"This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English. (I.Prologue.4)
There is a language gap between mother and daughter. In order to get her daughter to understand all of her love and intentions, the mother needs to wait and communicate in her daughter’s language…which might never happen.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Jing-mei (June) Woo
I know this is a polite gesture on the Joy Luck aunties’ part – a protest when actually they are just as eager to see me go as I am to leave. "No, I really must go now, thank you, thank you," I say, glad I remembered how the pretense goes.
"But you must stay! We have something important to tell you, from your mother," Auntie Ying blurts out in her too-loud voice. (I.1.116)
Nice job interpreting the aunties’ motives, Jing-mei. That was sarcasm, if you still haven’t figured out that’s our usual M.O. But honestly, the inter-generational communication wasn’t working so well there.
These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese. (I.1.84)
Is the largest problem here that they are literally speaking different languages or that they just don’t understand each other, maybe because of cultural barriers?
In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds "joy luck" is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation. (I.1.144)
The aunties are afraid of being misunderstood, forgotten, and dismissed due in no small part to ethnic and linguistic barriers.
"It’s not showoff." She said the two soups were almost the same, chabudwo. Or maybe she said butong, not the same thing at all. It was one of those Chinese expressions that means the better half of mixed intentions. I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place. (I.1.6)
Jing-mei doesn’t understand her mother, and therefore cannot remember her mother’s intended meanings of some conversations.
But listening to Auntie Lin tonight reminds me once again: My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more. (I.1.109)
OK, that quote is pretty self-explanatory. It’s just one of the many reasons Jing-mei feels like she doesn’t know her mother.
Part 2, Prologue
"I don’t believe you. Let me see the book."
"It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me." (II.Prologue.6-7)
The daughter’s lack of Chinese knowledge means that the mother holds all the power as the mediator between Chinese culture and her daughter.
Part 2, Chapter 2
Lena St. Clair
I could not tell my father what she had said. He was so sad already with this empty crib in his mind. How could I tell him she was crazy?
So this is what I translated for him: "She says we must all think very hard about having another baby. She says she hopes this baby is very happy on the other side. And she thinks we should leave now and go have dinner." (II.2.76)
Ying-ying’s English must be really bad if she can’t tell that her daughter is lying. In any case, Lena functions as an interpreter/mediator between her parents, placing her in an uncomfortable position in which she is somewhat dishonest to both parents in order to preserve family harmony.
My father, who spoke only a few canned Chinese expressions, insisted my mother learn English. So with him, she spoke in moods and gestures, looks and silences, and sometimes a combination of English punctuated by hesitations and Chinese frustration: "Shwo buchulai" – Words cannot come out. So my father would put words in her mouth. "I think Mom is trying to say she’s tired," he would whisper when my mother became moody. (II.2.21)
Clifford St. Clair and Ying-ying don’t exactly have the most understanding marriage. He doesn’t know what she’s really trying to communicate so makes assumptions.
I often lied when I had to translate for her, the endless forms, instructions, notices from school, telephone calls. "Shemma yisz?" – What meaning? – she asked me when a man at a grocery store yelled at her for opening up jars to smell the insides. I was so embarrassed I told her that Chinese people were not allowed to shop there. When the school sent a notice home about a polio vaccination, I told her the time and place, and added that all students were now required to use metal lunch boxes, since they had discovered old paper bags can carry polio germs. (II.2.32)
Lena doesn’t deliver perfect translations because she often has her own agenda or feelings about the issue.
Part 3, Chapter 1
Ying-ying St. Clair
"Lena cannot eat ice cream," says my mother.
"So it seems. She’s always on a diet."
"No, she never eat it. She doesn’t like."
"And now Harold smiles and looks at me puzzled, expecting me tot translate what my mother has said.
"It’s true," I say evenly. "I’ve hated ice cream almost all my life."
Harold looks at me, as if I too, were speaking Chinese and he could not understand. (III.1.90)
Here, Lena compares real barriers to comprehension (Harold understood Ying-ying’s English, he just couldn’t wrap his head around it’s veracity) to linguistic barriers to comprehension.
