The Joy Luck Club – An Intercultural Film Analysis
The Joy Luck Club is a film that takes place in 1993 San Francisco and revolves around the life stories of four Chinese-American immigrant women and their American-born daughters. June, Waverly, Lena, and Rose are the daughters in the film and the difficult relationships they have with their mothers are explored and reflected upon throughout.
The women’s mothers (Suyuan, Lindo, Ying-Ying, and An-mei) are best friends that have been living in the U.S. for 30 years. All the young girls are close with each other as well as with their mothers’ friends whom they respectfully call “auntie.”
The film begins three months after June’s mother, Suyuan, has passed, and the remaining Joy Luck Club members and their daughters, along with plenty of other family and friends, have gotten together to celebrate June going off to China to find her long lost twin sisters who her mother regrettably had to leave behind.
Throughout the film, we get to see all of the women having multiple flashbacks to important moments in their lives. These scenes, as well as the rest of the film, are excellent at highlighting the challenges that arise in communication between people of different cultures. These include differences in communication styles which affect values, beliefs, and even behaviors.
High Context vs Low Context
The mothers, being immigrants to the United States, have brought with them their own cultural beliefs and values. Unfortunately, this has also brought difficulties in navigating their relationships with their daughters. This is due to the fact that, coming from China, which has Confucian influence, their style of communication is high-context. Their use of indirect, implicit messages, and reliance on unsaid shared understandings often leave their daughters feeling frustrated and confused over what they are trying to communicate.
These same frustrations are felt by the mothers. Having been born in America, which is considered a low context culture, the daughters’ style of communication is direct, explicit, and relies on verbal communication. Often times there are no hidden meanings behind words. For example, in a scene where young Waverly’s mom is showing her off to random people in the street after she had been featured in a magazine as a chess champion, Waverly says, “I wish you wouldn’t do that, telling everyone I’m your daughter!”
Lindo, obviously taken aback by her daughters request says, “What you mean? You so ashamed to be with your mother?” Waverly attempts to explain that she isn’t ashamed of her mother, just embarrassed of the obvious showboating she is doing in public. However, her mother over-analyzes her words and interprets them as an indirect insult, and believes that Waverly is embarrassed to be seen with her.
Individualism vs Collectivism
Another aspect of high and low context cultures that arises within the film is individualism versus collectivism. The mothers are collectivistic in their values and beliefs. They place great importance on their families and the community and believe that their daughters should hold similar values. However, their daughters, having been raised in a low-context culture (America), have individualistic values and beliefs that place importance on their personal achievements/success and they sometimes struggle to understand and appreciate their mothers’ collectivistic values.
These values are represented in the way that the four mothers come together to form the “Joy Luck Club” as a way of supporting each other in their shared struggle of being immigrants in America. Their daughters, on the other hand, are more individualistic and hold values like independence and self-reliance. Sometimes to a fault.
For example, Lena is married to a man who she splits all costs with 50/50, to what many would consider an excessive degree. This is to, as her husband puts it, make sure that their love is always “equal.” This relationship is reflective of Lena’s individualistic tendency to be self-sustaining even with the people closest to you. Ying-Ying, her mother, reminds her that it doesn’t have to be this way and encourages her to end her unhappy marriage.
“Do you know what you want from him?…Then tell him now. And leave this lopsided house. Do not come back until he give you those things. With both hands open.”
Another concept that’s important in determining the cultural differences in the film is Confucianism. Most notable in Asian countries, in this case China, Confucianism governs the ethical and moral systems in which all relationships operate. It places great emphasis on virtue, selflessness, duty, patriotism, hard work, and respect for hierarchy, both familial and societal.
The mothers embody several of these Confucian ideals like respecting your elders, and they expect their daughters to adhere to them as same well. In a scene with June and her mother Suyuan, we can see these ideals being reinforced from a young age. A young June, fed up with playing the piano due to her mother’s insistence on it tells her, “You want me to be someone I’m not! I’ll never be the kind of daughter that you want me to be!” To this Suyuan responds: “There be two kinds of daughter. Obedient or follow own mind. Only one kind of daughter could live in this house. Obedient kind.”
Overall, the movie is a powerful reminder that effective communication between different cultures is essential for maintaining understanding and acceptance, especially in close relationships like that between a mother and daughter. I won’t lie, this movie made me cry more than once! But I enjoyed every minute of it. I highly recommend giving it a watch if you haven’t yet!
Below I’ve added the links to purchase both the film and the book for those interested:
And here’s the Sparknotes version for those who really don’t want to do either haha!