Her mother remarks that for her daughter a promise is nothing and it holds no value for any excuse will suffice to annul it. The example used was to come to a family dinner where a headache, traffic, a good movie on TV… would void the previous promise. Meanwhile Lindo suffered greatly to keep her mother’s promise. This greatly different interpretation of the value of promises illustrates a radically different view of a concept, the daughter, lacking the environmental background and society could not comprehend why her mother, who had suffered for a promise, became irate at her lax promise keeping.
The dynamic of mother, daughter relationships is also key in the novel. It could be argued that it is not the main issue the author is trying to portray but a means to develop the importance of knowing that cultures cannot be translated, that each is unique and has different values. Bicultural families, in the form of mother-daughter pairs, for the fathers are mostly ignored, have to go through this, and by having a radical difference between the Western and Eastern cultures under the same roof, it accentuates the difficulties of this cross-acculturation.
The clash of Chinese and American is displayed at its peak with the mother’s and daughter’s interactions with each other. Each holds a different culture, a different value system. This conflict occurs often, notably when the daughters rebel against their mothers as Jing-Mei did with her mother about the piano lessons. Even though Jing-Mei believed what she did she did out of free will, Suyuan must have been gravely hurt her daughter did not listen to her.
The fact that her daughter had chosen to shy away from her teachings, a blow to her heart, for her it was inconceivable that she would have done so against her own mother, for it was something that did not happen often. This point of view is based on the emphasis on cultural elements displayed throughout the novel, and the later chapters where two events are recounted by both mother and daughter, each seeing it in a totally different way. There could also be another interpretation in which mother-daughter dynamics is central. The dedicatory offers a slight clue that mothers are important since it states,
“To my mother and the memory of her mother You asked me once what I would remember. This and much more. ” Being dedicated to her mother, and being a daughter herself, Amy Tan most likely wove in aspects of her own Sino-American roots to her characters. The interactions range not only between mother and daughter, but also between mother and mother, and daughter and daughter. The most glaring example of this is the rivalry between Suyuan Woo and Lindo Jong, their daughters merely caught up in this, though a small fragment of this rivalry is displayed by Waverly.
The mother’s flashbacks, especially those that include interaction with their own mothers function as a way to see how the relationship has changed, but also how it has remained constant. The elements of discipline and reverence to the previous generation have become much dimmer, yet the way the mothers look after their daughters through sternness with love, and through indirect advices remain. It appears that though the cultures vary, the mothers attempt to latch on to the previous system of motherhood, the Chinese way. This is what creates a large part of the conflicts since the daughters are not Chinese.
They are not Chinese enough, it might be inferred, for their mother’s deeply rooted culture. This disparity widens the generational gap by causing more misunderstandings and a lack of understanding in many occasions. Each side is trapped within its own point of view unable to transmit what it truly wishes to convey to the other. The novel does not utilize one narrator, or one sequence of events, but each section of the book is narrating by one of the generational groups, mothers or daughters, and within these sections each chapter is narrated by one of the four family units.
This is to better be able to transmit the differing points of view and cultural heritage of each character from their, biased, perspective. The exception to this is Jing-Mei Woo. Though she may be an exception in the literal sense she qualifies for both roles (Mother/Daughter) since out of all four daughters she can be considered as having the most Chinese cultural elements absorbed, or assimilated. As stated before she is the link of both generations, and this is due to the death of her mother ere the begging of the text. Though her mother has died she is, in a way, the carrier of her mother’s story.
Jing-Mei Woo could be considered the main character due to her repeated appearance, and role as the unifying agent of many of the novel’s disparate entities, the mother/daughter gap, the gap between the 4 families, she is the pivotal figure upon which the subplots, and subthemes of the story revolve around. Even though the other characters know each other by having more narrated by Jing-Mei the reader will most empathizes with her over the others, also by being the sole repetitive element between sections she binds the story cohesively.
Also by representing both her mother and herself, not only due to her position in both mother and daughter sections but because she is her mother’s voice within the novel, her and her mother’s stories both come from her point of view, which carries critiques of why her mother did certain things, which are notably absent in the other daughters. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn within the twins in China, and the audience, or readers. The story appears almost directed to the known unknown, to those who you know in a way but are not sure how to approach.
The flashbacks to Chinese culture familiarize the reader with “true” Chinese culture, whilst the Americanized daughters familiarize the reader with Chinese-American culture, though in some cases American alone. Jing-Mei is the one charged with transmitting this story, the one charged with recounting her and their mother’s life. This might also be construed as the way in which Jing-Mei is “charged” with finding a way to transmit to the reader the various elements in the apparently disparate story.
Though many themes and issues pervade Tan’s novel, the issues of Cultural Intranslatabilty and Mother Daughter relations are central. Throughout the many apparently barely related short stories, which could be read individually, these themes recurrently appear, at first within the confines of the narration in chapters, then within the structure of the sections guided by a uniting metaphor, and lastly throughout the book in its entirety.
The use of such coherent substructures within the book grant both continuity for each is understandable by its self, yet discontinuity for the fact that each appears discrete if the novel is not read linearly to give meaning and clarify future or previous events. Culture is the basis for how humanity views the world, and this novel attests this point with structural elegance along with the chronic themes throughout the content.