Chinese American Women, Language, and Moving Subjectivity

By Chen, Victoria | Women and Language, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Chinese American Women, Language, and Moving Subjectivity


Chen, Victoria, Women and Language


To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Philosophical Investigations

It was not until the 1970s that Asian American literature became recognized as a separate canon and a "new tradition" of writing. While this "new" form of expression created a new political consciousness and identity, the images and stories that abound in pioneer literature such as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and China Men are paradoxically located in "recovered" ethnic history (Lim, 1993, p. 573). More recently, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club also takes the reader through a journey back to a specific set of ethnic memories as the mothers in the stories interweave their experiences struggling for survival and dignity in China and for coherence and hope in America. Part of the reason for the celebration of Asian American women's literature is that it provides an alternative way to think about issues such as language, subjectivity, cultural voice, and ethnic/gender identity.

For Chinese American women such as Kingston, Tan, and the female characters in The Joy Luck Club, speaking in a double voice and living in a bicultural world characterize their dual cultural enmeshment.(1) While striving to maintain a relationship with their Chinese immigrant parents, the Chinese American daughters also live in a society where one is expected to speak in a "standard" form of English and to "succeed" in the middle class Euro-American way. For Kingston and Tan, writing about their immigrant mothers' neglected pasts and their own tumultuous presents becomes a powerful way to recreate heir own identities as Chinese Americans and to confront the dilemma of living biculturally in a society that insists on a homogeneous identity. If a language indeed is intrinsically connected with a form of life, and speaking and writing in a given language necessitates one to participate in that cultural world, how then do these Chinese American women authors position themselves in linguistic/cultural borderlands through the use of language? What are some forms of language and life that make their storytelling possible and intelligible? How do different languages function in their own lives and in their storytelling? How do they use languages to interweave and mediate their multiple identities? This essay attempts to address some of these issues. I will draw upon essays written by and about Kingston and Tan as well as narratives from The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior in my discussion.

Amy Tan (1991) in her essay "Mother Tongue" discusses that as someone who has always loved language, she celebrates using "all the Englishes I grew up with" (p. 196) in her living and her writing. The English that she hears from her mother, despite it's "imperfection," has become their "language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with" (p. 197). There is a discrepancy, both linguistically and culturally, between the "standard" English that she learns from school and uses in her professional world and the "simple" and "broken" English (p. 201) that is used in her interaction with her mother. However, as Tan points out, speaking her mother's version of English gives her bicultural insight and strength, and she sees the beauty and wisdom in her mother's language: "Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery" (p. 198); "I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts" (p. 202). Kingston also grew up in two languages, her family's Chinese dialect and the public American English in which she was educated. The Woman Warrior reveals the disjunction that Kingston experienced in moving between these two languages. While her mother marked her growing up with stories of nameless Chinese women, multiple cultural ghosts, Kingston wrote, "To make my waking life American-normal. …

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