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Saturday, August 28, 2004

Surviving in the Kitchen: Food Images and Chinese Culture in The Joy Luck Club

For the record, I don’t write to dig a hole and fill it with symbols. I don’t write stories as ethnic themes. I don’t write to represent life in general. And I certainly don’t write because I have answers. If I knew everything there is to know about mothers and daughters, Chinese and Americans, I wouldn’t have any stories left to imagine. If I had to write about only positive role models, I wouldn’t have enough imagination left to finish the first story.
--Amy Tan, from "In the Canon, For All the Wrong Reasons"

About a year ago I took a survey class in multicultural literature. The class covered various ethnic-American authors such as Bernard Malamud (Jewish-American), Toni Morrison (African-American), and Amy Tan (Chinese-American). I noticed in many of these works an importance placed on food that isn’t present very often in non-ethnic American literature. This notion was reinforced by a sociology class I was taking. As part of this class we took a trip to various ethnic communities in Chicago. It was stressed that we should sample some of the food in the various neighborhoods to get a better sense for the culture. The question I had is why isn’t "American" food in a place of prominence in "American" literature.

It is difficult to categorize how the food items actually function in these stories (other than creating an "ethnic" atmosphere). So, the fact that Amy Tan has many clear instances that demonstrate the importance of food in her stories made The Joy Luck Club a logical novel for the study of this topic. There were many was of approaching this topic but I found that cultural feminism provides some clear explanations of and contradictions to Tan’s world. Josephine Donovan explains that "instead of focusing on political change, feminists holding these ideas look for a broader cultural transformation ... they also stress the role of the non-rational, the intuitive and often the collective side of life" (31). For this paper these ideas will define "cultural feminism" the true range of cultural feminism is not necessarily represented in this definition but it provides a functional definition to use while examining the way Chinese and American culture interact in The Joy Luck Club. Donovan’s writing on culture also serves as a good resource on cultural feminism because it summarizes many of the main contributors to that field.

Another major reason I selected Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to focus on is that it represents eastern philosophy. I’m very interested in this type of life-philosophy. The research I’ve done for this paper has helped me to understand the traditions of Confucianism and Taoism a little better. There is also an part of the Chinese culture that is strongly influenced by the need to survive (Xu 5). These eastern philosophies also helps to answer some of questions created when various aspects of cultural feminism are applied to Tan’s writing. This topic is, ultimately, a very large. So limiting the discussion to food and food imagery puts a limit on it. Food items and food imagery function in important ways in The Joy Luck Club. First, the repeated inclusion of food and language related to food act as an indication of the heightened importance of food in the story due to the importance of survival in Chinese culture. Secondly, the preparation of food, done mainly by the women, is accepted as part of the woman’s role in Chinese culture; it is even demanded by Confucian tradition. And once these women get to America they are still responsible for the preparation of the food; the cultural context remains constant for the mothers but their daughters, presented with situations that would be approved of by cultural feminists are unable to draw power from their role in the kitchen because their role fails to fulfill their role as prescribed by traditional Chinese beliefs.

It might aid understanding to begin with an overview of the book. The book is set up as a series of short stories narrated by the mothers and daughters of four Chinese-American families: the Woo’s, the Hsu’s, the Jong’s and the St. Clair’s. The mothers are Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair. And their respective daughters are Jing-mei "June" Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong and Lena St. Clair. The book is also divided into four sections and there are four stories in each section. Each section is also introduced by a page length story. Two stories by each mother, and two stories by each daughter except for Jing-mei; she narrates four stories all together because her mother has recently died. Much of the criticism about The Joy Luck Club focuses on the relationship between the mothers and daughters who are story tellers. But there are also the grandmothers in the book. They are probably over looked because they do not have a voice of their own. Their stories are taken as less significant because their daughters are narrating them. But even if the daughters are distorting these stories they are still valuable as representations of cultural beliefs as a form of folklore. And many times they demonstrate the important role that food played in the lives of Chinese women during WWII.
Suyuan Woo started the original Joy Luck Club in China during the war. Suyuan included three other women and their families in her club. They took turns hosting the meetings each week. And the hostess would provide a banquet. But since the city was in such a poor state the people in this club were looked down upon:

People thought we were wrong to serve banquets every week while many people in the city were starving, eating rats and, later, the garbage the poorest rats used to feed on. Others thought we were possessed by demons -- to celebrate when even within our own families we had lost generations (Tan 11)

