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Looking Into The Joy Luck Club MAG
When I was assigned The Joy Luck Club for a summer reading assignment, I initially dreaded it. I feared the regimentation of reading assignments would ruin the meaning of the book for me. I feared the mandatory annotations would drain the genuine intrigue from Amy Tan’s words. However, I found myself immediately captured by Tan’s writing, by the complexities and flaws of her characters and words.
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is arguably one of the cornerstones of Asian American literature. It follows the story of four Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters, sharing vignettes of their lives over mahjong and dim sum. Published in 1989, it lives on today as an influential work depicting the nature of mother-daughter relationships when warped by diaspora and generational gaps, as well as the conflicting duality in the Chinese American identity itself.
So many parts of The Joy Luck Club are relatable. My own experiences reflected uncannily in the familial relationships Tan depicted: the ebbing and flowing strains in her mother-daughter relationships, the tough love, and the generational barriers. I could see my own struggles in each daughter’s tattered attempts at reconciling the American Dream with their Chinese mothers’ more traditional expectations. The clashes in loyalty, in culture, in pride – I knew all of that.
Since Chinese and American cultures and customs are in such opposition of each other, they often negate one another. Choosing to lean toward one side of your heritage often means stepping away from the other. The Joy Luck Club depicts this struggle with such blunt honesty that it hurt to read something I have experienced for myself so explicitly. Yet, it was cathartic to read at the same time, knowing that my, and many others’, experiences were in the hands of an author who could understand.
However, one thing that still bothers me to this day despite having read The Joy Luck Club years ago, is the way that Tan writes pinyin. It is a way of spelling Chinese characters out in English characters by sound. Rather than spelling pinyin traditionally, Tan spelled it the phonetic way.
When Lindo Jong, one of the novel’s main characters, recalls an interaction between herself and an older servant woman, Tan writes, “Shemma bende ren!” The English translation is actually, “What kind of fool are you?”, something that Tan defines for readers quickly afterwards. In contrast, the actual traditional pinyin spelling should have been “Shen me ben de ren.”
As a Chinese American reader, I had the advantage of understanding the customs and phrases Tan included without needing translations. Obviously not everyone speaks or understands Chinese; Tan likely meant no harm in spelling it so differently. Spelling Chinese words phonetically, rather than accurately, makes it easier for non-Chinese readers to imagine the words in their head despite not knowing the language. However, in making her words more Americanized, it feels as if Tan diluted their meaning.
“Chunwang chihan: If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold,” Tan writes in another chapter. Tan’s version of pinyin is so different that even I couldn’t recognize what the actual words were supposed to have meant. By spelling Chinese this way, Tan butchers the language itself.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the sort of translation error that goes on between Chinese and American cultures. There is definitely a lack of understanding, be it in linguistic differences or morals, between Chinese and American cultures that further deepens the rift between them. Due to these divides, Chinese Americans often experience a disconnect to their heritages, yet may also feel like they don’t fully belong in America either.
I myself feel foreign at times, unable to connect to either China or America. The Joy Luck Club was one of the first books I read that truly captured my feeling of disconnect, the gulf that stood between me and my heritage, and the struggles of diasporic life. While reading Tan’s Americanized versions of Chinese words, I didn’t necessarily feel violated or offended. It just made me feel even more isolated, despite the safe relatability the novel provides. Tan’s way of depicting pinyin, in effect, wasn’t Chinese at all – it was some other language she’d created on her own.
What that says to me is this: it’s almost as if the only to be understood, as a Chinese person, is to warp and twist our language until it isn’t even a real thing anymore. Whether this effect was intentional or not on the author’s part, I ultimately find it very interesting that this is the way Amy Tan chose to try and blend China and America.
At the end of the day, The Joy Luck Club is still a landmark story that is very important to me. Perhaps these differences in pinyin could mean something far greater than a mere stylistic choice. It is a visual depiction of the translation error between Chinese and American cultures and languages. It is a quiet message that says Chinese must be watered down to be understood, otherwise it is too hard – and even then, the language loses its true meaning.
In turn, that makes the novel just so much more poignant.