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Family relationships

Amy Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, the only daughter of Daisy and John Tan who had both emigrated from China just a few years earlier. Amy, whose Chinese name is An-mei, meaning “Blessing from America,” was the middle child. At her birth, the Tans by now had a son, Peter, born in 1950; another son, named John after his father, was born in 1954. Both Daisy and John Tan had unusual backgrounds that would in due path give their daughter with a great deal of narrative material for her novels.

Throughout World War II, John Tan had worked for the United States Information Service, and while the war was over, he left China in 1947 for America and a new life. Though trained as an electrical engineer in Beijing, he declined a scholarship for further study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, deciding instead to enter the Baptist department. By the time Daisy Tan came to California in 1949, she had by now endured a life replete with significant tragedy and melodrama.

Born into a wealthy Shanghai family as the daughter of a scholar who had died while she was very young, Daisy spent part of her childhood in expel with her mother, Jing-mei, on an island off the coast of Shanghai. The widowed Jing-mei had been required to become the concubine of a rich man who raped her to avert a refusal of his proposition, and her new collectively unacceptable status earned her the isolation of her own family.

Jing-mei bore the rich man a son, and while one of his principal wives took the boy away and claimed him as her own, the unhappy concubine committed suicide by ingesting a lethal quantity of raw opium infused into a New Year cake. Nine-year-old Daisy was left to grow up with neither mother nor father, and eventually, while she was of age, she entered a customary marriage, arranged for her by relatives.

The marriage produced a son who died early, and three daughters whom she was later enforced to give up while she fled both the marriage and her abusive husband in 1949. Daisy ultimately managed to get a divorce, but she did not see her daughters again until 1978. Not long after the divorce, Daisy immigrated to the United States, where she met and married John Tan shortly after her arrival.

Decades later, Daisy’s daughter would incorporate Jing-mei’s story into The Joy Luck Club as the tragic history of An-mei Hsu’s mother. She lived the classic minority experience: at home, she was an anxious Americanized teenager at odds with the prospect of her traditional Chinese parents; at school–where she often was the only Chinese student in her classes–she was the Asian outsider who looked different from everyone else in the primarily white American world.

In spite of their earlier life-changing decisions to come to America, Daisy and John Tan continued to adhere to many elements of the culture of their homeland, living an essentially limited life and socializing mainly with the members of California’s Chinese community, though their ambitions for their children integrated a certain degree of Americanization. Like so many young second-generation Americans who have little or no experience with their parents’ home countries, Amy and her brothers–to the apprehension of their parents–completely embraced the American culture that subjugated their experiences outside their home.

Later, as an adult, Amy Tan commented on the bicultural pressures that marked her childhood and adolescence: “They [her parents] wanted us to have American situation and Chinese character,” she told Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times (12 May 1989), using a phrase that she would trait to Lindo Jong in The Joy Luck Club. Describing the kind of behavior that her parents expected, Tan went on: “We must always think like a Chinese person but we must always speak perfect English so we can take gain of circumstances” (Woo, 1989).

Although she grew up as an almost completely assimilated Asian American, Amy Tan is well aware of the price that she and other members of minority groups have paid for their partial admission into the dominant culture: There was shame and self-hate. There is this myth that America is a melting pot, but what happens in integration is that we end up deliberately choosing the American things–hot dogs and apple pie–and ignoring the Chinese offerings. (Wang, 1985)

She points out that for so many Americans of non-European ancestry; the message from the prevailing culture is that an individual from a minority group should reject the minority culture to take in successfully. Also implied in that message is the idea that integration is a necessary prerequisite to success and to attaining the American Dream. Even today, Tan has not forgotten that when she was a child, she pinched her nose with a clothespin for a week in the hope that doing so would westernize her Asian nose. For a time, in fact, she visualized about plastic surgery that would change her appearance.

But the differences went far beyond facial features. She also remembers feeling “ashamed as people came over and saw my mother preparing food. She didn’t make TV dinners and use canned foods. She used fresh vegetables and served fish with the heads still on. I worried people would think that we ate that because it was less expensive” (Schleier, 1997 1). Another memory reminds Tan that she worried regarding what her mother would bring to a school birthday party: “Would it be an exotic Chinese dish that the other kids would make fun of?

