To June Woo, the mothers who treasure the evenings that they spend together at the Joy Luck Club seem little more than elderly, middle-class women in their "slacks, bright print blouses, and different versions of sturdy walking shoes." Yet we know now that the life of June's mother, Suyuan, was repeatedly torn by tragedy. In a similar fashion, this chapter illustrates that the same is true of An-mei, the woman who sits in the south corner of the mah jong game, the woman characterized by June Woo as a "short bent woman in her seventies, with a heavy bosom and thin, shapeless legs." An-mei suffered tragedies of her own, just as did her own mother.
In a flashback to An-mei's childhood, we see that An-mei's mother was not the "fallen woman" that people told little An-mei that she was. Rather than being cold and uncaring, she deeply loved her small daughter — despite the fact that she abandoned An-mei, and the little girl had to be raised by her grandmother, Popo, her younger brother, and her uncle and aunt in their large, cold house in Ningpo.
In the flashback, An-mei's father is dead, and Popo wants An-mei to also think of her mother as dead because she brought great disgrace to the family by becoming a number-three concubine. It is clear that Popo loves her granddaughter, but she doesn't realize that her scary stories about children who do not obey adult authority frighten little An-mei and her brother.
For example, to protect her grandchildren from evil spirits, Popo tells them that they came from unwanted eggs of a stupid goose; they came from eggs so valueless that they weren't fit to be "cracked over rice porridge." An-mei believes this tale — literally; later, when her mother arrives unexpectedly, An-mei notes that her mother has a long neck "just like the goose that had laid me." Here, Tan extends her original parable of the duck who became more; An-mei's long-necked, goose-like mother transformed herself into something quite different — something entirely inappropriate, according to Grandmother Popo.
To An-mei, her mother looks strange, "like the missionary ladies." Her face is a dark shadow when An-mei first sees her; she seems insolent and bossy, and her foreign clothes and high-heeled shoes suggest evil, suggest a woman worthy of contempt — exactly as Popo and Auntie described her in their many tales about her to An-mei. However, the woman's tenderness toward little An-mei and her uncontrolled wailing at the memory of An-mei's being accidentally burned belie her Western — thus, suspect — appearance.
Tan's tapestry of narrative again unfolds yet another picture of uncomfortable identity and traditions of heritage. To honor Popo in the ancient, accepted way, in an attempt to save her from dying, An-mei's mother makes a physical sacrifice. Communication has been severed between An-mei's mother and Popo just as it was between June Woo and her mother. Now, An-mei's mother severs part of her own flesh to enrich the soup that she hopes will heal Popo.
In this scene, An-mei realizes that if one is to discover one's identity, one's heritage, one must metaphorically "peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until then, there is nothing." Nothing, that is, except the scar. An-mei herself bears a scar, a reminder of the day that her mother came to Popo's house and cried out, begging An-mei to come with her. Popo had damned her own daughter — and at that moment, a pot of dark boiling soup spilled on tiny An-mei.
The little girl almost died; she would have, in fact, if Popo hadn't revealed the love that she carried in her heart — but could not demonstrate — for An-mei's mother. Gently, she warned An-mei that if she did not get well, her mother would forget her. An-mei immediately began her recovery. Each of the daughters in this novel will, in individual ways, undergo this process of healing the divisiveness that separates them from their mothers.
Tan's figurative language and imagery reinforce the magical, fairy-tale atmosphere that is threaded throughout the narrative. The images create an enchanted mood, where all sorts of strange things seem possible. This section opens with the image of An-mei's mother as a ghost. Popo tells the children about ghosts that steal strong-willed little girls. Later, An-mei's mother seems "to float back and forth like a ghost." Accordingly, in this fairy-tale world, it shocks Western readers initially when An-mei's mother slices a piece of her own flesh into a pot of soup — and yet, it seems appropriate if she is to successfully create a healing charm. The child understands the meaning of this sacrifice.
So you see, to Popo we were also very precious People from non-Western cultures often refuse to praise their children for fear that a vengeful god will seek retribution. They also follow specific rituals in order to ensure their children's safety from such spirits. Some Italian people, for example, wear charms to ward off evil spirits; some Jewish people hang a red ribbon on a baby's crib to protect the child from harm.
number-three concubine Polygamy is a form of marriage in which a person has more than one mate. Polygamy has been widely practiced at various times by many people throughout the world but has never been the norm. Usually only rich and powerful men have more than one wife. Polygamy sometimes results in the maintenance of separate households for each wife, as in some wealthy, pre-revolutionary Chinese families. The shared household was more frequent — especially with Muslims and many Native American tribes before the colonization of America. Polygamy is still common in some Muslim countries and in parts of Africa, but the practice is illegal in most of the world. Concubinage is a form of polygamy. The concubine's status is inferior to that of the primary wife. Her status declines the further removed she is from the primary wife. A number-three concubine, therefore, would have almost no status at all within the household. This practice was legal at one time in many countries, including pre-revolutionary China.