Dear Amy Tan,

I read your book, The Joy Luck Club, three summers ago. That summer was a transition period, marked off by my entry into high school and my sister’s entry into college. My sister, used to play her cello everyday before she left. My favorite of her pieces was Bach’s “Suite No.1 in G Major”; the music was as rich as the deep, chestnut color of the sound’s body. But three summers ago, the rosin and bow accompanied an encroaching sadness, a sadness that had been in the making for much longer than those melancholy months. You helped me unravel that sadness from an unnerving and unplaceable feeling into something tangible, threads of silk from which I could create something meaningful.

I can trace this sadness back to when I was 9. I remember one morning I was alphabetizing my markers on my desk. Apricot, Blue Violet, Canary Yellow, Cerulean, Desert Sand. The boys in my class came barreling through the classroom, wreaking havoc on my lineup. I didn’t understand why someone would want to mess up perfectly orderly markers and tried to talk some sense into them. But like every other 9 year old, they held true to the idea that arguments called for every method of attack, and they pulled back the skin of their eyelids and pushed out their front teeth, slurring Ching-Chong Ching-Chong.

Before that day, I never knew that my skin was something I was supposed to be ashamed of. The only marker I ever got back was Canary Yellow. I threw it at my bedroom wall when I got home; if you look hard enough, you can still see a faint splotch of the vile color on my beige walls.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that I haven’t felt comfortable for a long time. My middle school was a private school in the middle of an extremely wealthy, predominantly white area. The kids wore Vineyard Vines and Sperrys; I wore hand-me-down jean capris and tennis shoes. I increasingly became conscious of my appearance and began molding myself to feel as if I belonged. I begged my mother for Sperrys on my 13th birthday, but after I thought that the ones she got me were ugly and returned them, I ended up buying the same shoes again after seeing that everyone else wore the same style. I began wearing glasses to conceal the flatness of my face and ventured into makeup, pinching my eyelashes with a curler and lining my eyes every morning to lift my heavy lids. In vain, I struggled to melt into the background of whiteness which surrounded me.

I stopped pursuing a musical instrument, lacking talent and paling in comparison to my sister, who eventually became the first chair cello at her high school. I could never be the stereotypical Asian musical prodigy if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to. I thought happiness meant acceptance, and I was prepared to suffocate any hint of separation between me and whiteness to achieve it.

The summer before high school, the summer I read your book, brought me back to myself. I went to a three-week camp at a college in L.A. Walking down the hallway of the dorm I was going to stay, I remember reading the names of the other girls on the doors and experiencing a growing feeling of puzzlement. More than half of the names were East Asian— Wong, Chu, and Wu— and when I finally got to my room and opened the door to see a pair of mono lids and a head with straight, black hair, it hit me that for the first time in a while I wasn’t going to feel so isolated.

And indeed, for those three weeks, the pressure I felt, which hadn’t lifted since I first felt its weight in fourth grade, melted into me. It didn’t happen all at once, and in fact, I felt uncomfortable around so many Asians at first. But as I began to become friends with my peers, we bonded over our shared difference. We argued over our favorite types of boba tea, gushed over Asian-American celebrities, and discussed the flourishing Asian-American social media presence. We talked about eurocentric beauty and the struggle to walk the line between feeling beautiful but staying true to our heritage. We cried about the suffocating love of our parents, the pride and the stress and the duty which comes with having such a close legacy of immigration but not experiencing the pain of uprooting.

One of the girls I become friends with recommended that I read your book. So one cloudy afternoon, the air too thick and heavy to go outside, I opened your book. I had never read a book written by an Asian-American woman, much less about the life of Asian-American women. Although the challenges June, Waverley, Rose, and Lena face are different, they are connected in the sisterhood formed by the Joy Luck Club. This book, to me, is a testament to the bonds of family and heritage as indelible aspects of life. Your book helped me comb through the emotions and feelings I had experienced at camp and made me realize the significance of my new bonds. I realized that the strength of my friendships came from for a deeply significant, uniting heritage. Just as the original members of the Joy Luck Club pass on that rich legacy and those connections of sisterhood to their children, I have access to an Asian-American culture that is dynamic and important to explore, a culture built on shared experience, a culture built on family.

For the first time, I was able to truly identify with characters, specifically the American-born characters, and their struggles. I saw how suppressing my nature, as some of the characters did, would only result in bitter dissatisfaction. This book taught me that the dichotomy between American and Asian was false: an illusion that could be broken. I did not have to chose, and I was not alone. The ideas illuminated by The Joy Luck Club made clear that rejecting my heritage was a mistake and that my experience at camp was just a glimpse into the value of being Asian-American. Your book brought forth something new in me: pride in my difference.

For much of my life I have strived to ease myself of the weight of a burden I didn’t ask for. But I realize now that this burden is not a burden at all: it is a dimension of myself, one of the many facets that enhances who I am. Although I cannot say that I have completely reconciled the different parts of myself, this is not an endeavor I can complete overnight. But this journey is important. Because I am American. Because I am Chinese. Because I am proud.

Thank you,

Lauren Aung

Letters About Literature Texas 2018 Winners page

Page last modified: March 22, 2018