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Selling-Out the Asian-American Community in The Joy Luck Club
i wish i could join in the universal praise for amy tan and her best-selling novel "the joy luck club." i wish i could find the latest chinese-american literary dish as appetizing as the rest of the american public does. but i can't. before amy tan entered the scene, public images of asian america had not developed since the middle of the century. the asian american male did not exist except as a barbaric japanese or vietcong soldier. the asian american female remained the adolescent suzy wong pipe dream, toyed with for a while and then deserted.
amy tan, a gifted writer, had the chance to change those images, to dispel the public's misconceptions and to forge a new asian american identity. instead, she copped out on her obligations, meekly reinforcing every conceivable stereotype.
if you believe tan's first novel "the joy luck club," asian amerca is some mystical oddity, conforming to the mascot-culture view of the white thirtysomething women who predominated at tan's reading. san francisco chinatown is filled with hysterical chinese women playing secret mah jong games. china itself is a dreamlik landscape, filled with secrets and traditions, all exuding a delicate, storybook aura.
chinese mothers are all one-dimensional, superstitious and ignorant. their chinese phrases are delightful italics with quaint meanings. of course, what chinese comedy would be complete without a couple of garbled english words? when tan was late for her berkeley reading, her white husband directed the audience to mimic her mother's amusing syntax: "why so late?" rimshot.
amy tan's heroines are the white mother-in-law's dream come true. these china dolls talk and have strong feminine sympathies. as one of tan's heroines admits, "i used to push my eyes on the sides to make them rounder." futile self-denial, but, oh, isn't it cute?
tan's heroines gain identity by separating themselves from and looking down on their culture. when the heroine in "the kitchen god's wife" hears about her grand auntie's "spirit money," she sneers are her aunt's attempt to "bribe her way along to chinese-heaven" immediately suggests a negative contrast to the "truer" western heaven.
the same dichotomy is used with men as well. asian american men are inadequate -- they're either bothersome brothers or unsuccessful lovers who lead to "apathetic boredom."
love with a white male, however, is different.
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i can understand why these images of helpless asian women would appeal to white america. surrounded by increasingly empowered minorities, an emasculated asian america with exotic females willing to please has certain romantic possibilities. a character in "the joy luck club" relates: "a lot of women in my aerobics class tell me i'm 'exotic' ... they're jealous that my breasts don't sag, now that small breasts are in." with such slavish self-effacement, asian american assimilation should be painless.
i couldn't go to the reading at black oak books. but several of asian american residents in ehrman hall told me tan defended her anti-asian bent by claiming that "fiction should not be a sociological treatise."
maybe in tan's dreamlike fictional world, this statement could be true. perhaps in the same world, t.s. eliot's anti-semitism and joseph conrad's anti-black sentiments could be shrugged off. but in a world where asian americans are struggling every day for dignity and identity, the damage that tan has caused is very real.
in "the joy luck club," one of tan's heroines can't understand why she should look after her brothers. she asks, "why? why did i have to care for them?"
it could very well be a question which tan should ask herself about the asian american community she so happily sold out.
the character's mother responds in chinese words which tan should have heeded: "yiding." you must.