This year for Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, I wanted to explore the books of my past. Well, it’s one book in particular that I read as a young person struggling with her identity. That book was The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
I’m trying to recall my overall feelings of this book back when I was a teenager, but 20 years was a ridiculously long time ago. I think I remember liking the book, resonating deeply with one particular story, and having trouble reading it because I was a teenager and I thought adult books were for adults ONLY. I was a very naive person.
Back when I was a teenager, I internally struggled with my identity. I could tell I was the only person of color in my friend groups. I could tell that going to my Korean church was isolating because I couldn’t speak Korean well enough. Let me tell you how many times random Korean people have shamed me for not speaking Korean. I’m sorry! American English is what they teach in school and when you have a mom that spoke to you in English and a dad who spoke to you in Korean, some stuff gets lost in translation.
I would go to school and be the American everyone at school wanted me to be. I would come home and be the good Korean daughter my parents wanted me to be. Let me tell you, the pushing and pulling gets exhausting.
So I wanted to find a book or a voice or SOMETHING in the world that told me that I wasn’t alone. Back when I was growing up in the 90s, there wasn’t a lot of POC on TV. We had “All American Girl” which was a sitcom produced by Margaret Cho. But then that show got canceled soon after it aired.
So I went to the library and found The Joy Luck Club. To be truthful, I have no clue how this book landed in my lap. I just remember the feeling of isolation and then this story and how it helped me. Perhaps it was luck. Perhaps it was destiny. But I read the book and I felt like someone finally understood. Someone finally got it!
And it brought me a sense of comfort back then. I didn’t feel alone being pushed and pulled everyday. It lifted me up and told me that I’m fine. Everyone struggles with identity, but they manage to keep both sides of this identity coin. It helped me accept that I am both Korean and American.
Now that I’m an adult, rereading the book is a different experience. First off, I read way more than I did when I was a teenager (I was big into music back then). Because I read more, I’ve developed a certain skill set to think critically about what I read and understand what the author was saying. Finally, I’m comfortable with my identity. I wasn’t looking for a voice for this second read because I had already found it. And the subsequent books written by Asian American authors that filled my shelves inspires me everyday.
I realize that as comforting as this book was when I was a teenager, there’s not a lot of conversation about identity in this book. In fact, I’d argue this book is less about identity and more about the relationships we have with our family. There is definitely power in rereading a book because you notice things differently. I see this every time I reread Harry Potter. There’s always some small detail I missed or something I discover about a character. Like the fact that Ron is a lot smarter than he’s portrayed in the movies.
But getting back to The Joy Luck Club, I realized that the story I resonated so deeply with back when I was a teenager doesn’t do it for me anymore. In fact, Waverly (the character I resonated with) and I are completely different people. She was competitive and unafraid to share her opinions while I’m more bookish and pacifist. We might have shared some similarities when I was a kid, but we grew up differently. Is it weird that I’m comparing myself to an imaginary character?
Another big takeaway I got from this book the second time is relationships between mothers and daughters. Back then, I didn’t see this glaringly obvious point and I think it’s because I was searching for something specific. The story really makes you consider your relationship with your own mother. Yes, there’s tons of references to Chinese culture, history, and tradition, but deep down the basis of this story is the world we build for ourselves and the world we want to pass on to our children.
Because this book made me think, I thought of my mother. I understood that my mother did the best she could in the circumstances she was given. I remember her more prominently at holidays and recitals and soccer games making time for my sister and me when she had a full time job during the week. She taught me to be independent and creative. I inherited her dark humor, her intellect, and her ability to turn into a hermit. Reading this book made me appreciate who I was when I was a teenager, but made me appreciate my mother as an adult. It’s funny how a book can be two different experiences for the same person.
And while the book doesn’t resonate with me as it did when I was a teenager, I have to say it’s definitely on my list for most loved books. It doesn’t need to resonate anymore because I’ve grown out of it, so now I can appreciate it for being the voice that told me I would be okay. I hope in another 20 years I can read it again and feel completely different.
What’s a book that deeply resonating with you?