” (Streitfeld 1989 F8). Another source of disjunction for the Tan children was language. In their home, Daisy and John Tan spoke to their children in a blend that consisted of English and Mandarin, and even after Amy entered school, her mother sustained to speak to her in Chinese although Amy always responded in English (Pearlman and Henderson 1990 16). Daisy Tan never lost her Shanghai accent and never quite attained fluent English, and her daughter still remembers classmates’ taunts concerning her mother’s Chinese-inflected speech.

For her part, however, Amy seems to have resisted learning more than basic conversational Chinese, and she did not study that language seriously until she became an adult. Many years later, Tan revealed on the linguistic tensions that marked her childhood and adolescence, signifying that having parents whose English was less than fluent or natural had a negative effect on her own performance in school. She points out that although she never was measured a poor student in her English classes, English was not her best subject:

Math is precise; there is only one correct answer. Whereas, for me, at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience. . . . Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious . . . and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me. (Tan, “Mother Tongue”) Mother Tongue (1991) focuses on the acquaintances between ethnic identity and language, providing for readers a cultural and speculative background for Tan’s fiction as well as for the works of other writers of non-Western ancestry.

Amy Tan ( 1991) in her essay “Mother Tongue” discusses that as someone who has constantly loved language, she celebrates using “all the Englishes I grew up with” in her living and her writing. The English that she hears from her mother, in spite of its “imperfection,” has become their “language of intimacy, a diverse sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with. ” There is an inconsistency, both linguistically and ethnically, between the “standard” English that she learns from school and uses in her professional world and the “simple” and “broken” English that is used in her dealings with her mother.

However, as Tan points out, speaking her mother’s version of English gives her bicultural insight and strength, and she sees the beauty and understanding in her mother’s language: “Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery”; “I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts. ” (Tan, “Mother Tongue”) In her novel, Amy Tan allows her characters to use storytelling as a device for shaping their histories and making logical sense of the significant events of their lives.

For these characters, storytelling is a means of keeping the past alive and building a bridge between it and the present, of conveying cultural codes and rituals, of ingeniously educating their daughters, and finally of somehow imprinting the core of their selves on the next generation. Speaking a language is intrinsically political. In the case of Chinese American women, while spanning and juggling along the fault lines of gender and culture, the truth is that the two English’s that Tan cherished are not valued evenly in this society.

Despite the ingenious use of imaginative metaphors in her English, as Tan hilariously presented, her mother would never score high in a Standard English test that insists on one correct way of linguistic edifice. It is no secret that in much of our social discourse and communication practice, the myth endures that what counts as the “normal” standards and criteria for comparing and discussing cultural difference is still the typical Eurocentric mode of thinking and doing.

In her writing about Asian American women’s experience of racism, Shah ( 1994) said, “For me, the experience of ‘otherness,’ the formative discrimination in my life, has resulted from culturally different people thinking they were culturally central; thinking that my house smelled funny, that my mother talked weird, that my habits were strange. They were normal; I wasn’t. ” Similarly, in a discussion of the difficult dialogues between black and white women, Gonzalez, Houston, & Chen (1994) points out that when a white woman says “We’re all alike,” she usually means “I can see how you, a black woman, are like me, a white woman.

” She does not mean “I can see how I am like you. ” In other words, whether explicitly or implicitly, “just people” often means “just white people. ” Language and identity are always positioned within a hierarchical power structure in which the Chinese American immigrants’ form of life has never been approved a status equal to that of their European counterparts in the history of this country. It is one thing to hold the philosophical wisdom of “having the best of both worlds” but another to deal with the real ongoing struggles between languages and identities that most Chinese Americans experience.

Bicultural identity cannot be abridged to two neutral, pristine, and equal linguistic domains that one simply picks and chooses to contribute in without personal, relational, social, and political consequences. We require understanding the tension and conflict between generations of Chinese American women within the ideological cultural context of racial and sexual inequity and their continuing contestation of their positions in it. One stimulating feature in learning to speak and hear incommensurate languages is the process of arbitrating conflicting voices.

In Chinese American families, communication can frequently be characterized by a lack of a shared universe of discourse or a set of equally intelligible vocabularies. If certainly Chinese Americans are steeped in two languages and two forms of life, one public and central, another private and submerged, what is the representative significance of using these languages as constructed from diverse social positions? For the immigrant parents, educating their American-born children to converse the family language is a way to persistent the cultural tradition and to instill ethnic pride.

