In the final chapter of the novel, June flies to China with her father to meet her long-lost half-sisters. As soon as she enters China, she immediately feels different, and senses her true connection to her heritage. Suyuan always claimed that being born Chinese meant having undeniable Chinese thoughts and emotions. June realizes that even though her mother’s dead, June is still carrying Suyuan’s dreams of coming home.
June and Canning first go to Guangzhou, formerly Canton, to see Canning’s aunt. In the forty years since Suyuan and Canning emigrated, many of the cities changed spellings and full names. The journey makes June think about her half-sisters and their impending meeting. Suyuan died before replying to their letter, so Lindo was asked to reply with the bad news. All of the Joy Luck Club members were so devastated by Suyuan’s passing, and the missed opportunity at reunion, that they decided to pose as Suyuan in the return letter. They believed it’d be too awful to break the news of Suyuan’s passing in a note.
Even in China, where the Joy Luck Club members should feel most comfortable, time has passed and places have become unrecognizable. For immigrants, there is no clear home country, because neither the country of origin, nor the country of immigration, quite fit their personal histories and values; they have hybrid experiences.
June struggles with the thought that she’ll have to break the news of Suyuan’s passing to two sisters she doesn’t even know. The worry seeps into her sleep, causing nightmares. June begs Lindo to write another letter in Chinese that says Suyuan is dead. June confesses that her fear is “they’ll think I’m responsible, that she died because I didn’t appreciate her.” Lindo accepts June’s genuine remorse and writes the letter.
Since the first chapter, June has worried that Suyuan died from a lack of appreciation, and more specifically from her own lack of appreciation for her mother. A daughter’s positive actions energize her mother’s life, but repeatedly, June let Suyuan down or was ungrateful. Now that Suyuan is gone, June is unable to atone for her mistreatment, and is racked by guilt.
In Guangzhou, Canning reunites with his aunt for the first time in forty years. She introduces June to their extended Chinese family, even though June is unable to converse with them. They all go to a fancy Western-style hotel (which only costs thirty-five American dollars) and order hamburgers, French fries, and apple pie for everyone, even though June wants to try authentic Chinese food.
Now experiencing what it’s like to be a foreigner in a different country, June senses the bewilderment, intimidation, and inability to communicate that her parents felt when they came to America. She also feels a bit of that same cultural misunderstanding, as her relatives assume that she is American and isn’t interested in the food of her heritage.
After dinner, June is left alone for the first time of the trip, and she starts missing her mother again. She first wishes Suyuan could answer all the questions that June never got around to asking, such as recipes and old relatives’ names, then wonders if her mother ever wished her long-lost daughters could replace June.
As she comes closer to meeting her sisters, June finally grieves over all the information that passed away with Suyuan, and the cultural practices that June didn’t pay attention to while growing up. Her heritage suddenly means more now that she’s lost her link to it.
Late that night, after most of the relatives have fallen asleep, June wakes up and hears Canning tell his aunt about his life in the past forty years, including how he met Suyuan in Chungking and their immigration to America. When Canning’s aunt brings up Suyuan’s twins, June enters the conversation to ask their names; Canning says their names are Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa. June then inquires about the meaning of her Chinese name, Jing-mei. Canning defines “jing” as what’s left over when impurities are removed from gold – “just pure essence.” “Mei” means “younger sister.” June thinks about Suyuan’s decision to name her as a tribute to her lost twins, and gets teary.
For the first time in her life, June asks about her Chinese name, and gets a better understanding about why Suyuan raised June so forcefully, following the sacrifice of her daughters. June is, according to Suyuan, fundamentally made of the best elements of her sisters. Throughout the novel, language and communication have been misconstrued between speakers, but here, Suyuan’s message in Chinese is clear to June: June was not born to be a replacement, but an heir to her first daughters’ legacy.
Canning’s aunt falls asleep, leaving just June and her father awake. June asks if he knew why Suyuan abandoned the twins in 1944, and Canning admits that he found out through conversations with the Joy Luck women rather than from Suyuan herself, but that there was no shame in her decision. He starts to tell the story in English, but June quickly asks him to narrate in Chinese instead.
Profoundly aware of the disappearing connection to her Chinese heritage, June wants Canning to tell her everything about her mother, and in Chinese so that she can begin to access her mother on her mother’s terms. Suyuan’s story of sacrifice is finally being told, after traveling through many different sources to reach June.
After fleeing Kweilin in 1944, Suyuan starts walking a long, heavily-trafficked road to Chungking, where her husband might be stationed. She slings the twins around her shoulders and pushes a few possessions in a wheelbarrow. A few days in, she contracts dysentery from the many sick refugees walking the same path. Suyuan becomes so sick and exhausted that she can barely move, but keeps pressing forward a few more miles, thinking about her daughters’ futures.
