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One of our first introductions to Suyuan is as the founder of the Joy Luck Club—or rather, two Joy Luck Clubs. (It was so nice, she founded it twice.)
In both China and America, Suyuan starts the club in order to bring together a community of women to celebrate their happiness and luck in life despite the suffering and obstacles they're facing. In China, the suffering is the Sino-Japanese War; in America the challenge is a new culture, a new language, and economic struggle.
Through founding of the Joy Luck Club, Suyuan shows that she isn’t the kind of person to sit back and let life happen to her; she’s a go-getter who’s active in seeking out her own happiness and is determined to live life to the fullest no matter what circumstances surround her.
Neither war nor culture shock is going to get in the way of her joy...or her luck.
And not only did Suyuan start two Joy Luck Clubs, but she started two lives: one in China and one in America. In both lives she flexes her strength of will and determination. In China, she's born to wealthy family, marries an officer in the army, and gives birth to twin girls. Despite her life of luxury, when she hears that the Japanese are invading and will likely kill her and her daughters, Suyuan takes her children and possessions in a wheelbarrow and leaves town on foot.
After the wheelbarrow breaks, her strength is gone, and she’s sure she’ll die, she provides for her daughters as best she can, placing them on the side of the road with money, valuables, and family information so they can be saved.
Clearly, Suyuan doesn't die in China like she expects, but she loses her entire family. But again, her strength and determination triumphs; Suyuan is able to build a new life in America:
America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better. (II.4.3)
She remarries, learns English well enough, raises a daughter, and even ends up owning her own apartment complex. Suyuan strongly believes in the American Dream: that a person can come to American and become rich or famous or whatever they want to be, so long as they try.
Her notion of America is in line with her own values – Suyuan believes in actively reaching for her own happiness.
But Suyuan isn't a saint—she also has some pretty negative qualities. She's extremely good at finding faults in others, maybe because she's such a go-getter herself. She criticizes other women’s cooking, weaknesses in her friends’ characters, and most of all, her daughter.
Suyuan has high standards and believes that a person can be anything in America so long as they try— after all, that’s part of why she came to America in the first place:
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous. (II.4.1)
In Suyuan’s mind, Jing-mei doesn’t try hard enough—she's too soft, and too coddled. A perfect example of this dynamic is when Suyuan attempts to get Jing-mei to become a piano prodigy. That's right: she's not satisfied with the idea of her daughter becoming a proficient or even mildly talented pianist: Jing-mei has to become the best of the best.
And, partially because of a lack of natural talent and partially as a result of some serious stubbornness, Jing-mei doesn't become a prodigy. Suyuan is disappointed almost to the point of desperation: she sees this as a major weakness. And she sees the same lack of determination in the trajectory of her daughter’s college career; Jing-mei can’t pick a major and then ends up not finishing college at all.
Suyuan's chronic disappointment in her daughter is evidence of both a major character flaw and evidence of what makes her awesome. Sure, Suyuan is being a bit of a control freak by insisting her daughter be massively successful...but that same control-freakiness is what allowed her to leave China in one piece and start over in strange country.
But even more than her desire to mold her daughter into a genius, the character of Suyuan is defined by her wish to be reunited with the twin daughters she left behind in China. (In a move that's a wee bit on the nose, Suyuan's name actually means "Long-Cherished Wish.")
And, in fact, this wish is another way in which Suyuan displays her determination: she doesn’t give up hope that she will find her daughters, and continues to work to locate them. Suyuan does everything in her power to find the girls, from touring through China, to writing to friends, begging them to look for her girls.
Suyuan’s work pays off—the girls are found—but only after Suyuan’s death from a cerebral aneurysm.
But in a moving twist, Jing-mei is allowed to pick up where her mother left off. She's able to journey to China and find her half-sisters, proving that she has some of the same determination that marked her mother's character. We think mom would be proud.