Why may some suggest that Amy Tan perpetuates racist stereotypes about Asian Americans? | Teen Ink

Why may some suggest that Amy Tan perpetuates racist stereotypes about Asian Americans?

October 5, 2021
By Anonymous

The Joy Luck Club is a realistic fiction novel written by Amy Tan published in 1989. This novel tells the story of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their Chinese American daughters, bringing to light the lack of understanding between each mother and daughter born from cultural differences. Tan gives insight into the past and present lives of each mother and daughter, highlighting the disparity between the two generations and cultures, leading to the manifestation of the conflict between them. Although Tan’s novel was praised by many for its universality and representation of Asian Americans, it was also faced with criticism as not only did Tan characterize the characters into stereotypical views of a ‘typical’ Asian and compare Eastern and Western culture using stereotype-based generalizations, but she also explicitly labeled traits and actions of her characters as ‘American’ or ‘Chinese’, emphasizing the disparity between them. Critics argue Tan conforms to prejudiced viewpoints of Asian culture and people, reinforcing these perpetuated stereotypes and further exotifying Asian Americans from their Western counterparts. 


Through the characterization of the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club, Tan reinforces certain racial stereotypes of Asian Americans, seemingly satisfying the prejudiced views of Asians imposed by foreigners. The four mothers in the novel, Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair, are all characterized using similar traits; strict, controlling, proud, judgemental - all of which are the ‘typical’ views of foreigners about East Asian parents. Tan characterized one of the mothers, Suyuan Woo, as a stringent mother who employed these stereotypical characteristics on her daughter, June Woo. Suyuan expected June to become a piano prodigy at a young age, but when June failed miserably to meet her expectations and refused to practice anymore, Suyuan shouted in Chinese “Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!” (164) to June. This characterizes Suyuan as a mother who obsesses over the idea of her daughter’s success, thus tries to control her daughter’s life to shape it the way she sees fit. This is a common perception of the East Asian parenting culture, as many people believe that the expectations Asian parents have are that all parents will stop at nothing to get their child there. Although many East Asian parents may have high standards and expectations for their children that they expect their children to live up to, it doesn’t necessarily represent the entire community and their values. Not only this, but because these traits are the very traits Asian parents are generalized and stereotyped into, by representing all the mothers in her book as the ‘typical Asian’ parent, Tan further solidifies and conforms to racist stereotypes. As Tan is an Asian American herself, readers will give her take on the Asian parenting culture more credibility, thus will believe these stereotypical views of Asian parents as the whole truth. Although these traits might be predominantly seen in many East Asian parents, many argue Tan should’ve been more careful in representing each character as their own individual, not merely stereotyped into the ‘typical’ norms of Asian parenting culture. Tan also solidified racial stereotypes by generalizing the daughters into a similar set of attributes, each character lacking individual representation.  The daughters all seem to go through similar phases at similar points in their lives. When they were younger, they were very submissive until they decided they had enough of their mothers controlling their lives. Then they separated themselves from their ethnic culture, completely assimilating themselves into the American culture, and became embarrassed of Chinese culture and of their mothers’ old-fashioned ‘Chinese’  ways of life. Tan stereotypes the daughters into this conventional, predictable storyline, seemingly implying to her readers that being both American and Chinese makes one ashamed of the latter as their methods of life are more outdated and stringent. To readers who aren’t familiar with this culture, they can’t help but to perceive Chinese culture exactly the way Tan writes even if her writing lacks representation of individuals and perpetuates racist stereotypes. 


