Free Study Guide: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan - BookNotes

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Ying-ying St. Clair - Waiting Between the Trees


This chapter revisits many of the same events told in Rice Husband, but from a different perspective. Ying-ying the mother tells this story; Lena, the daughter, told the Rice Husband tale. Amy Tan uses this technique of varied points of view throughout the book. It helps to unify the whole novel. It also emphasizes the lack of communication between the Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters. Since the daughters never seem to know the whole story, they are forced to live in a world of appearances, since the reality has been hidden from them.

When Ying-ying visits Lena and Harold in their new home, she judges it to be overpriced and poorly built. Though Ying-ying is put in a fashionable guest bedroom, she is upset because the room is small; the Chinese custom is to give the guest the best room in the house. Ying-ying is also upset because she thinks the house is about to fall apart. She is entirely unimpressed by the modern conveniences and architectural wonders that her son-in-law likes so much.

During her visit, Ying-ying sees quite clearly that her daughter is unhappy in her marriage. She also realizes that Harold is too busy and self-centered to notice Lena’s misery. Ying-ying knows that her daughter is suffering a fate that she suffered many years, for she also had a miserable marriage. She admits to the reader that she was a rebellious girl from a wealthy family. She compares her youthful self to a tigress -- full of fire and heat; she was “waiting between the trees” to pounce on something she liked.

As a young girl of sixteen, Ying-ying attended the wedding of her aunt and met the man who was soon to become her husband. He was drunk, and in his drunkenness, he tried to attract Ying-ying by plunging a knife into a watermelon. The crude act was suggestive of the piercing of a young girl’s virginity. When the man wooed her with words of love and flattery, the young Ying-ying fell for his charms completely. Shortly afterwards, Ying-ying married him. When her husband learned she was to have a baby, he left her for another woman. Ying-ying was devastated. She felt she had no choice but to have an abortion. She then went to Shanghai to live with her cousins and spent ten years in poverty. She finally left the squalor of her cousins, moved to the city, and worked as a shop assistant, trying to erase her past. While working in Shanghai, she met an American, Clifford St. Clair. He courted her for many years, but Ying-ying would not marry him. Then when she heard that her first husband was dead, she consented to Clifford’s proposal and moved to America with him. She soon gave birth to Lena.

Just as Harold is blind to Lena, she is blind to her mother. Completely unaware of her mother’s past, Lena does not know about the wealth, the first marriage, or the abortion; instead, she knows only that her father rescued her mother from an unhappy life. Lena also does not know that for many years her mother did not even love her father, for she did not have the emotional strength to care for a man.


In this chapter Ying-ying presents another point of view of the story narrated by Lena in The Rice Husband. In that chapter Lena commented on her mother’s ability to see things before they happen. In this chapter, Ying-ying admits, “I know a thing before it happens.” She explains that even in her youth she could sense something before it came to pass. During her visit with her daughter, Ying-ying admits that she knows and understands much more about Lena’s unhappy marriage than Lena is willing to tell her.

The modern and affluent life-style of Lena fails to make a favorable impact on Ying-ying. Although Lena and Harold have spent a fortune in converting a barn into a fashionable and artistic house, Ying-ying feels like they spent too much money; she also believes that house is so poorly constructed that it is about to fall down. In addition, Ying-ying feels insulted that she was given the small guestroom in which to stay. Chinese tradition is to give the best room to the guest.

Like other mothers of The Joy Luck Club, Ying-ying had experienced pain and anguish in China before coming to America. Early in life, she had committed the mistake of marrying in haste and regretting it later. When she became pregnant, her husband left her for another woman. Ying-ying felt she had no choice but to abort the baby. But the abandonment by her husband, followed by the abortion, has left Ying-ying with deep emotional scars. She does not want Lena to have the same kind of scars, and she knows that if she does not do something about her miserable marriage, she will be scarred.

The title of the chapter, Waiting Between the Trees, refers to Ying-ying as a youth, as well as Ying-ying today. As a youth, she described her self as a fiery tigress waiting to pounce on something she desired. When the drunk, lecherous man at the wedding flirts with her, Ying-ying, feeling ready to pounce, falls for his charms. She soon marries the man and experiences great misery when he abandons her. Now as an old woman, Ying-ying feels she is again “waiting between the trees.” This time she wants to pounce on an opportunity to provoke some positive action in her daughter. She cannot bear to see Lena living in such misery.

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The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Book Notes Summary

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