Waverly is the character we love to hate...or maybe the character we hate to love. It's tricky...much like Waverly herself.
Waverly's equal parts incredibly smart (she was a chess prodigy) and incredibly snobby. Most of her actions—her chess playing, her relationship with Jing-mei, her job at Price Waterhouse—require a competitive streak a mile wide. Luckily, Waverly's competitive streak is at least two miles wide.
From her relationship with Rich, we see that she likes being the leader of a situation. Unlike Lena and Rose who tend to be submissive to their husbands, Waverly is on equal footing with Rich. She loves him, in part, because he sees her—she has no desire to be meek or invisible:
He had no inhibitions, and whatever ones he discovered I had he’d pry away from me like little treasures. He saw all those private aspects of me – and I mean not just my sexual private parts, but my darker side, my meanness, my pettiness, my self-loathing – all the things I kept hidden. So that with him I was completely naked, and when I was feeling the most vulnerable – when the wrong word would have sent me flying out the door forever – he always said the right thing at the right moment. (III.2.78)
Like her mother, Lindo, Waverly is fiercely independent, stubborn, and capable of being very tricky. It's clear that Waverly, like her mother, demands the very best. Waverly is, in a sense, Lindo’s selfish side unmitigated by filial duty or obligation. But she's capable of great love and affection, as evidenced by her relationship with her daughter Shoshana.
And Waverly—like all of the other daughters in The Joy Luck Club—has a strained relationship with her mom. Waverly likes to assert her independence to her mom and makes a show of not taking her mother’s advice by saying things like,
"Don’t be so old-fashioned, Ma," she told me, finishing her coffee down the sink. "I’m my own person." (IV.3.12)
This is a woman who likes to think that she’s in charge of herself.
All the same, she continues to look for her mother’s approval, especially in romantic relationships. She claims that she doesn’t want her mom’s opinions about Rich, but desperately wants her mother to like him:
And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections. (III.2.72)
She tends to use her mother as a scapegoat for her own fears and insecurities (like possible fears about marrying Rich).
This ambivalence carries over into Waverly's relationship with being Chinese. On the one hand, she rails against the strictures of Chinese culture and embraces certain elements of Amercanism with relish. On the other hand, she doesn't want to be wholly American.
Even her mom picks up on this:
My daughter did not look pleased when I told her this, that she didn’t look Chinese. She had a sour American look on her face. Oh, maybe ten years ago, she would have clapped her hands – hurray! – as if this were good news. But now she wants to be Chinese, it is so fashionable. And I know it is too late. All those years I tried to teach her! She followed my Chinese ways only until she learned how to walk out the door by herself and go to school. (IV.3.6)
Waverly's torn between things that appear to be opposites: insecurity and pride, independence and approval-seeking, Chinese and American culture. But as we gain insight into the complexity of Waverly's character, we also realize that these "opposites" attract. Waverly, like so many women, wants to have it all—even seemingly contradictory things.