Coauthored by Theodore Andrew Lee
Asian Americans often feel invisible within the dominant white culture in the United States. Few American television programs, movies and commercial Internet sites focus on Asian Americans. Part of this invisibility of Asian Americans is due to the myth of the "model minority," which is the misconception that since many Asian Americans work hard and succeed, they do not suffer the hardships of racism, prejudice and stereotyping like Jews, African Americans, Latinos and even the Irish and Italians in the 19th century. Since this "model minority" is "invisible" as it's life story is subsumed within the northern European Protestant family, the challenges and hardships faced by Asian Americans are not recognized by the wider society.
Furthermore, Asian Americans are also often understood to be "honorary whites," and are viewed as similar to the dominant white community. White America indicates to society, that Asian American voices are not different from white voices.These misconceptions hide Asian American inequities, which identify it as a subordinate group within the white American society. In addition, Asian American women are additionally marginalized by the patriarchy imported from many Asian cultures and the homegrown Christian patriarchal society.
A book that has revealed the reality of Chinese American lives, is Amy Tan's 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club. It has become a best selling novel and in 1993 it was developed into a movie. Due to the lack of other Asian American narratives, this book remains important. Twenty-five years after it was written, teenagers have the opportunity to be exposed to Asian American culture, history, and spirituality through reading The Joy Luck Club in their classes.
Tan's novel gives a glimpse of some cultural expectations, dynamics, difficulties and joys that Asian Americans experience. The novel spans the time from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. It shares a fascinating tale of four Chinese women who endured loss, tragedy, fear, and deceit to build new lives for themselves and for their daughters who were born in the United States. The narrative goes back in time to share the tragic stories of the women and how they have overcome their pain for a better future. Tan explores the struggles, difficulties, and pains that women encounter.
Each family struggles with the difficulties of communicating across cultural and generational gaps. The mothers and daughters are unable to communicate and understand each other's problems; the daughters are growing up in a Western culture, while their parents grew up in a traditional Chinese culture. This generational gap highlights the differences between the mothers and daughters and creates many issues, such as the mothers not allowing their daughters to date white men.
Although a portion of the novel focuses on the problems sprouting from this generational gap, the common experience of sexism in both the Chinese culture and the culture of the United States brings the mothers and daughters together and creates a bond between them. Both cultures are patriarchal, as men are always in a dominant position economically, sexually, and socially, particularly in Chinese culture. Through the stories told by these women they recount the experiences they had dealt with as victims of sexism in China and the United States.
Many Asian American women continue to be punished by the expectations and rules placed on them by our society. Examples of such experiences appear throughout the novel. For instance, An-mei's mother was raped. To preserve her honor she had to marry the rapist; however a Chinese man may marry any number of concubines without suffering dishonor.
The mothers tell stories from long ago in China; the daughters tell their stories from their present life. Each woman's life is blemished as she tries to live within traditional patriarchy and Confucianism that demand obedience with honor. Within such a context, each woman is a hero who surmounts obstacles to become who they are. For example, in China, when Lindo was only 4 years old, her mother and the matchmaker arranged for her to be married. When she turns fifteen, she marries and is stuck for four years in a loveless, abusive, and childless marriage. One day, Lindo uses her wit and sees an opportunity to leave this awful marriage without dishonoring herself or her family. This story becomes a source of inspiration as it speaks about the empowerment of a teen-aged girl who uses her intelligence to leave an oppressive relationship. It ends with hope for her as she moves to the United States where she begins a new life with a new husband, a son and daughter.
Stories like Lindo's emphasize that a woman's life matters. It reminds us that women do not have to succumb to patriarchy and fear. Women can break open from their confining pasts and soar into empowering futures. They do not have to be bound by patriarchal cultural expectations and can redefine and remake their own lives. Lindo shows that even thousands of years of patriarchy and domination cannot hold a woman's dream down and confine her to her home. Instead, women have come a long way to freedom and women will continue to be liberated from within.
Asian Americans are grateful to Tan for writing a novel that gives some visibility to a concealed minority group. Her novel gives a voice to young people who struggle to articulate the relational dynamics that they experience as they grow up with immigrant parents. As their teens read this novel in school, it gives parents comfort that their children are gaining some insight and understanding of a culture that has impacted and continues to impact the United States today. When Asian American women appear in literature, film, and television, they are often portrayed as docile, subservient, and marginalized but these four mother-daughter's narratives become a source of liberation, hope and solidarity. Twenty-five years after its publication, The Joy Luck Club remains a powerful, visible, cultural force.
Theodore Andrew Lee is a junior at Liberty High School, Bethlehem Pa. Theo is the captain of the Junior Varsity Soccer Team and co-founder of the Robotics Club. He is interested in Robotics, Science and Writing.
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