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According to Rivkin and Ryan (1998), the word ‘culture’ acquired a new meaning in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to that time, ‘culture’ was associated with art, literature, and classical music. To have ‘culture’ was to possess a certain taste for particular kinds of artistic endeavor. Anthropologists have always used the word ‘culture’ in much broader sense to mean forms of life and of social expression. The way people behave while eating, talking to each other, becoming sexual partners, interacting at work, engaging in ritualized social behaviour such as family gatherings, and the like constitute a culture. This broad definition of the term includes language and the arts, but it also includes the regularities, procedures, and rituals of human life in communities.
What is ‘Cultural Studies’? It is hard to define cultural studies mostly because the word ‘culture’ is notoriously hard to pin down, according to cultural critic Raymond Williams. Cultural studies is not a discrete approach but rather a set of practices. Patrick Brantlinger points out, cultural studies is not “a tightly coherent, unified movement with fixed agenda,” but a “loosely coherent group of tendencies, issues, and question”. Arising amidst the turmoils of the 1960s, cultural studies is composed of elements of Marxism, new historicism, feminism, gender studies, anthropology, studies of race and etnicity, film theory, sociology, urban studies, public policy studies, popular culture studies, and postcolonial studies: those fields that focus on social and cultural forces that either create community or cause division and alienation.
This novel traces the fate of four mothers, Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair and their four daughters, Jing-mei Woo (June), Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair. All four mothers fled China in the 1940s and retain much of their heritage. All four daughters are much Americanized.
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The four older women have experienced almost inconceivable horrors early in their lives. Suyuan Woo was forced to abandon her infant daughters in order to survive in a war-torn country; An-mei Hsu sees her mother commit suicide in order to enable her daughter to have a future. Lindo Jong is married at twelve to a child to whom she was betrothed in infancy; Ying-ying St. Clair was abandoned by her husband, ahd an abortion, and lived in great poverty for a decade. She then married a man whom she did not love, a man she could barely communicate with despite their years together.
By comparison, the four daughters have led relatively blessed lives controlled by their mothers. Ironically, each of the daughters has great difficulty achieving happiness. Waverly Jong divorces her first husband, and both Lena St. Clair and Rose Hsu Jordan are on the verge of splitting with their husbands. Lena is wretchedly unhappy and considering divorce; Rose’s husband, Ted, has already served the divorce papers. Jing-mei has never married nor has she a lover. Furthermore, none of the daughters is entirely comfortable when dealing with events of her life. Although she has achieved great economic success as a tax accountant, Waverly is afraid to tell her mother that she plans to remarry. Lena has a serious eating disorder, and she bitterly resents the way that she and her husband, Harold, split their finances, and how her career suffered in order to advance his. Rose suffers a breakdown when her husband moves out. She lacks self-esteem, and her mother cannot understand why she sobs to a psychiatrist rather than asserting herself. Jing–mei is easily intimidated, especially by her childhood friend Waverly. She is not satisfied with her job as an advertising copywriter and, like Rose, she lacks self-esteem.
Through the love of their mothers, each of these young women learns about her heritage and so is able to deal more effectively with her life.