The Theme Of The Mothers' And Daughters' Effective Communication In 'The Joy Luck Club'

Of the many stories involving the many characters of 'The Joy Luck Club', I believe the central theme connecting them all is the inability of the mothers and their daughters to communicate effectively.

The mothers all have stories of past struggles and hard times yet do not believe their daughters truly appreciate this fact. The mothers of the story all want their daughters to never have to go through the struggles they themselves had to go through, yet they are disappointed when their daughters grow up and do not exhibit the respect or strength of their mothers. This is the ironic paradox of the story.

The Chinese mothers came to the United States to escape the difficult life they led in China and to start fresh in the United States. They did not want their children to grow up as they had. The short story in the beginning of the book describes this feeling. 'Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: '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. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan - a creature that became more than what was hoped for.' Even though this is just a short story before the long one begins and is not actually attributed to any specific character in the story, I believe it accurately describes all the mothers' feelings about their daughters. They wanted their daughters to live an American life in that they would not be discriminated against or have any sorrow in their lives. In short, they wanted their daughters to avoid the sorrow and tribulations they had themselves experienced in life. If this was the only thing they wished for their daughters, it would not be difficult to achieve. Unfortunately, the wishes of the mothers had a catch to it.

That catch was that they wanted their daughters to exhibit the wisdom, strength, and respect that they themselves possessed. Unfortunately, this is the paradox or catch-22 of the story. The Chinese mothers wanted the daughters to never experience the pain they had experienced themselves. But to gain the enormous strength and wisdom of life they wanted the daughters to have, the daughters would have to go through the same trials and tribulations that their mothers had. For how could you expect a child to have the same strength and wisdom about life if that child did not experience the same amount of struggle and pain? The Chinese mothers in effect wanted it both ways. They wanted their daughters to become American in many ways but yet retain some important Chinese traits. Unfortunately, their children became more American than they had wished. This is also best exemplified by the short story before the main one begins. It reads, 'Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her the single swan feather and tell her, 'this feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.' And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.' In many ways the daughters had led the life the mothers had wished for them to lead, so the original wish of the mothers had been accomplished.

Unfortunately, when the children grew up American they almost became better than their mothers. By this I mean that the daughters could speak perfect English and felt at home in every aspect of American society. This was far from true with their mothers who did not speak as well as their daughters and clung to Chinese traditions and ways of life. This sometimes led to embarrassment of the daughters of their mothers and sometimes shame for the mothers because they knew their daughters were embarrassed by them. I believe this also helps to explain the communication problem that some of the mothers had with their daughters. Due to the fact that the mothers sometimes might have felt inferior to their daughters or that sometimes the daughters might have been ashamed of their mothers, this contributed to the breakdown in communication between them.

In the first chapter we are introduced to the actual Joy Luck Club. It is here that the horrors of the mothers that their daughters do not really know them is best illustrated. It is when June learns of her twin sisters and is told to travel to China to see them by her aunts. The passage reads, 'You must see your sisters and tell them about your mother's death,' says Auntie Ying. 'But most important, you must tell them about her life. The mother they did not know, they must now know.' 'See my sisters, tell them about my mother,' I say nodding. 'What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don't know anything. She was my mother.' The aunties are looking at me as if I had became crazy right before their eyes. 'Not know your own mother?' cries Auntie An-mei with disbelief. 'How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!' 'Tell them stories of your family here. How she became success,' offers Auntie Lin. 'Tell them stories she told you, lessons she taught, what you know about her mind that has become your mind,' says Auntie Ying. 'Your mother very smart lady.' I hear more choruses of 'Tell them, tell them' as each auntie frantically tries to think what should be passed on. 'Her kindness.' 'Her smartness.' 'Her dutiful nature to family.' 'Her hopes, things that mattered to her.' 'The excellent dishes she cooked.' 'Imagine a daughter not knowing her own mother!' And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American born minds 'joy luck' is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.'

