The Joy Luck Club – You are How You Eat

The Joy Luck Club[1], a 1993 film directed by Wayne Wang, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same title four years after its publication.[2] Both of the film and the novel share a themed opening setting of the Joy Luck Club established by four female Chinese immigrants – Suyuan, Lindo, Ying-Ying, and An-Mei – in San Francisco, where they play mahjong and treat each other with home cooked dishes in order to raise hope and joy and to survive difficult times. The film and novel then capture important life moments of the four women and their daughters – June, Waverly, Lena, and Rose, respectively, who were born and raised in the US. Their stories are independent yet interconnected, revealing the preserved memories and changing identities during one’s life course and between generations. While the novel has four sections, each consisting of four stories and switching focuses in the order of “mothers’ childhood – children’s childhood – children’s adult life –mothers’ adult life,” and in general wrapped by June’s farewell feast and attempt to go back to China and find her sisters whom her mother abandoned when fleeing, the film, still respecting the original stories and settings, abridges the plot and gives it a clearer structure of telling a mother’s life story followed by her daughter’s story.

For a film/novel like The Joy Luck Club which aims to portray life stories across generations, food is hardly the major subject matter, yet it repeatedly appears throughout the stories, and constantly carries symbolic meanings. The symbolism of food roots in its associations with Chinese customs or the characters’ personal experience. With the film explicitly spelling out such meanings, the audience are able to comprehend the broader social customs and personal values reflected from food. Thus, I argue that food in this film functions as “a metaphor of self,” as articulated by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in Chapter One of her book Rice as Self[3]. Especially for the characters in the film – first- and second- generation immigrants, females of humble status comparing to their husbands – self is such a relative concept that could only be defined and transformed according to their relationships with the others, and food clarifies either the definition and transformation or the relationships.

The concept of “self” in the film includes both preserved memories and changing identities, and it is the accumulation of memories that causes a shift in identity. It also embraces a recognition of individual “self” and collective “self” (as of the social groups the characters belong to). Not all of them are equally emphasized through food – arguably, the memories related to individual “self” are most heavily presented with food, some of which lead to identity change. In this essay I will discuss in detail how the use of food in the film elaborates the concept of “self,” specifically, memories that cause identity change. By regrouping the themes related to food (food and non-food, cannibalism, food and memory, food and identity, food and gender, food and place, etc.) into the categories for “self”, I will demonstrate that food itself is only a small component of the determinant; it is how you eat (or sometimes, how you are eaten) that determines who you are.

[1] The Joy Luck Club, dir. Wayne Wang, prod. Patrick Markey, Wayne Wang, Amy Tan, and Ronald Bass (USA: Hollywood Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, 1993), DVD.

[2] Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York: Putnam’s, 1989)

[3] Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, “Food as a Metaphor of Self: An Exercise of Historical Anthropology,” in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), pg. 3-11.

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