Each of the four sections of The Joy Luck Club is preceded by a short parable that introduces the major themes of that section’s four stories. The parable that begins “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away” tells the tale of a Chinese woman who decides to emigrate to America. Before she leaves Shanghai, the woman buys a swan from a vendor, who tells her that the bird was once a duck. In an attempt to become a goose, the duck stretched its neck so far that it became a swan, exceeding its own hopes for itself. As the woman sails to America, she dreams of raising a daughter amid the plentiful opportunities of the new country. She imagines that her American-born daughter will resemble her in every way, except that, unlike her mother, she will be judged according to her own worth, not by that of a husband. Like the swan, the daughter will exceed all hopes, so the woman plans to give her daughter the swan as a gift. Yet, when the woman arrives in America, the immigration officials seize the swan and leave the woman with nothing but a feather. The daughter is born and grows up to be the strong, happy woman her mother had imagined. The woman still wishes to present the feather to her daughter and to explain its symbolic meaning, but for many years she holds back. She is still waiting “for the day she could [explain it] in perfect American English.”
“What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything. . . .”See Important Quotations Explained
Jing-mei opens her narrative by explaining that after
her mother, Suyuan, died two months ago, her father, Canning, asked
her to take her mother’s place at the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mahjong
party. (Mahjong is a game for four players involving dice and domino-like tiles.)
Suyuan and Canning Woo have been attending the meetings of the Joy
Luck Club since
Suyuan’s first husband, Fuchi Wang, had been an officer
in the Kuomintang, a militaristic, nationalist political party that
ran China from
Jing-mei explains that usually her mother’s story would stop at this point, and that her mother would tag on some fantastic ending that made the story seem like a “Chinese fairy tale.” But one evening, her mother told her the story’s real ending—the story about how she came to leave the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin.
One day, an army officer suggested to Suyuan that she travel to Chungking to be with her husband. Suyuan knew the officer’s message meant that the Japanese would soon arrive in Kweilin, and she knew that the families of officers would be the first to die. She packed her children and some belongings into a wheelbarrow and began to walk to Chungking. The journey was long, and Suyuan’s hands began to bleed from carrying her bags. Finally she, like others before her, was forced to begin lightening her load by leaving items behind. By the time Suyuan arrived in Chungking, she had only three silk dresses. She made no mention of the babies. For years, she never told Jing-mei what happened to Jing-mei’s older half-sisters.
At the Joy Luck Club meeting, Jing-mei cannot believe that she could ever really replace her mother. She remembers her mother’s critical attitude toward everyone. Suyuan had always compared Jing-mei with her friend Lindo’s daughter, Waverly. Jing-mei feels inadequate because she never succeeded in becoming the prize daughter that Waverly is, and she never finished college.
At her first Joy Luck Club event, Jing-mei suffers silently
as the other members level veiled criticisms at her for having dropped
out of school and having been evicted from her apartment. Just as
she is about to leave, her mother’s friends sit her down and inform
her that they have some important news: Suyuan had been secretly
searching for her twin daughters throughout her years in America,
and just before her death, she had succeeded in locating their address.
She died before she could contact them, however, so her friends
decided to write a letter in her name. They have received a letter
from Jing-mei’s sisters in response. The Joy Luck members want Jing-mei
to travel to China and tell her sisters about Suyuan’s life; they
give her $
The opening parable raises the issue of the linguistic and cultural barrier that exists between each immigrant mother and American-born daughter in the book. The daughter in the parable has never known the sorrows that her mother experienced in China, but she cannot appreciate her good fortune because she does not know her mother’s story. Moreover, although the mother desires to live out her hopes through her daughter, the lack of communication between them prevents her wish from being granted in its entirety. Even if the mother were to learn “perfect American English,” she would never be able to translate fully the nuances of her story. As the stories of The Joy Luck Club will demonstrate, such a process of translation all too often fails to convey the full meaning of a story: while individual words might have English equivalents, ultimately the Chinese and American cultures can never be equated. What the mother of the parable denotes as a language gap actually extends into many more aspects of life, and bridging the gap will entail more than simply learning extra vocabulary words. The characters in The Joy Luck Club will struggle to answer for themselves whether they can achieve the deeper level of communication necessary to achieve true understanding between cultures and generations.
Throughout The Joy Luck Club, issues of translation and storytelling emerge continually. The book explores the question of whether a story serves as a place where “losses in translation” become concentrated and magnified, or whether a story might function more like a stepping-stone or bridge, connecting mothers and daughters across the intergenerational and intercultural chasm that separates them.
When Suyuan came to the United States, she had lost almost everything: all she brought with her were three elaborate silk dresses. As a child, Jing-mei never appreciated the significance of those dresses, but to Suyuan, they testify to her survival and persist as her last material connection to her former life. In some ways, they are analogous to the single feather that the woman is left with in the section’s introductory parable. Yet, even though she cherishes the dresses, Suyuan shows that she is able to focus not on what she has lost but on what she retains. She revives the Joy Luck Club with three new friends, and she raises her newborn daughter rather than mourning her lost twins. As she used to explain to Jing-mei about the original Joy Luck Club, “We all had our miseries. But . . . [w]hat was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths . . . ? Or to choose our own happiness?”
Suyuan repeatedly chooses her own happiness: by each time giving a different ending to the story about Kweilin and the original Joy Luck Club, she may be willfully creating this happiness. Perhaps, too, she hoped that she might some day find her daughters again, thus rendering the story’s true ending the happiest of all. Until then, fairy-tale endings might substitute. A third possibility is that Suyuan omitted the tragedy from her story out of a belief that it would be impossible to make her American daughter, a child of comfortable and stable circumstances, understand the agonies she has known.
Indeed, Jing-mei herself fears that she does not know her mother well enough to tell her story to her half-sisters, Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa. An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying, the other members of the club, react in horror when Jing-mei expresses her fear. Jing-mei believes that their dismay owes to their understanding that their children, too, lack knowledge of their mother’s lives. They worry that their stories will be lost in the generational and cultural gap between themselves and their American daughters—just like the story of the mother in the parable.
The notion of this generational gap also feeds into Jing-mei’s anxieties about replacing her mother in the club. To take her mother’s place in the Joy Luck Club is to enact an important ritual, and to carry on the memory of what was begun in China and resurrected in America. It is to sustain a piece of her mother’s past in her own present. Suyuan created the Joy Luck Club in Kweilin because she wanted to reaffirm, or create, a sense of gladness, belonging, and order, even in the midst of complete uncertainty and turmoil. In America, the club has served a similar purpose, and also helped Suyuan and the other members feel a sense of continuity between their old and new cultures. For Suyuan, the club was a symbol of hope and of strength, and a means of asserting identity amidst change. Jing-mei wonders whether she can uphold her mother’s memory and identity, whether she is strong enough to carry her mother’s hopes into the future. Jing-mei’s guilty remarks about not having met her mother’s expectations that she would finish college and find a well-paying career suggest that she fears that, in some way, she already represents the failure of Suyuan’s dreams.