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In the book Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, there are many characters that faced obstacles in finding themselves. One of these characters is Ying-Ying St. Clair. Throughout the various stages of life, as a child, adult, and a mother, Ying-Ying St. Clair has struggled with Chinese and American culture in finding her own self-identity.
In her early childhood, Ying-Ying was a feisty, adventurous little girl. She recalled, “I can remember a time when I ran and shouted, when I could not stand still” (Tan, pg. 67). However, her mother would invoke traditional Chinese ideas of gender roles, stating that “A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is his nature, but a girl should stand still” (Tan, pg. 72). In this way, Ying-Ying was taught to suppress her inner curiosity at a young age, which she would also unknowingly teach her daughter. As a child, she was told to become someone who she wasn’t, taught that to live a good life she should become a dependent woman, a subservient housewife. Later on, when her family is sailing on the ocean in a boat during the Moon Festival, Ying-Ying accidentally falls into the water and is rescued by a village fisherman, who lets her loose hoping that her family will find her. She wanders around scared and alone, until she comes across a man dressed as the Moon Lady, the wish-granter of Chinese culture. To her, Ying-Ying states her wish: “I wished to be found” (Tan, pg. 83). A lonely child, lost from her family and away from her comfort zone, Ying-Ying realizes how important her family is, even if she has to obey her parents and become a subservient woman. She finds that her family is worth more to her than losing her own face, or self-identity.
In her teenhood, Ying-Ying was betrothed to a man many years older than her. She at first resisted him, knowing that he was not what she wanted in a man. However, she slowly came to realize that she would marry him, even if she did not want it to happen. Through their marriage, Ying-Ying slowly began to lose her own self-identity, as she states, “I became a stranger to myself. I was pretty for him. If I put slippers on my feet, it was to choose a pair that I knew would please him” (Tan, pg. 247). She became dependent on her husband’s compliments and happiness, mistaking his pleasure for her own, and even conceived a child for him. Little did she know, she was only a placeholder – she finds later from an aunt that “he had left me to live with an opera singer…Dancers and American ladies. Prostitutes. A girl cousin younger even than I was” (Tan, pg. 247). Devastated, Ying-Ying became a shell of her former rebellious teenage self. The baby in her womb she aborted, so much hatred did she have of her former husband that “When the nurses asked what they should do with the lifeless baby, I hurled a newspaper at them and said to wrap it like a fish and throw it in the lake” (Tan, pg. 248). This child symbolized a culmination of her despair, but also one of her own identity. Along with the memories of her husband, she cast away her dreams and expectations, the ideals that made her who she was, in a sense. Her aborted baby, a boy, was to carry those dreams, but she believed that all hopes of that were lost when she chose to not carry him. It was only much later, when she became a mother, that she realized that she still had her spirit to pass on to her child, Lena.
A decade after she had the abortion, Ying-Ying met Saint, an American man who would take her to a country that she did not know. Ying-Ying did not love this man, but married him to “give up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain” (Tan, pg. 251). She left her life in China behind to start a blank slate as the obedient housewife of an American man whom she did not even love in order to ease the pain in her heart. She became “…an unseen spirit” (Tan, pg. 251). When she arrived in America, she did not know the language and her birthdate and name were lost in translation. Her American identification papers symbolized her own life in America – Betty St. Clair, in 1916, not 1914, was a completely different person. She became a protective mother to her child with Saint, Lena, teaching her own child to behave and obey like she learned to do the hard way. She lost her own voice, and when Lena grew up, Ying-Ying realized that because of that, her own daughter did not have a voice. Her daughter’s marriage was an unhappy one, based around money and position. Although Lena started a company with her husband, Harold, he earned more than 7 times as much as she did doing the same things. But she took it, believing that they loved each other, “All I can remember is how awfully lucky I felt, and consequently how worried I was that all this undeserved good fortune would someday slip away…I worried that Harold would someday get a new prescription for his glasses…and say, ‘ Why gosh, you aren’t the girl I thought you were, are you?’” (Tan, pg. 156). Lena, in a way, became just like Ying-Ying, dependent on her partner’s love, always vying for his approval. Ying-Ying realizes this, and found that she had made a mistake in protecting her daughter from everything during her childhood, because now she cannot live independently – Lena does not have a voice. And thus, Ying-Ying resolves to fix these mistakes so that her daughter does not travel down her own path, finally finding her own tiger spirit again in her years as a mother. This spirit, she stated, she will give to her daughter, “..because this is the way a mother loves her daughter” (Tan, pg. 252).
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