“There she is! Never on time!” he announces. And it’s true. Everybody’s already here, seven family friends in their sixties and seventies. They look up and laugh at me, a child still at thirty-six. I’m shaking, trying to hold something inside. The last time I saw them, at the funeral, I had broken down and cried big gulping sobs. They must wonder how someone like me can take my mother’s place. . . . How can I be my mother at Joy Luck?
June believes that the older generation views her as still a child, and she both resents and understands their opinion. June feels somewhat unformed to herself, like something remains missing or incomplete, even as she wants recognition for what she has independently achieved so far in life. During the course of the story, as she connects with her mother Suyuan’s hitherto unknown past, those missing pieces of herself fall into place.
In fact, in the beginning, I was just as excited as my mother. Maybe even more so. I pictured this prodigy part of me as many different images, trying each one on for size. . . . I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity. . . . In all of my imaginings, I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect. My mother and father would adore me, I would be beyond reproach. I would never feel the need to sulk for anything.
June’s mother, Suyuan, believes that one can be anything one wants to be in America, and here, June reflects that she too shares her mother’s overly optimistic view. Suyuan feels sure that June will be some sort of prodigy and thus begins to systematically try to figure out what kind. June accepts her mother’s plan because she wants to be special. Unfortunately, the repeated failures in the search for June’s special talent begin to weary June far before her more optimistic mother wants to give up.
[A]fter seeing my mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations. . . . I made high-pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror. And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me—because I had never seen that face before. . . . The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. . . . I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not.
June has begun to resent her mother Suyuan’s constant search for June’s special talent, something Suyuan feels sure exists. At first, June felt excited about being a prodigy, but now she sees her mother’s quest as an attempt to impose an identity on her. In this scene, June decides that independence of thought will be her special talent, which will indeed make her stand out, but not in a way her mother appreciates until years later.
So maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at that young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns.
June reflects on her half-attempts to learn how to play the piano. Since June’s piano teacher can’t hear, June gets away with only pretending to learn how to play. She realizes that she could have taken the opportunity to learn properly but she chose not to and instead rebelled against this supposed special talent imposed upon her by her mother. Looking back in adulthood, June realizes that, in her determination not to obey her mother, she may have missed out on learning something true about herself.
It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. 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 didn’t get straight As. I didn’t become class president. I didn’t get into 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.
June reflects on the different ways she feels she disappointed her mother, Suyuan. Suyuan assumed that June could be successful not because she expected her daughter to excel but because she believed that anyone could do anything they wished in America. Readers learn that June assumes that Suyuan wanted her to be the best when, really, Suyuan simply wanted June to be the best version of herself. The difference between their attitudes doesn’t represent conformity versus rebellion, as June believes, but rather optimism versus pessimism.
That was the night, in the kitchen, that I realized I was no better than who I was. I was a copywriter. I worked for a small ad agency. I promised every new client, “We can provide the sizzle for the meat.” The sizzle always boiled down to “Three Benefits. Three Needs. Three Reasons to Buy.” The meat was always coaxial cable, T-1 multiplexers, protocol converters, and the like. I was very good at what I did, succeeding at something small like that.
After Waverly humiliates June by announcing in front of family that June’s copywriting fails to meet Waverly’s company’s standard, June feels embarrassed. But then she remembers that her usual clients are always quite happy with her work. By pursuing work at Waverly’s company, she put herself out of her depth. Maybe she was trying to reach up to be at Waverly’s level, but nobody asked her to do so. This understanding brings June comfort and allows her to resist judging herself harshly.
Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. “Someday you will see,” said my mother. “It is in your blood, waiting to be let go.” And when she said this, I saw . . . a mutant tag of DNA suddenly triggered, replicating itself insidiously into a syndrome, a cluster of telltale Chinese behaviors, all those things my mother did to embarrass me—haggling with store owners, pecking her mouth with a toothpick in public, being color-blind to the fact that lemon yellow and pale pink are not good combinations for winter clothes.
June believes that thinking and feeling Chinese is inextricably tied up with Suyuan’s embarrassing behaviors, which are either remnants from her upbringing in China or her own personal quirks. Thus, as readers learn here, June sees Suyuan’s assertion of June’s Chinese identity as a sort of threat. Later, after meeting her sisters, however, June realizes that being Chinese means being part of a family. Connecting with her Chinese self makes June feel more complete.
Right after my mother died, I asked myself a lot of things, things that couldn’t be answered, to force myself to grieve more. It seemed as if I wanted to sustain my grief, to assure myself that I had cared deeply enough. But now I ask the questions mostly because I want to know the answers. . . . What had she dreamt all these years about her other daughters? All the times when she got mad at me, was she really thinking about them? Did she wish I were they? Did she regret that I wasn’t?
June looks back on the time after her mother’s death. She had thought she was not sufficiently saddened by her mother’s death, even tried to prolong her sorrow, but now she realizes that as she left many questions unasked during her mother’s life, she will not get answers for them now. In pondering Suyuan’s thoughts about her other daughters, June is actually wondering how she stood in her mother’s estimation. June still feels insecure about her mother’s feelings for her but knows she loved her mother more than she had realized.