The Joy Luck Club

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Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Joy Luck Club, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon

Though storytelling is the main mode of communication in The Joy Luck Club, a constant conflict in the novel is the language barrier between Chinese and English. When first immigrating to the United States, the mothers wish for their children to speak perfect English and succeed as Americans. However, by assimilating into American culture, their daughters lose a sense of their Chinese heritage and inherited language, in fact they lose even the ability to fully understand that heritage or language. In the opening chapter, June remembers translating all of her mother’s comments in her head, but not retaining any meaning. While able to speak some English, the mothers feel most comfortable expressing ideas and stories in their native Chinese, which often cannot be translated into English. Though the daughters understand Chinese, they do not take the time to learn the language’s complexities, and therefore struggle with abstract concepts, resulting in frustration or misunderstanding.

With their broken English, the mothers are often viewed as less competent or alien in American society. Non-Chinese characters often speak condescendingly to them, or ignore them altogether. Still, it is the mistranslation within the family that is most devastating. Lena recounts the relationship between her white father and Chinese mother Ying-ying, and her role as translator between them. When her mother has a stillborn son and wails her grief, Lena’s father asks her to translate; rather than hurt him with her mother’s near-insane words, Lena lies and tells him a more positive message. This mistranslation prevents Lena’s father from properly supporting Lena’s mother through her subsequent depression, resulting in Ying-ying’s withdrawal from the family and life.

Tan highlights the difficulty of comprehendible expression by including Chinese or broken English in the dialogue, particularly with idioms. The reader must infer meaning rather than understand outright. During a fight with her husband, Lena can only express her anger in Chinese phrases, which aren’t translatable. Unable to understand her, Lena’s husband believes she’s deliberately shutting him out. The novel argues that immigrants are no less intelligent or complex, but often misinterpreted to the point of being silenced, even by their own families.

Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation appears in each chapter of The Joy Luck Club. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Quotes in The Joy Luck Club

Below you will find the important quotes in The Joy Luck Club related to the theme of Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation.
Part 1, Prologue Quotes

In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to part one of the novel, Tan sets up one of the book's key themes: the importance of family. The unnamed woman in the parable told here could stand for any one of the novel's main characters: she wants to move to the United States in the hopes of building a new life for her child. Furthermore, the woman's decision to travel to America reflects her exasperation with Chinese culture: she doesn't like that in China, women are measured by their husbands, not their own personalities. The woman in the story wants the best for her child, even if achieving "the best" involves schooling the child harshly and giving up parts of her own culture--forcing her to speak only American English, for example. The women in the novel, as we'll see, sometimes treat their children severely, but only because they want their children to be successful and happy as they can never be.


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“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

When the unnamed woman comes to America, her prized swan is confiscated by the Americans who let her into the country: a metaphor for the way that immigration procedures and American society neuters immigrants of their native culture and forces them to "assimilate." The woman wanted to come to America to build a better life for her child, but she didn't count on having to surrender her dreams and ambitions as well. Here, the woman hangs onto a single feather from the swan, which she plans to present to her child one day, when she can express her feelings in American English. The woman's dilemma is that she wants the best for her child, and yet fails to communicate her message, due to cultural barriers. The woman makes a difficult decision: she raises her child to be an Asian-American, and yet the woman herself is still very much Asian, meaning that she'll never be able to understand her child completely.

Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Not know your own mother? How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!

Related Characters: An-mei Hsu (speaker), Jing-mei “June” Woo, Suyuan Woo
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of this chapter, June's mother's friends, the members of the Joy Luck Club, are outraged that June claims to know so little about her own mother--June is an American citizen, and her knowledge of her mother is limited to their experiences in America. June knows little to nothing about her mother's life back in China, and she shows little interest in learning about it.

The function of the Joy Luck Club, we begin to see, isn't just to play games--it's also to preserve the memories of the past; i.e., of life in China. In such a way, Tan lays out the basic structure of the novel: June will learn about her mother from the other members of the Joy Luck club, and gain new respect for her mother and her mother's culture.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. And I want to tell her this: we are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others

Related Characters: Ying-ying St. Clair (speaker), Lena St. Clair
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this strange story, we learn that Ying-ying has acted meek, quiet, and lost for most of her life. Furthermore, for many years, Ying-ying didn't even remember why she felt so lost. As a result, Ying-ying never really connected with her daughter, Lena. Instead of feeling a deep connection with her mother, Lena acted aloof and distant, and focused on material things like shopping lists instead of her almost-invisible mother.