The fact that their daughters do not really know their mothers is distressing enough for the mothers. What makes it extra disappointing to the mothers are the sacrifices that they themselves made for their mothers. Lindo Jong, for instance, did not get to choose her husband. This was not uncommon in China during that time. So that in itself was not a big sacrifice. However, the fact that the only reason she stayed with her husband and his family was the fact that her family would be shamed if she was to leave the marriage. She not only had to stay in a bad marriage, but also had to perform as a traditional Chinese wife would. This meant cooking and cleaning for her husband and his family. This also meant putting up with her husband's mother who was both physically and mentally abusive towards her. And, most importantly, this meant conceiving a grandson for her mother-in-law despite the fact that her new husband was a child himself and had no desire to have any physical contact with her. Lindo did manage to escape this marriage and the entire situation by convincing her mother-in-law that she was not the bride meant for her son. She had blown out the marriage candle and concocted an extravagant story that convinced her mother-in-law to set her free from her marriage commitment. If not for her quick thinking and some luck, Lindo Jong would have had to stay in that tortuous relationship and put up with her abusive mother-in-law because she could not bring shame upon her family. This sacrifice contrasts starkly with Lindo's daughter, Waverly, and the way she treats her. Waverly becomes a chess prodigy at an early age and becomes increasingly irritated with her mother when she gives advice to her about chess or when her mother takes credit and brags to her friends about her daughter's chess victories. While Lindo was willing to, in effect, live a life of abuse devoid of pleasure for her family; Waverly did not even have enough respect for her mother to allow her to innocently give advice or to brag to her friends about her. Another example of the sacrifice, love, and respect that these Chinese mothers had for their own mothers is the story of An-mei Hsu and her mother. Though An-mei's mother had been shamed and sent away from the family, she returned when her mother became gravely ill. At the end of the chapter entitled 'Scar', An-mei's mother has returned. The passage reads, 'I saw my mother on the other side of the room. Quiet and sad. She was cooking soup, perhaps herbs and medicines into the steaming pot. And then I saw her pull up her sleeve and pull out a sharp knife. She put this knife on the softest part of her arm. I tried to close my eyes, but could not. And them my mother cut a piece of her flesh and put it into the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother one last time. Even though I was young, I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain. This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou so deep it is in your bones. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.' This might be a drastic thing for a daughter to do, but it demonstrates the extreme measures these women were willing to take to honor their mothers. It would be very difficult to imagine any of the American born Chinese women doing anything close to this. In most cases, the American born Chinese women are embarrassed by their mothers and treat them almost like children.

One reason that the daughters do not have the respect for their mothers that they should is that the mothers were not very forthcoming with their pasts. If the collection of daughters could read the book and collection of stories in 'The Joy Luck Club', I believe they would learn of their mothers' struggles and then would give their mothers the respect they deserve. When Suyuan Woo finally tell her daughter the story of having to leave the twins on the side of the road, she ends it mysteriously and abruptly. When Suyuan tells June that she lost everything. June responds with the question, 'What do you mean everything?' Instead of seizing the chance to bond with her daughter and tell her more of the story, Suyuan simply responds with, 'Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.'

The communication between the two generations is also severely hampered by the cruel off-hand remarks made by the mothers. The mothers are very proud of their daughters and love them very much, however they do not seem able to convey those feelings very often. Instead they say things that hurt their daughters' feelings and contribute to the uncomfortable feelings between them. An example of this is when Waverly brings her mother to her home and shows her the fur coat that her fiancee had just bought her. Waverly is very proud of the new coat and is also very much in love with her new fiancee, Rich. Despite this love and pride, Waverly is apprehensive when showing her mother because she accurately predicts that her mother will say something mean spirited to her. When Waverly does show her mother the home with Rich's things in it and the new fur coat, her mother does in fact respond in a way that saddens and angers Waverly. After Waverly shows her mother the new fur coat, the passage goes on to read; 'This is not so good,' she said at last. 'It is just leftover strips. And the fur is too short, no long hairs.' The story ends with, 'My mother knows how to hit a nerve. And the pain I feel is worse than any kind of misery. Because what she does always comes as a shock, exactly like an electric jolt, that grounds itself permanently in my memory.'

In closing, the communication and overall relationships between the daughters and mothers did improve as the book progressed. However, this does not mean that they now have a perfect mother-daughter relationship now. Due to the Chinese upbringing of the mothers, it is highly unlikely that they would attend any from of counseling to try and improve communication with their daughters without prodding. Also, the fact that the mothers and daughters do not share life experiences contributes to their different personalities and traits. Added to that is the different countries that they grew up in. The American born daughters are obviously going to take some things for granted that their mothers never would. The final reason for the strained relationships between the mothers and the daughters are the comments sometimes made by the mothers that hurt or anger the daughters. The mothers want their daughters to know them and remember them, but fail to effectively communicate with them. They only need to sit down with them and tell them the stories of their past. They need to tell they are proud of them. They need to tell them they love them.

16 December 2021
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