The idea of identity in The Joy Luck Club is strongly linked to a specific quote in the book: "I asked myself, What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person?" The idea is that the river changes color but is still the river. Many of the characters change on the surface but still have a central, unchanging core. Some aspects of identity change over time. For example, the identities of the mothers change when they leave China. In China, identity was based on your family’s social status, who you marry, which number of wife or concubine you are, etc. In America, identity can change with fads – whether or not it’s cool to use your Chinese name, whether you are Chinese American versus just American. Both mothers and daughters have to grapple with what it means to be Chinese versus being American – and which is better. Part of identity, however, is unchanging. Your family, for example, makes up an essential part of a person’s identity; your mother is in your bones. Some characters also think that being Chinese is in your DNA; it’s a part of your identity that you can’t get rid of. Lastly, for the most part the characters have a genuine inner voice, which at times they may suppress, but which is always a part of them.
This book argues that there is no such thing as a pure cultural identity.