The passage conveys the tragedy of broken down communication: Ying-ying loves her daughter, and yet she can't fully express her feelings, for reasons she can barely recall. The divide between Ying-ying and Lena is cultural as well as psychological: it's her past experiences in China, experiences that Lena knows nothing about, that have kept Ying-ying feeling so lost and secretive.

Part 2, Prologue Quotes

"I don’t believe you. Let me see the book."
"It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me."

Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

In the second prologue of the book, a mother tells her daughter not to bike away into the distance, because doing so is forbidden according to a supposed book, written in Chinese. The daughter, suspicious that the book's warning is made-up (which it probably is), asks to see it for herself, but the mother insists that the daughter won't be able to understand it, since it's written in Chinese.

The passage is amusing, but it also conveys a serious point: the mother in the parable is using her Chinese heritage to both educate her daughter and tyrannize her. She orders the daughter what to do, and rather than explain her reasons for doing so, she cites a book that the daughter won't be able to understand. The barrier between Chinese and English language symbolizes the wider barrier between the two generations: the mother raises her daughter according to a set of rules that the daughter finds absurd, and yet the mother seems to lack the ability to justify her own ways to her child. As a result, resentment and cultural misunderstandings build up between the daughter and the mother.

“You can’t tell me because you don’t know! You don’t know anything!” And the girl ran outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in her hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached the corner.

Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

In the second part of the parable in Part Two, the impudent daughter of the mother disobeys and bikes away on her own. In the end, however, she falls off her bike and hurts herself. The mother seems to be vindicated: she's ordered her daughter not to bike away on her own, and when the daughter does so, she gets hurt.

The passage could be interpreted as a fable, the moral of which is to obey your elders. But perhaps Tan's point is subtler: the mother, while technically "right," is also a tragic figure--she seems to be motivated by a sincere desire to help her child, and yet she can't quite connect with her. The barriers between English and Chinese languages, and between American and Chinese culture, conspire to keep the daughter and her mother apart both physically and emotionally.

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me – because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised to myself. I won’t be what I’m not.

Related Characters: Jing-mei “June” Woo (speaker), Suyuan Woo
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see the tragedy emerging between June and her mother, Suyuan. Suyuan desperately wants her daughter June to be a child prodigy of some kind--and so she works hard to find something that June is good at. Suyuan seems motivated by a more abstract sense of socially-approved success than she is by love for her child as an individual. As a result, June finds herself growing alienated from her mother: she begins to hate herself, and hate her mother for forcing her to try to many different activities.

The passage is tragic because it shows a divide growing between mother and daughter, even when both have good intentions. June thinks of her mother as manipulating her for selfish reasons. This assessment is probably a little harsh, but it's also totally justifiable and admirable for June to want to assert her individuality and grow into her own person. At the same time, even if Suyuan pushes her daughter too hard to succeed, she wants the best for her child, and undertakes great sacrifices on her own part to give June access to resources she herself never had.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

To this day, I believe my mother has the mysterious ability to see things before they happen. She has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan: if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another.

Related Characters: Lena St. Clair (speaker), Ying-ying St. Clair
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lena discusses her mother's apparent ability to predict the future. Over the years, Lena has noticed that her mother can predict when something bad is going to happen to a family member. Notice that the events Ying-ying can predict are almost always bad--a fact reflected in the wording of the proverb she quotes here. If the "lips are gone," we're told, "the teeth will be cold"; suggesting, perhaps, that tragedies are always tied to one another.

The notion that one tragedy breeds another is important to the plot of the book. Many of the events in the novel are cyclical: characters who were wronged later cause similar wrongs for other people, whether they're trying to do so or not. Thus, the passage could be interpreted as an observation not just about tragedies predicted by Ying-ying, but about the interconnectedness of all tragedy and suffering.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

That’s what she is. A Horse, born in 1918, destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness. She and I make a bad combination, because I’m a Rabbit, born in 1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism.

Related Characters: Waverly Jong (speaker), Lindo Jong
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Waverly complains that she and her mother are destined to never get along, thanks to their incompatible Zodiac signs. Waverly is thin-skinned, while Lindo is frank and tactless--together, they just make each other miserable. Waverly makes no real effort to get along with her mother anymore--instead, she throws up her hands and says that they'll never get along.

