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“I died 60 years ago. I ate opium”: Deconstructing Chinese-American Despair in Oliver Stone’s Joy Luck Club  

Oliver Stone’s Joy Luck Club, a movie adapted from Amy Tan’s novel, is about the plight of three generations of Chinese women. Interwoven with vignettes of flashbacks, this movie is a good visual text for conflict resolution analysis. How is it a good representation of the joys and sorrow of the American-Chinese? How is it a movie (and a novel) about conflict management in a cross-cultural setting, framed from the “individualistic-collectivistic” paradigm? I discuss these two inquiry themes in the following paragraphs.

As it began, the story was related to June from her already deceased mother and then retold by her: The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. ‘This bird,’ boasted the market vendor, ‘was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose and now look it is too beautiful to eat.’ Then, the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide stretching their necks towards America. On her journey she cooed to the swan ‘in America, I will have a daughter just like me. But over there, nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.

Over there, nobody would look down on her because I will make her speak only perfect American English.’

‘And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow. She will know my meaning because I will give her this swan, a creature that became more than what was hoped for.’ But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled the swan away from her leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for memory. For a long time now, the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, ‘This feather may look worthless but it comes from afar and it carries with it all my good intentions’ (Stone, 1993).

The opening narration has some characteristics of typical classical Chinese literature. The similarity in style of discourse perhaps can be explained as, “a culture’s thought patterns affect the way individuals in that culture communicate” (Porter & Samovar, 1992, p.17). Literature is indeed one source of analyzing a culture’s thought patterns. In this movie, it can be argued that this personalized “epic” is one indirect way for Suyuan to tell June the story of her hopes and aspirations for her.

Of swans and other analyses

Although the story, at the opening of the movie, is told in an unsophisticated way, the image used to complement the narration – of the expanding whiteness of the feathers, which almost resembled clouds, merging together – serves as a symbolic completion of a bird’s migration. By the time the woman had been confiscated of the swan, she embodied the characteristics of the swan herself: she was left “fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for memory” (Stone, 1993). So, the image of the swan feather is quite a powerful and elegant one and at the same time, the unpolished poetic storyline makes it all the more realistic since it is a story told not by a poet but by a novice who told it in the tradition of Chinese classical literature.

The issues portrayed in the movie such as intergenerational communication breakdowns are quite universal and applicable to the analysis of conflicts. Scollon and Scollon (1997) in Intercultural Communications write about how a person is simultaneously a member of many discourse systems. They cite that involuntary discourse systems in which all of us participate are those of generation and gender. These involuntary discourse systems have a potential of creating communication problems because such discourse systems are normally invisible to us unlike those we make in voluntary discourses (professional and organizational discourse systems.)

Ting-Toomey (publication date unavailable) writes about individualism-collectivism value tendencies. And Hall (1975) writes about low-and high-context culture communication framework. Individualism refers to the tendencies of a culture to focus on the importance of, for example, individual identity over group identity. In contrast, collectivism refers to the tendencies of a culture to emphasize the importance of, for example, group obligations versus individual rights. Individualism is closely linked to Hall’s low-context culture communication framework while collectivism is closely linked to his high-context culture communication framework.

Low-context communication refers to communication patterns that are linear and direct. High-context communication refers to communication patterns that are spiral and indirect. In this movie, the generational communication breakdown is escalated since there is also the problem of “cultural” differences between the Chinese-born (governed by a high-context culture communication framework with collectivistic culture value tendencies) mothers and their American-born (governed by low-context culture communication framework with an individualistic culture value tendencies) daughters. So, we can observe cross-cultural problems even among members of the same family. This point was also emphasized by Hofstede in his explanation of the dimensions of cultural communication (Raider and Coleman, 1987)

Painful pasts

The four mothers have had painful pasts; some of these are dark secrets, which they struggled to come to terms with. Suyuan, June’s deceased mother went through life feeling guilty for abandoning her twin daughters on the roadside in China during World War II. Lindo, Waverly’s mother was “given up” by her mother to be married at the tender age of 15 to a young boy. Yin Yin, Lena’s mother, married a Westernized Chinese romeo and ended up killing her son to retaliate against her husband’s cruelty towards her. Ah Mei, Rose’s mother, “lost” her mother (Rose’s grandmother) to a rich man when she became his fourth concubine.

Another aspect of the movie, which is worth noting, is the Chinese belief in ancestral worship and filial piety. Their worldview is one, which advocates that the spirit of their ancestors will be transported from one generation to another. This is why, for example, Ah Mei’s mother chose the date of committing suicide with an opium overdose to give Ah Mei some spirit. Unfortunately, just like her grandmother before her death, Rose, (Ah Mei’s daughter) became submissive after her marriage. Ah Mei, determined to correct this problem in her daughter recounted the story of her mother’s sacrifice and insisted that she reasserts herself before it was too late.

Sure enough, upon hearing the story Rose rejuvenated her dwindling spirits. She said to her husband, “You don’t know who I am. I died 60 years ago. I ate opium.” This example also highlights a high-context cultural communication pattern that the otherwise Americanized Rose adopted when confronting her husband. Lena’s spirit is also described as being linked to her elders. She has been described as having “no spirit,” because her mother had none to give her. Her mother, Yin Yin had lost her spirit ever since she became haunted by the bad deed of killing her baby. But when Yin Yin realizes that her daughter was living in a house that would literally and figuratively “break into pieces” – from the design that does not have its Feng Shui (laws of adaptability to nature) for the former, and the incompatible relationship, for the latter, she decided to rejuvenate her spirits to give it to her daughter. That resulted in Lena leaving her husband and eventually finding a more compatible mate. Waverly also comments that when she was young and rebellious, she could feel that the “power” she once had in playing chess was as if being drained away when she upset her mother.

In another scene, when she is already a grown woman, in tears Waverly tells her mother how she had always had such “power” over her. So even though the four mothers are now Christians they still hold on strongly to some Chinese beliefs. And to a certain extent, this belief system is appropriated by the next generation. Perhaps this Chinese belief that their ancestors’ spirits are omnipresent and transcends the generation explains why when June sets her eyes on her half-sisters in China, one of them at first glance, embodied the image of their mother. As the daughters and mothers came to terms with their unresolved past or present, they all came out triumphant and began to understand each other more, in the conflict resolution tradition of “opening” and “uniting” (Raider and Coleman,1987., see also Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 1991., for discussions of similar perspective). For instance, June had said that there were many things she didn’t understand about her mother but the one she never forgave was when her mother abandoned the twins in China.

Life as Mahjong game

As the story unfolds, she finally came to an understanding of the rationale behind her mother’s actions and managed to resolve the puzzlement she has had all these whiles. She finally felt she had done something for her mother when she went to China. So, life goes on for the four daughters living in America with somewhat watered-down Confucian values while the older generation hangs on to whatever they have left of China like the weekly playing of mahjong — in the manner negotiations in life’s most critical instances are made (see for example Lewicki, Sanders, and Minton, 1994).

And perhaps life, like mahjong playing, is a gamble; you have a 50% chance to either win or lose. When retelling the swan story to Rose’s daughter, June further adapted the story: “… the swan, swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow…” – a poignant adaptation because Coca-Cola to many people is symbolic of the American ways.

REFERENCES

Hall, E.T. (1975). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday.

Porter, R.E., & Samovar, L.A. (1992). Basic principles of intercultural communication.

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DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.
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