Jing-mei is on a train to China, traveling with her seventy-two-year-old father, Canning Woo. As the train enters Shenzhen, China, Jing-mei begins to "feel Chinese." Their first stop will be Guangzhou. Like her father, Jing-mei is weeping for joy. After her mother's death, a letter arrived from China from her mother's twin daughters from her first marriage. These were the two children whom she was forced to abandon on the side of the road in 1944.
Jing-mei's father asked Auntie Lindo to write back to the girls and tell them that their mother was dead. Instead, Auntie Lindo took the letter to the Joy Luck Club. Together, the women answered the letter, signing Suyuan Woo's name to it. Jing-mei agrees that she should be the one to tell her half-sisters about their mother's death. But after dreaming about the scene many times, she begs Auntie Lindo to write a letter to the sisters explaining that their mother is dead. Auntie Lindo does so.
The train pulls into the station, and the visitors are met by Canning's great-aunt. The reunion is emotional. Other relatives join them. Jing-mei wins her young cousin Lili over with instant photographs from her Polaroid camera. They soon arrive at a magnificent hotel, much grander than Jing-mei had expected. Jing-mei is anxious to have her first real Chinese feast; however, the native-born Chinese family decides that they want to eat American — hamburgers, French fries, and apple pie à la mode in the hotel room.
Late that night, Canning explains that his wife's name, "Suyuan," has two different meanings, depending on how it is written. Written one way, it means "Long-Cherished Wish"; written another way, it means "Long-Held Grudge." He further explains that Jing-mei's name means that she is, first, a pure essence, and second, that she is a younger sister. Her name makes her the essence of her two sisters. He then tells her the story of how her mother, Suyuan, abandoned Jing-mei's half-sisters.
Suyuan walked for three days, hoping to escape the Japanese invasion. Her hands began to bleed from the weight of her heavy possessions and that of her daughters. She dropped her possessions one by one, continuing to trudge on until she was delirious with pain and fever. She finally fell by the side of the road. Despite her entreaties, no one would take the babies.
Having no other choice, she stuffed jewelry under the shirt of one baby, money under the shirt of the other. Then she put in family pictures and a note and left her daughters to see if she could find food. Soon she fainted and awoke in the back of a truck filled with sick people who were being tended by American missionaries. When she arrived in Chungking, she learned that her husband was dead. She met Canning Woo in the hospital.
The abandoned babies were found by a kindly peasant couple, who raised the girls as their own. When the girls were eight years old, their foster parents tried to find their parents. They located the address of the children's home, but now it was a factory. Meanwhile, Suyuan and Canning had returned to try to find the girls, but their attempts proved fruitless. In 1949, they left for America, but Suyuan never abandoned hope. After she died, a schoolmate saw the twins in a department store and tried to contact Suyuan in America.
Jing-mei sees her sisters as she enters the terminal. At first, they look just like her mother. Later, she sees no trace of her mother — yet the women still look familiar. She sees in them the part of her that is Chinese. Her father takes a picture of the three girls; they look at the Polaroid photograph, and they see that together, they all look like their mother.
This highly emotional ending to the novel is based on a true incident from Tan's life. In 1987, Tan visited her half-sisters in China. At the time, her mother suffered from a dangerous heart condition and had recently suffered an attack of angina. Tan wanted to find out more about her heritage while her mother was still alive. The trip was a turning point in Tan's life. She explained her reaction in a July 4, 1989, interview in the New York Times. For the first time, Tan "felt a sense of completeness, like having a mother and a father," she said. "It was instant bonding," she continued. "There was something about this country that I belonged to. I found something about myself that I never knew was there." Her fictional creation, Jing-mei, shares the same reaction.
Through her meeting with her half-sisters, Jing-mei finds her heritage, her identity. At first, she is startled that her half-sisters look so much like her mother. Then she sees that there is no real resemblance at all. Finally, she realizes what makes them look so familiar lies beneath mere facial features. It lies deep in the blood. This theme reaches its climax in the final image of the book. It is only when the three sisters are together that they look like their mother. They share "her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish." Their mother's name — "Long-Cherished Wish" — has become truth.
This concept dovetails with the theme of appearance and reality, as well. The three sisters are their mother — and yet they are not. They look like her, yet they do not. Tan resolves the disparity by implying that there is no difference between appearance and reality: They are the same thing. Furthermore, such notions don't really matter; all that counts is the blood, the heritage. In effect, Jing-mei has bridged the generation gap.
Ironically, Jing-mei became like her mother long before she was aware of it. Like her mother, she was determined to get her money's worth. She was furious at what she perceives to be a mistake in their hotel booking. "I had explicitly instructed my travel agent to choose something inexpensive, in the thirty-to-forty-dollar range. I'm sure of this," she fumes. "Well, our travel agent had better be prepared to eat the extra, that's all I have to say." Her feelings match those of her mother when she had to deal with recalcitrant tenants or the local fish merchants. This characterization also serves to tie together the theme of transformations and the motif of the fairy tale.
Although the story of the half-sisters is based on truth, it has the ring of a fairy tale. Recall how Tan describes the twin babies as "little fairy queens waiting for their sedan to arrive." In keeping with this motif, the twins are left with jewels and money and possess a placid, regal nature. They sit quietly by the side of the road. As in a fairy tale, the princesses are taken in by honest peasants who raise them as their own children. The peasants see the girls as a sign of double good luck because they are twins. It's a classic fairy tale: the fairy queens left by the side of the road to be raised by poor peasants in a cave. The recognition scene also picks up on a fairy tale ending: like Cinderella, it involves shoes. Tan adds a contemporary twist that is a delicious bit of humor: the twins are shopping for shoes in a department store, not trying on shoes left behind at a ball, when they are discovered and recognized as being the daughters of the courageous Suyuan.
The structure of the ending unifies the book. Not only does this chapter pick up where the first chapter left off, but it also uses the same point of view and narrator. It continues the use of parallelism evident throughout the book, but most especially in "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away." Technical considerations aside, The Joy Luck Club is storytelling at its very best.