The passage is interesting because although it shows the conflict between Waverly and her mother, it also shows the deep connection between them, rooted in their common knowledge of Chinese culture. Even two people whose Zodiac signs are incompatible have one thing in common: they both believe in the same Zodiac. Subtly, then, the passage communicates the unshakable bond between Waverly and Lindo, a bond that's tied to their Chinese heritage. (Yet this particular part of their heritage--the idea that the Zodiac predicts one's personal qualities--also keeps them apart, as they feel they are "fated" to never get along.)

And my mother loved to show me off, like one of the many trophies she polished. She used to discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies… and a hundred other useless things that had nothing to do with my winning.

Related Characters: Waverly Jong (speaker), Lindo Jong
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Waverly becomes deeply resentful of her mother's pride in her chess victories. Although Waverly is happy with her victories, she's worried that her mother isn't really concerned with Waverly's happiness or success; Lindo is more concerned about taking the credit for her daughter's games. Waverly begins to think of herself as a mere object for her mother's gratification: a "trophy" to be shown off to Lindo's friends and associates.

The passage shows the extent of the rift between Waverly and Lindo. Waverly is a talented person, but her interest in her chess games is second to her obsession with her own mother. Waverly can't stop thinking about Lindo--she's fixated on Lindo to the point where she can't concentrate on strategy anymore. Thus, the passage could be considered an example of a mother-daughter relationship that's self-destructive, rather than mutually beneficial. 

Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

“A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you," she said above the singing voices. "A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong."

Related Characters: An-mei Hsu (speaker), Rose Hsu Jordan
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rose describes her complex relationship with her mother, An-Mei. An-Mei was a charismatic mother, whose hypnotic voice was often enough to compel Rose to pay attention, even if she had no idea what An-Mei was talking about. Here, for example, half of the words in the passage aren't written in English, and yet Rose seems to understand the meaning of the words, based solely on the tone of her mother's voice.

What the passage dramatizes, then, is a deep, emotional connection between mother and daughter, one that defies language altogether. While some of the other characters in the novel struggle with the language gap between themselves and their parents, Rose seems to be able to communicate with her mother without language getting in the way. Even so, Tan suggests that there's a dark side to the kind of communication she shows between An-Mei and Rose: An-Mei seems to doubt that anybody other than she can help Rose (like a psychiatrist), suggesting that her love for Rose is smothering and invasive.

Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better. It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.

Related Characters: Rose Hsu Jordan (speaker)
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rose spells out one of the limitations of life in American culture, versus life in a Chinese culture. Americans have a huge array of options available to them: they can choose any school, any career, any spouse, etc. In China, one's options in life are determined by birth, family, money, etc. While one could potentially conclude that American culture is "better" than Chinese culture insofar as it offers more options for happiness, it's also true that American life has its downsides.  It can be dizzying to have to choose between so many different options, with the result that sometimes, Americans become obsessed with the choices they didn't make, rather than enjoying their current lives.

The passage is one of the most eloquent expressions of the strength of Chinese culture--a culture that limits personal freedom, especially for women, and yet offers a kind of solidarity and comfort that American society cannot match.

Part 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

"You don’t understand," I protested.
"What I don’t understand?" she said.
And then I whispered, "They’ll think I’m responsible, that she died because I didn’t appreciate her."
And Auntie Lindo looked satisfied and sad at the same time, as if this were true and I had finally realized it.

Related Characters: Jing-mei “June” Woo (speaker), Lindo Jong (speaker), Suyuan Woo
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, June talks to her mother's friend, Lindo. June is preparing to reunite with her long-lost sisters--the girls whom Suyuan left back in China when she came to America. June feels guilty about her mother's death, and the thought of having to appear before her long-lost sisters makes her feel even guiltier; she imagines that her sisters will blame her for her mother's death. June voices her anxieties to Lindo, and Lindo seems to look satisfied, as if June is only just realizing the truth.

Has June "killed" her mother through neglect? It would be wrong to say so, and Tan leaves open the possibility that Lindo doesn't truly agree with June's suggestion--perhaps June is only projecting her own guilt onto Lindo's face (and Lindo also looks "sad" here, whether because she thinks this suggestion is false or because she thinks it's tragically true). It really is the case, however, that June has turned her back on Suyuan, being unnecessarily harsh with her mother; as a result, Suyuan's life has been sad and lonely. June feels guilty about seeing her sisters because they never had the opportunity to even meet their mother, much less be frustrated by and unappreciative of her.