But her mother explained away these criticisms by saying that they did see the pain and they could sit and be sad or they could "choose our own happiness" (Tan 12). And an important part of their "happiness" was a full stomach. They feasted on, not the best quality food, but the best food in the city (10). Having food meant survival. In time dominated by the fears of war and the famine of war not wanting for food was one less worry. "The disposition for many first generation Chinese immigrants in America to see life as a constant test of survival, to the extent that it almost becomes ethnic symbolism, is a complex mentality. It is deeply rooted in China’s past of hardship and numerous famines and wars" (Xu 5). And when Suyuan forms a new Joy Luck Club in America the feast as a sign of good fortune/survival is just as important as it was in China.

By looking at the preparation for the meal that is part of the first story it is possible to see just how much feasting goes on at the meetings of the Joy Luck Club. An-mei is making wontons, a dumpling stuffed with various ingredients; she already has enough for each person to eat ten but she makes more so that each person could eat 20 (Tan 18). That is a large amount of food and it is only one dish served at the meal. And Jing-mei’s (who is at the meeting to fill her mother’s spot) description of the meal supports this idea. "Eating is not a gracious event here. It’s as though everybody had been starving" (Tan 20). Even though they have little fear over not being able to obtain food for survival they act as though they do.

An-mei informs Jing-mei that the women no longer play mah jong for money; they now invest in the stock market and the winner at mah jong gets a few dollars while the loser gets to take home the left over food (Tan 18) "The change in the mah jong game may appear insignificant. But it reflects the Club Aunties’s view of the loser as a victim who fails to survive" (Xu 7). So, it is clear that the tradition of the Joy Luck Club is intertwined with the survival mentality. Another example of this survival mentality comes in the "Best Quality" story narrated by Jing-mei. In this story Jing-mei describes a Chinese New Year meal that her mother prepares. As they are buying the crabs one of them loses a leg and her mother tries to put it back but the store keeper makes her take it (225). This crab is seen as worst quality, least likely to survive. When the platter of crabs is passed around the table every one in turn picks the best quality crab on the platter until it gets to Jing-mei (227). She tries to give her mother the better crab; her mother later says: "Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already know this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different" (234). Jing-mei think that this is another one of her mother’s sayings "that sounded both good and bad at the same time" (234). It was good of Jing-mei to try to take the bad crab because she doesn’t really like crab and she also would have been making a sacrifice for her mother. Everyone else took the best quality crab available so that they could, in some small way, help to ensure their survival. So, the tradition of survival is a solid part of the text. But where does the tradition that follows the mah jong feast come from?

When the people at the meeting are done eating the men quickly get up and leave the room. "The women peck at last morsels and then carry plates and bowls to the kitchen and dump them in the sink. The women take turns washing their hands, scrubbing vigorously" (Tan 21). Jing-mei even goes on to ask: "Who started this ritual?" Throughout the novel we see the mothers being ultimately responsible for the domestic life of their respective house hold. In the Western tradition a woman’s life is defined by long standing Biblical beliefs. Donovan, in her chapter on cultural feminism, uses Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible as a source for this argument. The truly restricting idea that man was made before woman and that woman was made to serve man comes from The Bible (Donovan 37). Therefore, the Bible prescribes the home as women’s sphere. But the homes of the mothers are not dominated by Biblical theory or Christianity. These women are relegated to the kitchen by the philosophies of Chinese Culture.

The two dominant philosophies in China are Confucianism and Taoism. "Confucianism is intrinsically patriarchal and hierarchical" (Tavernise). And the teachings of Confucius are not without similarities to Western culture. In this tradition one receives virtue (Te) from heaven and then that Te is displayed in ritual or Li (Tavernise). This is very similar to the notion in Christianity that righteous people will act righteously. But ritual is not seen the way we see it. Ritual can be as something as simple as the way one prepares a soup or the spices included in a dish. Taoism presents a different idea that is also related to Western tradition. Tao, the One produced the Two (Yin and Yang), which produced the Three (heaven, earth and humans), which produced the Five (elements, directions). "The Yin and Yang are the symbol of the interaction and conjoining of polar opposites, the positive and negative, the male and female" (Tavernise). As in the Western view of the world, a sense of a duality to the world is very important in the form of Yin and Yang. This basic similarity to Western ideas aids us in understanding the Chinese culture. But we are not completely comprehend. However, the language of the Taoist part of Chinese philosophy is clearly more feminine; the Two, Three, and Five are produced by their numeric predecessor, it is not a system of rules that came from (a) man. And the underlying belief is more feminine as well. People more in line with Taoism believe that they can only be themselves; "Taoism stresses passivity, the water elements, strength of the feminine or yielding qualities" (Tavernise). It isn’t a perfect analogy but Confucianism could be viewed as similar to the Old Testament religions, while Taoism is similar to the New Testament religions. Even though both emerged about 500 BCE (Tavernise).

