One time, in my graduate Creative Writing program, a classmate referenced Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club so casually that I immediately sensed he or she hadn’t read it. I hadn’t either. Do not be alarmed – this was not a reading assignment. The person speaking hoped to draw a comparison between the actual assigned work and another. But all my peer could say was, “Oh course, Joy Luck Club is a classic. Sooo great. And, you know, I cried like I am sure everyone does… you know.”
I did not know. And I wasn’t sure whether the classmate did either. Maybe our professor and our classmates were convinced. I, however, had the vague feeling that they’d either watched the movie years ago or recently stumbled across an overview recently but remained fuzzy on some key detail.
That memory tickled me recently while I read Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, a memoir by Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas emigrated from the Philipines to live with his grandparents when he was twelve. His mother stayed behind; her intention was to also make the trip as soon as she were able. It wasn’t until he attempted to get a driver’s license at sixteen did Vargas learn he was not U.S. citizen. His mother and grandfather had conspired together to pay the man he thought was an uncle to bring him to the United States. Vargas, who 25 years later still remains in the United States advocating for the establishment of a system that would allow he and others to reconcile their status, describes the experience of many undocumented Americans as “much the same: Lying, Passing, and Hiding.”
Vargas explains that Hollywood was the primary source of his youthful self on how to be American. After learning of the deception, his relationship with his family grew strained as he grappled with their good-intentioned lie, and pieced together a greater understanding of his own identity. Eventually, he and his grandparents made up:
“But the silence was too heavy, polluting the already suffocating air in the house. We shared one bathroom. After Lola [Grandmother] used the bathroom that night, she saw me in the living room. She sat down in the opposite side of the couch. We said nothing to each other. The Joy Luck Club was the first American film Lola and I watched together. I’m not sure how much she understood the interlocking stories of four Chinese women who emigrated to America in search of better lives. But she understood it enough that she started to cry when one of the characters, Lindo, broke into tears as she explained her love for her American-born daughter, Waverly. I ended up watching Lola watch the movie, wondering….”
And as Vargas shared this poignant memory, I could Tan’s book suddenly call to me, demanding to be read. I did not feel any urge to read The Joy Luck Club after my grad school classmate name-dropped it (possibly because nothing intriguing was offered about the book). But suddenly, I needed to read it for myself.
So, shortly after finishing Dear America, I went out and purchased a copy. I began reading it two days after my mother’s birthday.
The Joy Luck Club is a story of a mother who has passed, and a daughter who must explain her legacy to others. “‘What will I say?,'” Jing-Mei Woo asks her aunts, those three friends closest to her mother. “‘What can I tell them about my mother? I do not know anything. She is my mother.”‘
Each of the aunts being to rattle off things Jing-Mei can tell of her mother. And Jing-Mei realizes:
They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who they think are stupid…. they see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.
This is a story about connecting those generations through the stories that mothers think daughters should already know, should already feel in their bones. Stories of their histories, of times when mothers were daughters, of joy and luck but also heartache and loss.
This is a book that made me think of my own mother. I closed it wondering, Can daughters really ever know their mothers? And, if so, how could we ever find the words to share our understanding?
A few years ago, I read a piece on 2nd Story, a live literary event in Chicago. I spent the month before the event in workshops with the other participants. After reading one of my earlier drafts, another participant described back to me her understanding of my mother. I was distraught by how flat, how two-dimensional the description sounded. Even then, I was realizing my mother as a vibrant and complicated woman who was both fascinating and unfathomable. I rewrote the piece, made it stronger. But, even as I performed it, I wondered how accurate it was.
A few months ago, my mother lost her closest friend. I attended the wake and someone shared a beautiful story about the two of them — a story I had never heard before. It filled me with both pride — That’s my ma! — and a soft sadness — That’s my ma?! Who is this woman I always almost seem to know?
Closing The Joy Luck Club, I wondered what other stories are lost — between my mother and me but also between my grandmother and her. Maybe, out of respect or to keep our own sanity, it is not right for a child to know a parent fully. But I still find myself like Vargas, watching my mother, wondering….