Everyone has mommy issues. It's pretty much a fact of life. And in "Rules of the Game"—one of the short vignettes in Amy Tan's 1989 debut novel, The Joy Luck Club—Tan says everything we've ever secretly thought about our biggest fan and harshest critic.
In the story, we get a slice of Waverly Jong's life in Chinatown with her mother. Waverly's mom is an immigrant who wants a better life for her children. It's a great motive, but her mother's execution leaves a lot to be desired. Her idea of helping her daughter leans toward obsessively controlling her, so instead of preparing Waverly to succeed in the world, Waverly's mom gives her crippling complexes. Gee thanks, Ma.
When Waverly discovers chess, her mom isn't thrilled with the idea… until her daughter starts winning. Her mom quietly encourages Waverly at first, but the better she becomes, the more freedoms Mom takes away, until all Waverly does is play chess. And guess what? Waverly isn't thrilled. Not in the least.
The Joy Luck Club (and "Rules of the Game") hit the big leagues, in part because it focuses on Asian and Asian-American women, people often not included in mainstream lit. But while Tan's stories definitely fill a much-needed niche, they also managed to land her in hot water. Some people accused Tan of playing into Asian stereotypes—with all the broken English, exotic descriptions, and boiled-down fortune-cookie sayings, we see how "Rules of the Game" might tick folks off. Tan wasn't forced to exit stage left, though, and other critics praised her representation of the experiences of Chinese women and immigrants in America.
No matter where you fall in the debate, though, there's no denying that "Rules of the Game" hits the bull's-eye with regards to a universal theme. Through subtle humor, Tan gently shows us that some things (like bossy moms) aren't restricted to race. It seems like when it comes to moms, we all can't live with 'em or without 'em.
Discovering that you're really good at something is one of the more magical moments in life. It's such a rush to realize your own potential, to feel capable and powerful instead of all the harder things we so often feel. Plus, most of the time our parents are super proud of us, too. And who doesn't love collecting high-fives? We sure do.
But occasionally, in their loving efforts to help us be all that we can be, parents push us a little too hard to develop our gifts. Suddenly, second place becomes code for first loser, and even when we do better than we've ever done before, Mom (or Dad) seems to find something to nitpick. Just like that, our best of times becomes our worst of times, and it totally stinks.
Amy Tan captures this frustration in Waverly's story. Sure, it's tucked into a story about chess and navigating Chinese and American culture, but at its heart "Rules of the Game" is really about this most universal of struggles. It just might leave you feeling like your parents really aren't so bad after all—or it might inspire you to tell them to buzz off. Either way, you'll be hard-pressed not to consider your own life, talents, and parents as you read this story.
Hang with Tan
Tan's website—designed by her—offers up a bounty of information on everything from her books to photos to personal information. If websites could overflow, this one would be on the brink of flooding the Internet.
What's that? You forgot your copy of the text at school? Worry not—the whole thing is ready and waiting for you online.
Little Girl, Big Screen
Tan wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, which includes the events of "Rules of the Game." Get excited to watch Waverly kick butt on the big screen.
Never Give Up
This interview, which features a medley of written and video clips, digs deep into Tan's life as a writer. And guess what? She didn't start writing fiction until she was thirty-three, so don't throw in the towel yet, okay?
The Valley of Amazement
If you like "Rules of the Game," then check out this interview with Tan about a later book, The Valley of Amazement, which she was inspired to write after discovering her grandmother had been a courtesan.
In this conversation, Tan talks about The Joy Luck Club and much more.
Searching for Bobby Fischer
Like chess stars? Here's another story about a young chess expert for you, which touches on a lot of the same themes as "Rules of the Game."
Rest your weary eyes by getting your hands (er, ears) on this not-free audio download of the book that contains "Rules of the Game."
All Things Amy
An audio interview with Tan, which specifically addresses "Rules of the Game."
Real Life Chinese Chess Genius
Pictures of China's Hou Yifan, a real live girl chess genius.
The Cover of the Novel
Trying to find the book our story appears in? Here's a picture of the cover of The Joy Luck Club so you know what to keep your eyes peeled for.