Speaking a private language is also an effort to mark one’s difference from the conventional culture and to resist racism, hegemony, and the devastating power of homogenization in this society. In Tan storytelling, speaking Chinese also becomes just functional for the older immigrants who do not desire to participate or/and are not professed as full participants in the public language. As a result, they remain outsiders within the system; their use of private language marks the inner feature of their identity. It is significant to remember that a discussion of uses of language requires to be understood in a political context.

Chinese Americans endeavor for polyphonic coherence within a society that celebrates compliance and homogeneity despite its rhetoric of diversity and pluralism. To typical ears, Chinese languages can sound a cacophony of unfamiliar tones and words; this unintelligibility can be linked with foreignness, exotic cultural others, lack of education, or powerlessness. This perceived absence of a shared language and culture (and therefore of disparate social and national interests) can lead to antagonism or discrimination toward Chinese Americans. Through the use of language we create and keep our social relationships.

We accomplish this goal only if an intersubjective discourse exists so that our words and actions are logical to others within the community. In Chinese American bicultural experience, this shared language frequently cannot be taken for granted. Tan is particularly gifted at weaving multiple stories with a diversity of narrators into the convoluted fabric of each book. Tan herself has renowned her own ability to construct distinguishing and memorable narratives, commenting that her storytelling gifts are accountable in large measure for the continuing popularity–with readers and critics alike–of her work.

She has said that her childhood exposure to Bible stories as well as “tons of fairy tales, both Grimm and Chinese” (Wang 1985) has made stories a momentous element in her writing, and she credits her parents with both instilling in her the desire to tell stories and providing her with models for unforgettable tales. In an interview with Gretchen Giles, Amy Tan reveals that she learned the craft of story construction from her father, a very busy Baptist minister who managed to spend quality time with his children by reading his sermons to them and then asking for their opinions on content and language.

Tan recalls that her father’s sermons were written in narrative form, as vigilantly crafted stories. She also points out that in contrast to her father’s carefully designed narratives; most of her mother’s stories were neither formally constructed nor refined, but rather evolved out of the daily life, activities, and conversations of the extended Tan family. Daisy Tan, a talented natural storyteller, exchanged family news and stories of local events with other women–close friends and extensive family–as they sat preparing vegetables or other ingredients for cooking.

Tan remembers her mother and aunts “gossiping concerning the family, and going on for hours and hours about some little detail that they found revolting in some relative or friend” (Giles). Tan describes her mother as “a wonderful storyteller, for observation of character, emotional truth and passion,” although she adds, “She needs a lot of editing because her stories are all over the place” (Lyall 1995, C6).

Daisy Tan’s tales might have seemed to be “all over the place,” but they had one significant element–the powerful and haunting images that eventually became Amy Tan’s novels. A veritable anthology of stories–both tragic and comic–emerged from Daisy Tan’s treasure chest of memories after her bout with angina. Amy Tan recalls that while she heard the news that her mother had been taken to the hospital, she was reminded that very lately her mother had said, “If I die, what would you remember?

” (Feldman 1989, 25). Stung by remorse, Amy recognized that she had never truly listened to her mother’s tales of life in China, that she had simply a sketchy outline of her mother’s history, and she promised herself that she would get to discern her mother in the time that they had left together, that she would determine what Daisy Tan’s life had been like before she emigrated to America for a probability at a fresh start. Amy Tan found in her mother’s life a wealth of material for her writing.

There were stories about Daisy’s mother committing suicide by swallowing pure opium with her New Year rice cakes, concerning the difficulties of World War II in China, regarding arranged marriages between women and men who barely knew each other, concerning Daisy’s first husband to whom she always referred as “that bad man. ” One story that seems to have intrigued Tan was her mother’s account of a friend who was fleeing from the impending Japanese troops.

The friend was carrying all of her belongings in bags that she finally began dropping one by one as her strength gave out and the bags grew more hard to carry. That vignette surfaced in The Joy Luck Club, translated into the poignant story of how Suyuan Woo, during her flight from the Japanese, had to drop bag after bag of food and clothes for her twin babies until finally, in utter exhaustion, she left those babies beside the road in the hope that kind strangers would take them home and give them the care that Suyuan no longer could give.

Daisy’s tales–which ultimately found their way into her daughter’s novels, particularly into The Kitchen God’s Wife–were a disclosure to Amy who had no inkling that her mother had lived such a dramatic and turbulent–and exotically alien–life before she married John Tan. As she listened to her mother, Amy began to understand Daisy’s tremendous need to tell her stories: She wanted someone to go back and relive [sic] her life with her.