Lena St. Clair
My mother has a wounded sound in her voice, as f I had put the list up to hurt her. I think how to explain this, recalling the words Harold and I have used with each other in the past: "So we can eliminate false dependencies…be equals…love without obligation…" But these are words she could never understand.
So instead I tell my mother this: "I don’t really know. It’s something we started before we got married. And for some reason we never stopped." (III.1.84)
Lena can’t hide behind fancy English words, and so has to tell her mother a version closer to the truth.
Part 3, Chapter 2
Rich was smiling. "How long does it take to say, Mom, Dad, I’m getting married?"
"You don’t understand. You don’t understand my mother." Rich shook his head. "Whew! You can say that again. Her English was so bad. You know, when she was talking about that dead guy showing up on Dynasty, I thought she was talking about something that happened in China a long time ago." (III.2.111)
Rich doesn’t understand Waverly and Lindo’s communication style from a cultural standpoint, nor does he understand Lindo’s English. Also, is it just us, or is Rich rude? It’s hard to learn a second language. He shouldn’t just go around criticizing Lindo’s English!
"How do you know this?" she asked eagerly.
"You see it on everything. Made in Taiwan."
"Ai!" she cried loudly. "I’m not from Taiwan!"
And just like that, the fragile connection we were starting to build snapped.
"I was born in China, in Taiyuan," she said. "Taiwan is not China."
"Well, I only thought you said ‘Taiwan’ because it sounds the same," I argued, irritated that she was upset by such an unintentional mistake. (III.2.151)
Despite trying to be on the same page, Waverly still misinterprets her mother, causing hurt feelings and a barrier to open conversations in the future.
Part 3, Chapter 3
Rose Hsu Jordan
Back home, I thought about what she said. And it was true. Lately I had been feeling hulihudu. And everything around me seemed to be heimongmong. These were words I had never thought about in English terms. I suppose the closest in meaning would be "confused" and "dark fog."
But really, the words mean much more than that. Maybe they can’t be easily translated because they refer to a sensation that only Chinese people have, as if you were falling headfirst through Old Mr. Chou’s door, then trying to find your way back. (III.3.34)
Right now, we’re feeling a communication gap with Rose because the inadequacy of translation. Rose can’t explain to the reader the precise feelings of hulihudu and heimongmong, speculating that maybe only Chinese people can feel such things.
Part 4, Chapter 3
"How does she want it?" asked Mr. Rory. He thinks I do not understand English. He is floating his fingers through my hair. He is showing how his magic can make my hair thicker and longer.
"Ma, how do you want it?" Why does my daughter think she is translating English for me? Before I can even speak, she explains my thoughts: "She wants a soft wave. We probably shouldn’t cut it too short. Otherwise it’ll be too tight for the wedding. She doesn’t want it to look kinky or weird." (IV.3.19)
Waverly assumes a position of importance by "translating" her mother’s opinions.
How can she talk to people in China with these words? Pee-pee, choo-choo train, eat, close light sleep. How can she think she can blend in? Only her skin and her hair are Chinese. Inside – she is all American-made. (IV.3.6)
Lindo cites language barriers as one of the reasons no one in China would ever mistake Waverly for being Chinese.
Part 4, Chapter 4
"Hello," I say to the little girl. "My name is Jing-mei." But the little girl squirms to look away, causing her parents to laugh with embarrassment. I try to think of Cantonese words I can say to her, stuff I learned from friends in Chinatown, but all I can think of are swear words, terms for bodily functions, and short phrases like "tastes good," "tastes like garbage," and "she’s really ugly." And then I have another plan: I hold up the Polaroid camera, beckoning Lili with my finger. She immediately jumps forward, places one hand on her hip in the manner of a fashion model, juts out her chest, and flashes me a toothy smile. As soon as I take the picture she is standing next to me, jumping and giggling every few seconds as she watches herself appear on the greenish film. (IV.4.53)
Other forms of communication can transcend language difficulties.
"Aii-ya. So shame be with mother?" She grasped my hand even tighter as she glared at me.
I looked down. "It’s not that, it’s just so obvious. It’s just so embarrassing."
"Embarrass you be my daughter?" Her voice was cracking with anger.
"That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I said." (II.1.59)
Linguistic misunderstandings can escalate arguments and hurt feelings.