted in the high flown Chinese community.
Unlike Suyuan and Jing-Mei of The Joy Luck Club, Winnie and Pearl of The Kitchen Gods Wife, learn about each others secrets; instead of tension and pressure as large factors in the relationship, love and understanding come into view. Through flashbacks of Winnies life in China dealing with an abusive cold hearted, and womanizing husband, Pearl recognizes the strength and wisdom of her mother.
“And in my fathers eyes, I had been perfect, his “perfect Pearl,” and not the irritation I always seemed to be with my mother” (48). Never could it have been that Winnie did not love Pearl. Because of Winnies horrid past her possible over protection of Peal might have been mistaken as “irritation”. Maternal instinct drives Winnie to protect her daughter. “So you see, I did not have a mother to tell me who to marry, who not to marry. Not like you. Although sometimes, even a mother cannot help her daughter, no matter what.” If Pearl were to ever go through what her mother did, Winnie would not be able to forgive herself for allowing such a catastrophe to happen. “That man considers himself first, you second, and maybe later you will be third or fourth, then never” (134). She shares with Pearl after recognizing the familiarity with Wen Fu.
As Winnie reveals the conclusion of her story and Pearl reveals her secret of her illness, the understanding between the mother and daughter has reached its peak and all those around them are witnesses. “And now you are closer, mother and daughter, I can already see this”(524).
Although adversity has filled Winnies past, through her strength she is able to share it with her daughter and together they will continue to learn about one another.
In what critics is her most unusual novel, Amy Tan presents a mother daughter relationship with the absence of the mother; perhaps it is because the mother is white, which is unique to The Hundred Secret Senses.
Olivia is the daughter of a Caucasian mother and Chinese father, who dies early in her childhood. Olivias mother spends much of her time dating men. Consequentially she feels neglect. “And my mom usually put his wishes above anyone elses” (10). Soon Kwan, Olivias half sister from China comes to America to live with them, and Kwan takes the place of her mother.
“With Kwan around my mother could float guiltlessly through her honeymoon phase with Bob. When my teacher called Mom to say I was running a fever, it was Kwan who showed up at the nurses office to take me home. When I fell while roller-skating, Kwan bandaged my elbows. She braided my hair. She packed lunches for Kevin, Tommy, and me. She tried to teach me to sing Chinese nursery songs. She soothed me when I lost a tooth. She ran the wash cloth over my neck when I took my bath” (12).
To Olivia, no matter how much Kwan did for her and how little her own mother cared for her, Kwan cold never begin to substitute their mother. “To Mom, Kwan was a handy baby-sitter, willing, able, and free” (11). Olivias mother was so intensely preoccupied she failed to notice the need of her own daughter. “I should have been grateful to Kwan. I could always depend on her. She liked nothing better than to be by my side. But instead, most of the time I resented her for taking my mothers place” (12).
In Olivias situation, her mother-daughter relationship is hardly one at all. Even unsuccessful attempts with men seem to occupy her, so greatly she fails to see her daughter grow into a woman. Kwan is the only caretaker of Olivia and she builds Olivia into a strong woman.
Tan does an incredible job giving dramatically different aspects of what is essentially the same, the building of a strong woman though the bond of mother and daughter. Each case is unique, but the outcome of the daughters in all of the novels was a positive one. After familiarizing oneself to each scenario, Winnie and Pearl seem to be the closest, but all three end in happiness and strength of a daughter who had grown into a woman.