It was a way for her to exorcise her demons, and for me to finally listen and empathize and learn what memory means, and what you can change about the past. (Lyall 1995, C6) Piecing together the fragments of her mother’s remembered life, Amy Tan has formed a body of work that explores the nature of memory-what it is, how it functions, what it means, how it shapes an individual. In The Hundred Secret Senses, memory becomes the medium by which the past reconfigures the present, and through which the present revises the past.

In an interview with Julie Lew, Tan explained that she wrote her first stories in an attempt to explain herself and her thoughts to her mother. I wanted her [Daisy Tan] to know what I thought about China and . . . growing up in this country. And I wanted those words to almost fall off the page so that she could just see the story. (1989, 23) Gradually, Amy began to understand that she did remember fragments of stories from her childhood, bits and pieces of her mother’s memoirs, images and episodes from tales about life in China.

As a matter of fact, she was surprised to determine that she did have a considerable–if imagistic and impressionistic–knowledge regarding Chinese culture, and she has been mainly pleased to find out that her work resonates as stoutly with Chinese readers as it does with the general reading public. Tan views storytelling as a mainly appropriate narrative approach for her fiction through which she seeks to figure out some form of truth from many points of view.

She notes, as well, that storytelling enables her to imitate on the issues with which she and her mother have grappled in their own lives–concerns that are familiar in diverse ways to Tan’s readers, many of whom have struggled with the same concerns in different settings. Tan points out that as someone who was heaved on the border between cultures, she was confronted with values and ideas that appeared conflicting, and those contradictions raised numerous questions in her mind. For Tan, those questions have provided “a filter for looking at all my experiences and seeing them from different angles.

” She goes on to suggest that storytellers ask those same kinds of questions, that “underneath the surface of the story is a question or a perspective or a nagging little emotion” (Giles). The women at the center of Tan’s novels give shape to their lives through stories that afford them a way to codify and systematize their experiences, and more importantly, to transmit those experiences to others (daughters, sisters) whose lives have been profoundly affected–whether consciously or unconsciously–by summative impact of those experiences.

The tradition provides Tan with the ideal means for bringing to life the inhabitants of a fictional universe that takes in two centuries, two cultures, two nations, and multiple generations–separated by space, time, and language. Moreover, through talk story, Tan is able to combine apparently random fragments of stories from a variety of speakers who have diverse perspectives into a rational and meaningful whole, thus providing readers of each novel with a continuous, although nonlinear, narrative that engages, challenges, and eventually provokes reflection.

Work Cited Chen, V. (1994). (De) hyphenated identity: The double voice in The Woman Warrior. In A. Gonzalez, M. Houston, & V. Chen (Eds. ), Our voices: Essays in culture, ethnicity, and communication. (pp. 3-11). Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company. Feldman Gayle. “The Joy Luck Club: Chinese Magic, American Blessings, and a Publishing Fairy Tale”. Publisher’s Weekly (7 July 1989): 24. Giles Gretchen. “Ghost Writer: Bay Area Author Amy Tan Talks About Fame and Phantoms”.

Sonoma Independent. Http://www. 14. 95. tan-9550. html. 28 February 1997. 5:04 P. M. Lew Julie. New York Times (4 July 1989): 23. Lyall Sarah. “A Writer Knows that Spirits Dwell Beyond Her Pages”. New York Times (29 December 1995): B1. —–. “In the Country of the Spirits: At Home with Writer Amy Tan”. New York Times (28 December 1995): C1. Pearlman Mickey and Katherine Usher Henderson. Inter/View: Talks with America’s Writing Women. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Schleier Curt. “The Joy Luck Lady”.

The Detroit News. Http://detnews. com/ menu/stories/23098. htm. 28 February 1997. 4:40 P. M. Shah, S. (1994). Presenting the blue goddess: Toward a national pan-Asian feminist agenda. In K. A-S Juan (Ed. ), The state of Asian America: Activism and resistance in the 1990s (pp. 147-158). Boston: South End Press. Streitfeld David. Washington Post (8 October 1989): 1. Wang Veronica. “The Chinese-American Woman’s Quest for Identity”. MELUS 12. 3 (1985): 23-31. Woo Elaine. Los Angeles Times (12 March 1989): Section VI. 1, 14.

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