For Amy Tan, however, attempting, for her parents' sake, to become simultaneously Chinese and American, without compromising either culture, or herself, was a tricky balancing act.
As E.D. Huntley adds:
Amy Tan spent her childhood years attempting to understand, as well as to come to terms with and to reconcile, the contradictions between her ethnicity and the dominant Western culture in which she was being raised and educated. She lived the classic minority experience: at home, she was an uneasy Americanized teenager at odds with the expectations of her traditional Chinese parents; at school -- where she frequently was the only
Chinese student in her classes -- she was the Asian outsider....
Amy and her brothers
To the dismay of their parents -- completely embraced the American culture that Dominated their experience outside their home. (Huntley).
The Chinese-American mother-daughter relationship riven by cultural misunderstandings is revisited within Amy Tan's second novel, the Kitchen God's Wife (1991). This story, however, focuses, unlike the more fragmentary and complex narrative strategy employed in of the Joy Luck Club with its interwoven stories of four distinct sets of mothers and daughters, on one mother-daughter pair: Winnie Louie a Chinese-born immigrant mother and her American-born daughter Pearl, who, like the four Americanized daughters in the Joy Luck Club, knows little at the outset of her mother's past life in China, and cares even less.
Unlike the Joy Luck Club daughters, however, Pearl has her own dark secret, one she has carefully kept from her mother, though not from other family members: she suffers from Multiple Sclerosis.
As the Kitchen God's Wife opens, we first meet Pearl, a middle-aged, Chinese-American woman born and raised in the United States, who struggles, like the Chinese-American daughters of the Joy Luck Club, with dual and Chinese-American identities, and who much prefers her American identity to her Chinese one. Many female characters in Tan's work keep unpleasant secrets. In most cases, however, it is the Chinese mothers, rather than their American-born daughters, who do so, and who yearn to reveal their past lives to interested others. In the Kitchen God's Wife, however, Tan alters this motif by giving Pearl a secret to keeps from Winnie Louie. Notwithstanding that, the mother-daughter tensions are closely similar to those of the Joy Luck Club:
The Kitchen God's Wife is very much about the issues that arise out of the immigrant experience and the generation gap between immigrants and their children This struggle is mostly illustrated through the character of Pearl, who is American born but is raised in a household with Chinese customs and traditions... It is difficult for... her to live in the space between fully American and fully Chinese.... she has tried to abandon her
Chinese heritage....("The Kitchen God's Wife: Amy Tan") in the first chapters, Pearl, with her American husband Phil and their two young daughters, Tessa and Cleo, is pulled back to the world of her youth when two key events occur, almost simultaneously. First, Pearl and her family are invited to attend the San Francisco engagement party of Pearl's cousin Bao-Bao, son of her Aunt Helen. Pearl greets this invitation without much enthusiasm. Like the Joy Luck daughters, she has spent a good part of her adult life moving away from her Chinese heritage. However, Pearl realizes her obligation to attend the party, and prepares to go. Then Pearl receives a call from Winnie Louie: her Great Auntie Du has died. The funeral will take place the day after Bao-Bao's engagement party.
Feeling doubly burdened now, Pearl sets out with her American family for her childhood home in San Francisco.
There, Pearl receives a surprising ultimatum. Aunt Helen pulls her aside to insist Pearl tell Winnie Louie of her Multiple Sclerosis. This must occur, Aunt Helen insists, for her (Aunt Helen's) own sake: she is terminally ill with a brain tumor, and knows she will be unable to die peacefully until her sister, Winnie Louie, knows of her daughter's medical condition.
At Auntie Du's funeral, Pearl experiences a strange mixture of alienation from, and familiarity with, the traditional Chinese rituals for the dead that take place. When a ritual that includes circling the dead body is performed, Pearl bursts into sudden tears. As Tan writes:
Suddenly a sob bursts from my chest and surprises everyone, even me. I panic and try to hold back, but everything collapses. My heart is breaking, bitter anger is pouring out and I can't stop it.
My mother's eyes are also wet. She smiles at me through her tears. And she knows this grief is not for grand Auntie Du but for my father [emphasis added]. Because she has been waiting for me to cry for such a long, long time, for more than twenty-five years, ever since the day of my father's funeral. (the Kitchen God's Wife 44-45)
The closer bond that will develop between the adult Pearl and her Chinese mother is foreshadowed in this scene when Pearl and her mother realize simultaneously, without words, that Pearl's tears are not for Grand Auntie Du; they are Pearl's long un-cried tears for her Jimmy Louie, at whose own funeral the fourteen-year-old had been unable to cry (45).
Pearl's tears at the funeral service, then, combined with Aunt Helen's ultimatum, create the necessary conditions of possibility for Winnie Louie's now beginning to share, with her semi-estranged, now- grown daughter Pearl, her own sad, long-held secrets: the surprising stuff of her eventful and painful life as a young woman living in China. As Victoria Chen suggests, within Amy Tan's fiction:
Language and identity are always positioned in a hierarchical power structure in which the Chinese-American immigrants' form of life has never been granted equal status... in...
A this country. It is one thing to embrace the philosophical wisdom of 'having the best of both worlds' but another to confront the real ongoing struggle between languages and identities that most Chinese-Americans experience. Bicultural identity cannot be reduced to two neutral, pristine, and equal linguistic domains that one simply picks and chooses to participate in without personal, relational, social, and political consequences. We need to understand the tension and conflict between generations of Chinese-American women within the ideological cultural context of racial and sexual inequality and their ongoing positions of contestation within it. ("Chinese-American Women, Language, and Moving
And, as Amy Tan herself concurs:
when I was growing up, my mother's "limited" English limited my perception of her.
I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.
Amy Tan on Writing" (from "Mother Tongue") 148).
In Chapter 3 of the Kitchen God's Wife, the linguistic differences between mother and daughter are made readily apparent when Pearl's role in the book switches from that of narrator to that of listener. Winnie Louie reveals her past: her first marriage to the abusive Wen Fu, the births of her other children, with Wen Fu in China, her escape from her abusive marriage and then from China itself, and her courtship and happy marriage in America to her second husband, Jimmy Louie.
As Winnie Louie reveals herself to her daughter, the conflicted Chinese-American identities of both mother and daughter slowly become less conflicted, leading to a greater understanding, and even some uneasy resolutions to their longstanding intra-cultural conflicts.
Like the daughters in the Joy Luck Club, Pearl has been content up to now not only to carefully guard her own secret from her mother, as a way of maintaining distance, but also to remain blissfully ignorant of her mother's own fascinating yet tragic personal history. But the events of Pearl's reluctant San Francisco visit serve to create a desire, first in Pearl's daughters and then in Pearl herself, to learn more about Winnie Louie. In her telling of Winnie Louie's story, and in her cutting back and forth to and from Pearl's perspective within the Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan's writing style and narrative strategy are similar to those found in the Joy Luck Club and her other work:
Commentary is juxtaposed with memory, fable with history, pidgin English with California-speak, American culture with Chinese tradition, past with present in a collision of stories and voices and personalities, filtered through the point-of-view of an Asian-American author who lives between worlds, who inhabits that border country known only to those whose minds and sensibilities cultures clash and battle for dominance.
In each of the works analyzed here, the Joy Luck Club (1989); "Two Kinds" (1989); and the Kitchen…