Some may also say that Tan perpetuates racial stereotypes and cultural narratives in her novel by contrasting Chinese and American culture in a way that puts emphasis solely on their differences. This was done through the recurring motifs of Chinese traditional culture, such as superstitions, the importance and implication of manners, eating of exotic foods, and certain sets of beliefs and values contrasted against American counterparts. Through the enhancement of certain traits of Chinese culture, Tan aims to represent Chinese traditional culture for foreigners to understand, but rather alienates this culture even further to the Western world, as only the traits that exotify Chinese culture from American culture are most prominently addressed. This type of cultural contrast is seen throughout and between all of the different characters, including Lindo Jong and her daughter, Waverly. When Waverly brings her fiance, Rich, over to her house for dinner in order to introduce him to her mother, due to the difference in the conventions of table manners, Waverly believes this meeting was disastrous. When Waverly’s mother made “disparaging remarks about her own cooking” as it was the “Chinese cook’s custom”, Rich didn’t realize it was a signal for the members at the dinner table to “proclaim it was the best she had ever made” (211), thus agreed to Lindo’s self-criticism as he was used to. Not only this, but Rich proceeded to refuse seconds because he viewed it as polite, instead of following Waverly’s dad’s example of stuffing himself with small portions of seconds, thirds, and fourths, saying “he could not resist another bite of something or other” (211). This contrast of how Rich acted at the dinner table compared to how Waverly and her family had expected him to act accentuated the disparity of the two cultures in terms of their habits and traditions. By doing so, Tan purposefully seems to distinct the two cultures in a way that perpetuates certain stereotypes about Asian culture; stringent, enigmatic, and foreign. Again, this kind of representation of the Asian culture may be based on the truth as Tan does have first-hand experience in being a second-generation Chinese immigrant, thus understands the extent of the disparity between American culture and Chinese culture. But nevertheless, Tan was criticized by various Asian American readers as she explicitly compared the two cultures with the intention to highlight this generalized disparity. Especially because during the time this book was published in 1989, Asian representation in the American community wasn’t at all common, critics may argue that by perpetuating these racial, cultural traits of a certain minority of people, generalized stereotypes may be further solidified and justified as being true. 


Tan also potentially enhances racial stereotypes and generalizations about Asian culture through explicitly labeling American culture and Chinese culture as two completely different entities that can’t ever be mixed together. Throughout the book, different things are identified as ‘American’ or ‘Chinese’, differentiating them from each other and arguably putting stereotypical labels on the behaviors of the characters. Tan illustrates certain facial expressions using these labels, describing expressions as a “sour American look” (307) or “the face Americans think is Chinese” (310). She also not only labels different sets characteristics as either ‘American character’ or ‘Chinese character’ but also limits these sets of characters to certain ethnic groups, claiming one couldn’t “be taught about Chinese character”(308) just as much as the mothers couldn’t seem to be taught ‘American character’. Through the labeling of certain traits as ‘American’ or ‘Chinese’, Tan implies through her novel that these two cultures are incapable of coexisting in peace together. She seems to send a message that because of the prominent disparity that exists between the ways of the two cultures, these two cultures will always clash and will be incapable of understanding each other, which she showed through the mother-daughter conflicts showcased throughout her novel. Labeling individual traits, characteristics, expressions, or actions as belonging to a certain ethnic group undoubtedly solidifies existing racial stereotypes and cultural narratives, giving readers a generalized, prejudiced perception of a certain race, which may potentially encourage racism and the acceptance of racial stereotypes. 


In conclusion, although Tan’s work was praised for providing representation of Asian Americans in the Western world, she was also heavily criticized by some for perpetuating cultural narratives and racist stereotypes about Asian Americans. Personally, I believe that although her intentions were good and the readers were able to understand much of the Chinese culture through the comparisons made with American culture for reference, these generalizations about the Chinese and Asian culture were based very heavily on existing cultural narratives and stereotypes formed by foreigners. It is important to be extremely cautious when writing about a certain community regarding their ethnicity or culture - more so if they are part of a minority group that lacks representation and spotlight in other pieces of work - as generalization could lead to the solidification of existing racial prejudices and the exotification of that certain culture. 


Work Cited:

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. 30th anniversary ed., Vintage, 2019. 

The author's comments:

This is an essay I wrote given an assigned prompt at my high school about the book The Joy Luck Club.

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Lydiaq ELITE said...
on Oct. 10 2021 at 1:09 pm
Lydiaq ELITE, Somonauk, Illinois
160 articles 45 photos 1022 comments

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