The first time I saw The Joy Luck Club,was at the local mall with my roommates when I was 20. I cried so hard, I couldn't speak. There was no doubt I had just seen a stunning re-tell of my history; the stories I'd never been told.
I saw the movie again a few years later, this time with my sister and our Chinese mother. And the tears came again, perhaps even more so, as we witnessed our mother's reaction to a story closer to her heart than ours.
Before I wrote this post, I watched it once more.
The sounds of my grandmother, aunties, cousins, sister and mom, as we gathered around tables piled with food and competitively clucked about who was taller, smarter, prettier and most likely to find a successful husband, came rushing back.
Our mother was always more cat than tiger. Sure, she had her rules. Good grades? Yes. Good manners? Always. Respect? Absolutely. But play dates, slumber parties, hours of free play? Too many to count.
Her own mother was a tigress in every respect. Twice widowed, once in her 30s and then again in her 40s, she gave birth to 13 children. She immigrated from China to Hong Kong and did not have an easy life. She lost two children to illness and was left to raise and provide for those remaining on her own.
She was forced to make desperate and difficult choices. She was hard on them. She expected a lot.
Watching the film as a parent filled me with questions about my mother's childhood. She said even with so many siblings, it could be lonely. There were restrictions, expectations, and comparisons that left some of them feeling less valued than others.
Even though it was the Chinese way, she told me, it wasn't good enough for her own children. And even though it was often a struggle to let go of her Chinese ways, she tried. When I look back, I can see how many times she succeeded.
There's a scene in the movie that resonated each time I watched it. I don't know any Chinese daughter who wouldn't identify with this powerful exchange between mother and daughter. I can see myself, my mother and even my own children in the daughter's plea for acceptance free of expectation.
My sister and I were pushed to succeed and failure meant disappointment. We were compared, oh yes, definitely that. But we spoke out and we were always heard. An agreement wasn't always reached, but compromises were made. We always felt valued and loved. And I'm grateful for that.
We also had the fortune of knowing a different woman in our grandmother. Perhaps the burden of raising children had been lifted and, in this role, even with the barrier of language between us, she was able to give unconditional love.
Yesterday, we gathered our family together to celebrate the eve of our new year. I sat with my mom and sister and watched our children perform their yearly interpretation of the Chinese dragon dance. We exchanged envelopes of lai see. We ate, laughed, and prepared to welcome the spirits of our ancestors.
I come from the heart of many tigers and have this story to share with my daugthers. My mother tried to quiet her tiger heart and she raised us to do the same. But it's still there inside each of us. Every roar the sound of hope.