The Joy Luck Club movie came out in 1993, when I was in college. I cried my eyes out when I saw it, and it still gets me. But the true depth of its implications has emerged only gradually, in layers, over the years.
The stories of moms and daughters, and Chinese moms and daughters, specifically, are depicted poignantly, intimately, tragically. I relate to it all in my bones, in my DNA. They are my grandmother’s story, coming of age during the second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, and then the Communist revolution. They are my mom’s story, immigrating to America at a time when communicating with home across the ocean and sending money could only be done by snail mail. And they are my story, of the second generation, integrating from my family’s country and culture of origin into 1980s suburban Denver. To see and hear it, to experience it all reflected back to me so vividly on screen, was overwheming and indescribable back then. Now that whole sweep of generational trauma, connection, loyalty, and sometimes conflict, was displayed for all of my white American peers to regard. How would they take it? Would they think it was weird? Would they make fun? Dismiss? Degrade? It was deeply personal for me, and maybe only entertainment for them.
Another generation later, in 2018, Crazy Rich Asians came out, and now it was Daughter’s turn to be moved–maybe not to tears–but viscerally all the same. It was the mahjong scene, omg–we both had a gleeful outburst right there in the theater. I learned to play from my parents, and my kids have learned to play from both elder generations. We bond boisterously around the card table when we go home to GongGong-PoPo’s house, and I think Daughter inherited her grandfather’s gift for strategy and surveillance of opponents’ moves. It is a quintessentially Chinese game. The presence and pride of our cultural identity radiates warmly, as from an ancestral reunion, summoned by the distinct, unmistakable clattering of mahjong tiles. Once again, the meaning we derive from the movie, and that scene in particular, is significance we can share fully with only some outside of our nuclear family.
Son read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan in English class a couple years ago, and wrote a paper on it. I was so proud I shared exerpts with friends via email, subject “Mom brag”:
“Between each mother and daughter, the contrast between traditional Chinese and mainstream American cultures is strong, leading to many disputes over authority and independence. This power struggle turns most of the mother-daughter interactions into fights which clouds out any feelings of love. The conflicting core beliefs and values prevent fluid communication, which turns it into a cycle of repeated fighting. It isn’t until both sides take a step back and reevaluate their standpoints that any affectionate relationship can build. As Rose Hsu Jordan expresses, ‘Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions’ (191). Though our differences may divide us, it should not stop us from recognizing our shared humanity. While some differences cannot be helped, they should simply be observed and acknowledged. Among different cultures, compromise does not mean losing one’s own culture, but rather opening to new possibilities to create a more unified and diverse world.”
Hmmm, he is his mother’s son, yes?
…And the title of this post feels a bit off, no? It occurred to me after watching Joy Luck Club with Daughter tonight, because these stories are all about reconciliation. “Never too late,” in this context, refers to relationship repair. These movies focus on family relationships, and those between, within, and across cultures. When we are seeking, or at least willing, we can always connect, and reconnect, even after rupture.
It’s not easy. Ruptures occur for valid reasons, often from deep hurt on all sides, also often commited unintentionally. We armor up to protect from getting hurt again, thickening skin, forming callouses, blunting sensations of and sensitivity to closeness and vulnerability. That protection costs us, though, sometimes much more than we realize.
This potential for repair could be infinite, no? …Even when we honestly cannot imagine it. We readily endorse efforts to reconcile between estranged family members, partners, and close friends. These relationships matter concretely; they form our core social circles and daily interactions. But we can zoom out, too, and look for ways to repair collective ruptures across social tribes, ideologies, ethnicities and cultures–the people and groups whom we too easily, if unknowingly, conceive as abstractions rather than real, flesh and blood human beings whom we can know–people with feelings, goals, and the same needs as we have ourselves.
I think it is always possible to repair, to heal, to get to peace in hard relationships, even if it’s only one-sided and often different from how we plan or imagine. It’s up to each of us to resolve for ourselves, and if we can enroll our counterparts, even better. I imagine this aligns with Viktor Frankl’s philosophy, though I have yet to read his work first hand. Sometimes we aren’t willing to invest, to tolerate and pay the emotional risks and costs, respectively. It’s an intentional choice, like so many things in life. Most of the time, though, especially if we have support, I think it’s worth the effort.