As seen over and over again in the novel, a mother’s fortitude and will can overcome incredible adversity if her child’s wellbeing is at stake.
Suyuan finally collapses on the side of the road, accepting that she’s close to death. The babies smile sweetly next to her, and she realizes she “can’t bear to watch her babies die with her.” She begs other refugees to take them, but everyone who walks past looks to be near death as well. When night falls, she puts the last of her jewelry and money into her babies’ shirts. Then, she removes photos of her family from her pocket and writes the babies’ names, and her family’s address, onto the back of each picture. Kissing their cheeks and telling them not to cry, Suyuan leaves them on the road, thinking a family would be more willing to rescue them as orphans.
After an entire novel about motherly sacrifice, Suyuan’s final interaction with her twin girls represents how selfless mothers can be. Rather than keep her valuables and attempt to save herself, Suyuan gives it to the babies to make them more enticing to passers-by. Still, she wants her girls to know their heritage, even if she can’t be with them, and leaves photographic evidence of her daughters’ adopting family to one day connect them with their kin.
Suyuan doesn’t remember falling unconscious or how much time passed after she left her babies, but she awakes in the back of a medical truck. At some point, an American missionary found her unmoving on the ground (but did not find her babies). When Suyuan finally reaches Chungking, officers tell her that her husband died two weeks previously. She is so delirious with disease that she laughs uncontrollably at the news. Canning, also displaced by the war, meets Suyuan sometime later in the same Chungking hospital.
The cruelty of fate destroys Suyuan’s best-laid plans. Thinking she was doing the right thing by returning to her husband’s last known location, rather than stay in Kweilin and accept a fated death, Suyuan ends up in an unknown city with no children, no husband, and no semblance of her previous life. Nothing good seems to come from challenging fate, until Canning offers a new start to her life.
Canning now knows from the recent correspondences with Suyuan’s twins that they were rescued by an old peasant couple who were hiding in the Kweilin caves. They found the cheerful babies and brought them in from the dangerous road, but couldn’t read the address on the photos. The girls seemed so precious and loved that the old couple decided to raise them as their own, and saved the expensive jewelry as the girls’ inheritance. When the twins were eight, their adoptive mother took them to Suyuan’s family’s address, but it had been repurposed into a factory after the war. At that point, Suyuan and Canning had already immigrated to San Francisco, after spending seven years in China looking for the twins.
Though Suyuan never knew the story of her twins’ rescue, it’s clear that her sacrifice saved the babies’ lives. And, because of the love Suyuan put into so obviously caring for them, the twins seemed more precious to the elderly couple. Unfortunately, living in a remote area safe from wartime violence also meant the girls were impossible to find, and Suyuan’s wish to see her daughters again could not be fulfilled while she was alive.
For the rest of her life, Suyuan secretly searches for her daughters from overseas, asking old friends in China to look anywhere for young twin girls. Canning knows nothing about her constant efforts, until Suyuan has a big idea right before she passes away, to return to China before they’re too old. Canning tells her it’s too late to return, thinking Suyuan just wants to reminisce in her old home country even though it’s completely different after the Communist revolution. Suyuan misunderstands him, thinking it’s too late to ever find her daughters, and Canning believes the thought grew inside her mind until it burst. He also believes Suyuan’s ghost led one of Suyuan’s old friend to bump into two twin women at a department store in China, and to recognize their resemblance to Suyuan even after forty years of separation.
Miscommunication can transcend language and represent a misunderstanding in emotions. Since Suyuan never found a way to express her story, Canning could not empathize and support her through her continued search efforts. In the end, the grief of mishandling her daughters’ lives is too much for Suyuan, not knowing that her daughters are happy and healthy in eastern China. Yet her love for them finally alters fate (or fulfills fate’s plan) by leading them to meet a connection to her, after she’s passed from mortal suffering.
On the plane to meet her half-sisters, June is wracked by doubt, particularly about how she will tell her mother’s story to strangers in broken Chinese. When they arrive in Shanghai, June sees a woman wearing the same expression as June had seen before on Suyuan. Then, June sees the same face again on someone else, and realizes they are her sisters, Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa. “Hesitations and expectations forgotten,” they run together and embrace, whispering Suyuan’s name in unison. Canning takes a quick-develop Polaroid picture of them together, and when June sees their similar smiles developing on the film, she finally sees what part of her is truly Chinese – her family and her mother’s legacy.
Despite her initial fears of miscommunication and misunderstanding, June sheds all the worry when she reunites with her sisters in person. Their deep love for Suyuan exists beyond language and cultural barriers, and all they really need to share in common is her name and her expressions—their legacies of their shared mother. June finally fulfills Suyuan’s greatest hope by not only reuniting the family, but also embracing her Chinese heritage as more than just a superficial foreign culture. Being Chinese is a complex, internalized feeling that connects June to a beautiful lineage and history.