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 $1,200 for the trip. Overwhelmed, Jing-mei cries and doubts whether she knew her mother well enough to tell the twins her story.

Analysis—Introduction & “The Joy Luck Club”

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.