The Namesake and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

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More than thirty five years have passed since Edward Said wrote his book Orientalism and the general public started to be aware of the fact that there is a tendency to portray some cultures as alien others. Whereas the term orientalism originally denoted the distorted portrayal of Eastern cultures produced by the Western world, there is a tendency to employ orientalizing strategies even among writers of ‘Oriental’ descent. Since they are frequently perceived as native informants, they often reflect their ethnic background and immigrant stories of their parents in their writing.

This thesis focuses on two novels, The Namesake (2004) by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan. Both writers share the second generation migrant experience since they were born to parents who immigrated to United States. While Lahiri’s parents came from India, Tan has Chinese background. Contrary to belief that immigrants are disadvantaged even today, there is a need to differentiate between various migrant groups. While migrants from some of the Asian countries, mainly those characterized by most recent immigrant waves, have really worse socioeconomic situation than average immigrants, Indians and Chinese people are rather prosperous minorities (Kim and Lewis 286). Such situation reflects not only in the general themes of Indian American and Chinese American writers, but also in the themes of Lahiri and Tan. Due to the status of both minorities, Lahiri and Tan do not portray immigrants’ lives as a struggle to survive but rather concentrate on their affiliation to the country into which they arrived and also on their relationship with their American-born children.

Lahiri’s and Tan’s portrayal of Indian and Chinese people and their experience reflects, however, not only the general themes of Chinese American and Indian American literature. Both writers integrate in their writing also their personal experience. Since she spent a great portion of her life in Indian Bengali community, Lahiri depicts the culture of Bengali Indians living in U.S. The life of Amy Tan was not only more tragic than the life of Jhumpa Lahiri, but also her mother and grandmother experienced oppression in their homeland. Moreover, Tan was influenced by her mother’s superstitiousness and her faith in supernatural forces. She therefore draws on the tragic stories of her family and on her mother’s views. Hence she portrays the Chinese as culturally different from Americans, while employing some orientalizing strategies.

Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, nevertheless, does not draw on the distinction between Chinese immigrants and other Americans, its focus is narrower. In her novel, Tan stresses the differences between Chinese-born mothers and American-born daughters, while those dissimilarities are based on their different experience. The differences between them are hence cultural. While their Chinese experiences are depicted through Western stereotypes, Chinese immigrants are portrayed as different from mainstream American society, too. Orientalizing strategies are nevertheless not used in order to meet the readers’ expectations, but to explore difference between Chinese immigrants and their American-born children. Lahiri deploys different strategies to depict the relationships between Indian immigrants and their American-born children. As she does not portray Indian immigrants as struggling to assimilate, she does not employ orientalizing strategies to evoke Indianness. Since Indian immigrants portrayed by Lahiri seem to have a rather transnational identity, their differences from their American-born children are not based on cultural differences but are rather generational.

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