It would be easy to attack this system as sexist, anti-feminine, and anti-woman. And indeed it probably is. But there are many instances in this novel where this very system gives the women power. "The mothers inherited from their families a centuries-old spiritual framework, which, combined with rigid social constraints regarding class and gender, made the world into an ordered place for them" (Hamilton 125). And this power and order comes out of the kitchen; doing something pleasing in the domestic realm helps these women mentally survive. In Lindo Jong’s narrative in the first section of the book we find out about how she was married away from her family in China. In her "new" family she takes on the role of maid and cook.

After a while I didn’t think it was a terrible life, no, not really. After a while, I hurt so much I didn’t feel any difference. What was happier than seeing everybody gobble down the shiny mushrooms and bamboo shoots I had helped to prepare that day ... It’s like those ladies you see on American TV these days, the ones who are so happy they have washed out a stain so the clothes look better than new. (Tan 51)

Lindo goes on to liberate herself from the marriage by using her knowledge of the Confucian system to prove that the marriage was invalid. And the reference to "American TV" will become important when we look at the lives of the daughters. But there is another example of woman’s power flowing from the kitchen in An-mei’s story.

An-mei’s mother has lost face so she is raised by her grandmother, Popo. This "loss of face" is very significant in Confucianism. "Loss of face, in Confucian terms, means a loss of social standing. Since one’s social standing defines the self in the Confucian context, the mother is, for all intents and purposes, ‘dead’ to her family" (Tavernise). An-mei’s mother failed to correctly follow the traditions of honor when her husband died, she became a rich man’s concubine; this is why she has lost social standing. But she comes back when Popo is on her death bed. And she has come back to make a special soup, that only a mother can make for a daughter:

And then my mother cut a piece of meat from her arm. Tears poured from her face and blood spilled to the floor.
My mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time. (Tan 41).

This soup is part of the Taoist tradition and it represents a high level of filial respect (Tavernise). And it also directly relates to an earlier part of this narrative in which the commotion over An-mei’s mother’s presence causes a pot of soup to be knocked over and it causes sever burns to An-mei. Mother and daughter are connected by scars caused by soup. And An-mei’s mother finds a way to give her daughter what she couldn’t have; social standing.
And again it is the woman’s knowledge of the system and her ability to manipulate it that brings about these good things.

Three days before the lunar new year, she had eaten ywansyau, the sticky sweet dumpling that everybody eats to celebrate. She ate one after the other. And I remember her strange remark. ‘You see how this life is. You cannot eat enough of this bitterness.’ And what she had done was eat ywansyau filled with a kind of bitter poison, not candied seeds or the dull happiness of opium (Tan 271)

She died; she committed suicide. But she did so to give her daughter a better life. Her mother couldn’t make her life any better but she could make sure her daughter survived. It is a Chinese belief that the soul of the dead person comes back three days after death. In An-mei’s mother’s case this would be the lunar new year, a day on which "all debts must be paid, or disaster and misfortune will follow" (Tan 271). The man that had taken her as a concubine swore to raise An-mei and her brother as his "honored children" and to "revere her as if she had been First Wife, his only wife" because he was afraid of her spirit (Tan 271). So, the mothers and grandmothers were able to find the strength to survive and/or to help their children survive by using the Taoist/Confucian system. But the American born daughters live outside this system.

The most significant aspect of this cultural difference is the conflicts that occur between the mothers and daughters. "Incomplete cultural knowledge impedes understanding on both sides, but it particularly inhibits the daughters from appreciating the delicate negotiations their mothers have performed to sustain their identities across two cultures" (Hamilton 125). But there is really an air of uncertainty around the rest of the daughters’ lives. And once again this important element shows up in the kitchen.

