CHINESE-AMERICAN WOMEN IN AMERICAN CULTURE
In Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, there is one episode, “Waiting Between the Trees,” illustrating major concerns facing Chinese-American women. Living with their traditional culture in American society, Chinese-American women suffer the problems of culture conflicts. While their American spouses are active and assertive, they are passive and place their happiness entirely on the goodness of their husbands. At one time, this passiveness can be seen as a virtue; at other time, it is a vice or a weakness. In studying the lives of two personalities, Ying-Ying and Lena St. Clair, a Chinese mother and a half-Chinese daughter, one can see these conflicts more clearly and determine why they exist.
Ying-Ying St. Clair was born into a rich family. She was very pretty when she was a young girl. She was educated like every Chinese woman used to be: To be obedient, to honor one’s parents, one’s husband and to try to please him and his family. Ying-Ying was not expected to have her own will and make her own way through life.
The result of this education was a disaster. She was married to a bad man who left her after a short time to follow other women. Her love for him turned to hate, and she killed her unborn baby. This act gave her remorse for all her life since she considered it a murder. Tortured by this incident, she had a mental breakdown, for a period of time, when her second son — with her second husband, St. Clair — died at birth. She saw it as a punishment for her previous behavior.
After leaving her first husband’s house and returning home, she abandoned herself to whatever life offered her. She lived like a shadow, letting other people or events to decide for her. When she met St. Clair, she passively let him believe that she was from a poor family. Ying-Ying also let him think that he married her to save her from some catastrophe, since she seemed to be in a desperate state of mind when she married him. She could not tell her husband, and later, her daughter Lena, that the catastrophe they imagined was only the news of the death of her bad and unloving former husband, and the emptiness she felt after hearing that news. She let St. Clair make all decisions for her, since she wanted to give up her “chi” — her spirit or her strong will — because the only time she exerted it was to do a bad thing in her eyes: killing her unborn first son. Ying-Ying did not want to let her husband and daughter know more about herself, since it would mean she had to confess her shameful secret. Both her husband and daughter did not know about her first marriage.
Lena St. Clair, on the other hand, was born in America and lives like an American girl, “But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and had been swimming away ever since” (p. 274). Lena knew that her mother kept a secret and could not share it. She saw her mother as a weaken-minded woman who needed her help. She learned American ways and thought of herself as more suitable than her mother to American life. However, conversely, her mother saw the fragility of Lena’s marriage and happiness.
For all her life, Ying-Ying lived on a superficial level with St. Clair, her husband. Lena inherited this attitude from her mother. In St. Clair’s family, they never had real communication. They only tried to be good to each other. The daughter and her father never knew who Ying-Ying really was, and what past she carried to America with her. Lena chose American ways, not realizing that her Chinese family education and tradition are really important to her happiness as well. Children learn to act as their parents do before them. The relationship between Ying-Ying and St. Clair was superficial, so is that of Lena and Harold, her husband. Lena never questioned her mother about Chinese tradition, or about her parents’ relationship.
Despite the exterior resemblance between the two marriages, Harold is very different from his father-in-law. While St. Clair was an honest man who courted Ying-Ying for four years before marrying her, and he did not abandon her when she had her breakdown, Harold seems to be more egotistical and uncaring. For instance, he never paid attention to the fact that his wife never ate ice cream, and continued to let her pay for his. He also exploited her, paid her a very low wage compared to his, regardless of all the success she brought to him by inspiring him with her creative ideas. Lena knew all about it, but she did not question his behavior, because of her Chinese heritage, although she was not conscious of it.
Chinese traditional culture was based partly on Confucius’s teachings, partly on Taoism and Buddhism. Confucius taught that every woman had to follow three persons during her whole life: At home, she had to follow her father; married, she had to follow her husband; and when her husband died, she had to follow her son. Normally, in the case of Ying-Ying, she had to give birth to her first son and stay forever in her in-law’s house, waiting for her husband to come back. Ying-Ying went against tradition by doing what she did. She chose not to stay in her husband’s house, and to do every possible thing to return to her father’s house.
On the other hand, Lao-Tzu said that “the wise man is like water or like a springy twig; he is soft and flexible. The soft one wins over the hard one, and the weak one wins over the strong one.” From that principle sprang Tai Chi, Judo and Aikido. The art to use this principe is the art to rule over people. However, in order to be a good leader, one has to learn other rules also. For example, one need to meditate to have intuition, to make decision accurately, to inspire people to make the most of themselves and aspire to goodness. Tao is not merely an attitude of “laissez-faire” like it is misunderstood sometimes, or a fatalistic way of thinking that induces people not to save a situation when there is still time. Lena was very peaceful when she lived with Harold. She let him do whatever he wanted to do, but he did not become the best of himself in this relationship, since she did not communicate to him all of her true feelings.
The third source of inspiration for Chinese culture is Buddhism. The Buddha taught that one has to detach from one’s richness to earn Nirvana, or peace of mind. One has to get rid of one’s desire and greed to be happy. Without knowing the teaching of the Buddha, and by the example of her mother only, Lena let Harold have his ways. Lena thought she was right in doing this, until her mother brought up his miserly ways toward their money. Now she sees that there is something wrong with her marriage, and its foundation is not as solid as she thought. This money accounting between them is like proof of lack of love, sharing and trust. It says that they could leave each other any time, without worrying about dividing their fortune. This was not the case for St. Clair and Ying-Ying.
In looking back on her life, Ying-Ying sees that it was broken up by the unhappiness of her first marriage and the things that ensued. She sees the gap in the education she received, and how she had rebelled against it. She also sees how it confused her and made her feel guilty for so long. Now she sees something else; she sees that instead of that feeling, she must feel guilty for not having a strong will, for wasting her life and her husband’s life, and giving a bad example for her daughter with her lack of vitality and self-confidence, and lack of communication with her family’s members. Ying-Ying decides to tell her daughter about her life and induce Lena to take responsibility for her own fate, not to rely on someone else, and not to live in the shadow of anybody.
In the episode “Waiting Between the Trees,” Amy Tan has exposed some of the major concerns Chinese-American women have to face, since the strong influence of their culture keeps them from becoming more self-confident, more ambitious, and better integrated into American society. Although they were born in America, they cannot assimilate American culture and sacrifice their own culture without harm to their happiness and their balance. They need to know about their original culture to understand themselves and to deal with their weaknesses and convert them to become their strengths.