On the Lunar New Year holiday before she passes away, Suyuan gives June “her life’s importance,” a jade pendant on a gold chain. June is unsure why Suyuan calls it that, and Suyuan dies before June thinks to ask her. June reflects on her inability to make sense of her grief without her mother’s help to get her through.
June is the first of the Joy Luck Club daughters to experience life without her mother’s guidance, and immediately struggles to understand large life values such as her core purpose.
June then flashes back to that Lunar New Year day, when she went with Suyuan to Chinatown to buy ten whole crabs for a holiday dinner with the Jongs. Eating a large, healthy crab at New Year’s signals good fortune for the rest of the year, and Suyuan sifts through a large tank to find the best live crabs. June accidentally pulls out a crab with a missing leg, a bad omen, but the storekeeper makes her buy it. Suyuan tells June that it counts as an extra eleventh crab, which shouldn’t affect their luck.
June’s bad choice of crab represents her inability to impress Suyuan, even in the smallest actions. Yet even though Suyuan believes in bad omens, she finds wiggle room to manipulate those superstitions so June doesn’t feel bad.
At Suyuan’s dinner party, Waverly ruins Suyuan’s head count by bringing her daughter Shoshana and giving her the biggest, best crab to eat. She also takes the second-best and third-best for her fiancé, Rich, and herself. By the time the plate of crabs reaches Suyuan and June, only a smaller crab and the broken-limbed crab remain. Without hesitation, June reaches for the broken crab so her mother can have the luckier whole one, but Suyuan makes her take the better one and throws the broken one away. While everyone else enjoys their dinners, Suyuan goes hungry.
Waverly only cares about maintaining the status of her immediate family, rather than respecting her elders and giving them the best food, as June was taught to do. Their different approaches show the tension in Chinese-American values. Suyuan knows what a bad crab foretells about the new year, but sacrifices her own well-being for her daughter.
Midway through dinner, conversation strikes back up again. Waverly compliments June’s new haircut, but then acts horrified when she learns that June goes to a gay hairstylist, who “could have AIDS.” Waverly recommends her own stylist, but quickly notes that he’s probably too expensive for June’s small budget.
The daughters inherit their mothers’ competitive natures, as well as a passive-aggressive style of interaction. Waverly can’t just compliment June – she has to insult her as well, to feel more powerful.
Angry at Waverly’s pettiness, June retorts that she’d have more money if Waverly’s advertising firm paid her for completed work. Waverly coolly dismisses her, saying June’s writing was too unsophisticated and the firm couldn’t use any of it. She mocks June’s language, considering it old-fashioned in style. Suyuan agrees that her daughter is less sophisticated than Waverly. Humiliated, June carries dirty plates into the kitchen so no one sees her tears.
Though Suyuan scolds June in private, she is always loyal to her daughter in public, which makes the slight insult more hurtful than any of Waverly’s jabs. Waverly interestingly calls out June’s old-fashioned tendencies, which aligns June closer to the Joy Luck Club mothers.
After everyone leaves, June asks Suyuan what was wrong with the broken crab, and Suyuan says that it had died before being cooked, leaving it with a bad taste. June asks what Suyuan would’ve done if someone else had chosen it, but Suyuan proudly says that only June, who thinks differently than most, would sacrifice the best quality meal for someone else’s sake. Suyuan then gives June her jade pendant, which she’s been waiting to pass on for many years.
Now it is revealed that when Suyuan said June was less sophisticated, it wasn’t meant as an insult but a compliment. Suyuan sees sophistication, as Waverly defines it, as American arrogance, which goes against Chinese values. By having a generous heart, June actually successfully puts her mother’s lessons into practice. And now, suddenly, June sees the ways in which she is powerful—compassion—and understands that her mother recognizes this power in her.