Lena St. Clair is in a marriage that for all outward appearances is perfectly balanced. They divide the costs of living and they even keep a weekly accounting of the things they purchase as individuals that they "share." There is also a scene in which they "work as a team" to prepare a meal.

he starts the charcoal. I unload the groceries, marinate the steaks, cook the rice and set the table ... [they eat and converse] And then he clears the table and starts taking the plates in the dishwasher. (Tan 177)

This scene plays out very nicely. It seems that they work in perfect harmony in their kitchen as well as in their lives. But looking at the scene again it is scene that all Lena has really done is cook the rice and set the table. And we learned earlier that they wouldn’t have even had the rice if Lena’s mother wasn’t there (Tan174). Lena is effectively kicked out of the kitchen. She has no role in the preparation of the meal except the preparation of the cultural token, rice. This creates tension in her. She later confronts her husband over her unhappiness but she cannot come out and say what she is feeling because she doesn’t know (Tan 179). And when she thinks about it she puts her thumb on the problem. "Maybe Harold is a bad man. Maybe I’ve made him this way" (Tan 180). "Bad" is not evil. It is merely not living up to one’s role. By letting him take over what should be her role in the kitchen according to Confucianism (or even Christianity) Lena has let things get out of balance and it is doubtful that her marriage will survive.

This is in immediate opposition to what some cultural feminists support. One example is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s view of marriage. She equates marriage with prostitution. Because "in both cases the female gets her food from the male by virtue of their sex relationship to him" (Donovan 45). In this relationship Lena and her husband, Harold, share the costs and responsibilities of the home equally. So they do not have a traditional marriage, which is what Gilman’s comments are about. Gilman goes on to say that "in the home is neither freedom nor equality. There is ownership throughout; the dominant father, the ... subservient mother, the utterly dependent child" (Donovan 49). In fact, Lena and Harold’s marriage would seem an ideal arrangement in Gilman’s view. The woman is not owned by the man because she has her own job and supports herself; she pays her own way. But the relationship still doesn’t work. That is because in this relationship (as with most of them in this book) the deciding factor for survival is adherence to traditional Chinese beliefs.

And their is one person in this text who seems to grow throughout. And she grows as she learns to accept the truth in what her mother said and did that she had formerly brushed away as mumbo jumbo. Of course this is Jing-mei. Her story ends with her traveling to China to meet her sisters. But she begins to connect with her mother before that, while cooking in her kitchen.
My father hasn’t eaten well since my mother died. So I am here, in the kitchen, to cook him dinner. I’m slicing tofu. I’ve decided to make him a spicy bean-curd dish. My mother used to tell me how hot things restore the spirit and health. (Tan 235)

By preparing food for her father that uses her mother’s magic (the belief that spicy dishes restore the spirit) she is accepting the things that her mother tried to teach her. "Once she finds herself performing the same kitchen-rituals that her mother did, Jing-mei begins to understand and honor her" (Tavernise). But she is also living up to her obligation as a daughter. According to Tavernise, the woman’s duty according to the Confucian system was to raise sons, care for the aged, and maintain the family burial ground. Here she is caring for her aged father. And she is also learning to survive by using what her mother taught her.

There are many more examples of how Chinese culture and cultural feminism interact in The Joy Luck Club simply within the context of food. But the examination of the instances presented clearly show how important Confucian and Taoist beliefs are to the lives of the women in this novel. The mothers came to America because that was the only way to survive. And with them they brought their beliefs and practices. But the American culture lures their daughters away from these beliefs. And it isn’t until they reconcile their role in the Confucian system, and in the kitchen, that they will find peace and power.

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Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood. New Haven: Yale University P, 1977.
Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory. New York: Continuum, 1985.
Hamilton, Patricia L. "Feng Shui, Astrology, and the Five Elements: Traditional Chinese Belief in
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club." MELUS. 24.2: 125-145.
Shear, Walter. "Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club." Critique. 34.3: 193-199.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books, 1989.
_____ "In the Canon, For All the Wrong Reasons." Harper’s Magazine. 293.1759: 27-30.
Tavernise, Peter. "Fasting of the Heart: Mother-Tradition and Sacred Systems in Amy Tan’s
The Joy Luck Club." 12 Feb. 1992. (28 Nov. 2000).
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University P, 1985.
Xu, Ben. "Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club." MELUS. 19.1 (1994): 3-18.

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