This Movie Changed Me

Amy S. Choi

The Joy Luck Club

Last Updated

October 30, 2018


You don’t see many Asian leads in Western cinema, that’s why The Joy Luck Club’s all-Asian cast was so radical. Its portrayal of complicated mother-daughter relationships and the immigrant experience spoke to Amy Choi as a child — and again as a mother.

Guest

Image of Amy S. Choi

Amy S. Choi is the co-founder and editorial director of The Mash-Up Americans — a podcast, website, and newsletter about the tangle of culture, race, identity, and religion. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Women’s Wear Daily, and TED, among others. Amy is also the co-head of podcasts at Hello Sunshine. We recommend her deeply moving Shondaland piece, “A Letter to My Daughter About Heroes.”

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Amy Choi from The Mash-Up Americans about the movie that changed her life, The Joy Luck Club. It’s okay if you haven’t seen it; we’re gonna give you all the details you need to follow along.

But before we get started, a special shout-out to our New York City friends! We’ll be recording a live episode of our podcast as part of the Werk It Podcast Festival from WNYC Studios. We’re partnering with NewFest’s LGBT Film Festival, and I’ll be speaking with the fantastic writer, performer, and comedian, Justin Sayre about the movie that changed his life, Auntie Mame. It’s going to be a wonderful conversation, so join us on November 14 at 7pm at The Greene Space. You can buy tickets now at werkitevents.com.

[music: “The Story of the Swan” by Rachel Portman]

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

The Joy Luck Club is based on this beautiful book by the writer Amy Tan, and it tells the story of four different women who emigrated from China who moved to San Francisco. All four of them have different lives, different stories to tell, but they all share the same thing in that they’re the mothers of grown, Chinese-American daughters. Throughout the movie we see the stories of the mothers and the daughters intertwine and clash.

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

[music: “End Titles” by Rachel Portman]

When I first watched this movie when it came out in 1993, I was too young to really understand the special nature of what I was watching: this secret world of women on screen together in every scene talking about who they are and their dreams and their hopes. Even though I watched the movie with my mother, herself an immigrant, and myself an immigrant as well, and could relate to the experiences I was seeing on screen — the way that our cultures clash with American culture and the history of what we carry within us always and we can’t leave behind — it wasn’t until watching it now that I realized just what a privilege it is to be able to spend time with these women and hear their stories and understand that it’s a secret club I get to belong to.

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

[music: “The Story of the Swan” by Rachel Portman]

Amy Choi knows what it’s like to be part of that secret club. When she first saw The Joy Luck Club, she felt seen for the first time. The women on screen, even though they were Chinese and Chinese-American, and she herself is Korean-American — she’d never seen Asian women on screen reflecting back her own experience and her family’s experience. It has ended up being a source of inspiration for her work as a writer and also as the creator of The Mash-Up Americans, a podcast, a website, and a community that has been all about how it is that you reconcile your identity as an American and also as an immigrant.

Ms. Percy: I’d like you to take just a moment. I want to ask you close your eyes and think about the first time that you saw The Joy Luck Club: how old you were, where you were, how it made you feel. Then I’ll chime in after the ten seconds are up.

Amy Choi: OK.

Ms. Percy: So what memories came up for you as you were thinking about that?

Ms. Choi: By the way, ten seconds feels very long.

Ms. Percy: Right? That’s when you realize — let me tell you, my struggle with meditation is real. I’m like, what? This isn’t done yet? It’s only been 20 seconds? I’m done.

Ms. Choi: Oh, my God, yes. That Headspace App, which I try all the time — every three months, I try it again — I’m like, this is not for me. I’m just designed to be high-strung for the rest of my life.

Ms. Percy: Just don’t. Accept it.

Ms. Choi: It was interesting, because I was born in 1979, so I feel like a lot of the late ’80s, ’90s were my formative years. I can’t remember exactly when I saw the movie. I know I read the book before I saw The Joy Luck Club, so it’s one of those things where I don’t remember not knowing that story as an adolescent or as a girl who was falling in love with reading. I will say, I grew up in whitey-white McWhiterson Whitetown. [laughs] I grew up in a fancy suburb in the North Shore of Chicago, only two towns over from the hometown of Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People.

Ms. Percy: Oh, my God. That says a lot.

Ms. Choi: It really does. I lived in the Jewish suburb that was essentially one town over from Lake Forest, where that movie is set. So seeing that on your show was kind of amazing. But it was a lonely way to grow up as the kid of an immigrant, where nobody looked like me except for my family. All of the connections and customs that you get with your community was something that my family had, but it was very much something that was separate from our “real lives.” That was our “Korean life,” or our “Korean family” or our “Korean what-we-did-outside-of-what-our-daily-life-was-like,” which had — me going to school, junior high and high school, there was very little connection to other first-generation people like me. So my memory of seeing the movie for the first time and reading the book — again, as a happy-go-lucky but pretty lonely kid, it was like, “Oh, my God. There are people like me. And they exist out in the world, and they are important enough to have a movie about them.”

The movie, I think, [laughs] it can be heavy-handed in how all the relationships and the pieces in the stories interlock. That said, I think it was also the first time that I realized that my family didn’t exist in a vacuum. The American idea is that you’re remaking yourself all the time, and the story that we had was that we came here to build our lives and give me and my sister opportunity. So it always felt very much like only that moment existed. The movie was the first time I was like, “Oh, right, there were steps and stories that got us here.” And I was connected to all of them because it so clearly, in the film, lays out — we’re not just born fresh. [laughs] We come with ancestors and families and a whole history that’s wound up in that. I think, for me, seeing the movie was pretty mind-blowing for my young self.

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

Ms. Percy: What you’re saying about what we carry with us, I think so much about. I think it’s — correct me if I’m mispronouncing this. Is it An-Mei, Rose’s mother? She says it to her. She said, “I was born to my mother, and I was born a girl, all of us like stairs, one step after another, going up, going down, but always going the same way.” That idea you’re talking about is what we inherit from our parents’ past. This movie, I think the thing that is so remarkable about it, for me, is how it talks about what we inherit as daughters of mothers. But it’s also about what we inherit as children of immigrants.

Ms. Choi: The fucking stairs. I grew up with that feeling of the stairs, and then it wasn’t until re-watching the movie this week that that exact line — I got goosebumps.

Ms. Percy: It stunned me. I was like, holy shit. [laughs] The stairs is a perfect metaphor for this.

Ms. Choi: Yes, and I think in the past couple years, the research coming out about epigenetics and how our actual genes are being informed by the lived experiences of our ancestors to your parents and to our grandparents, and that it transforms us.

Ms. Percy: This movie is like an infomercial for epigenetics. [laughs]

Ms. Choi: Yes. [laughs] And I think part of that is, if we allow ourselves to, we can carry the stories of our families and generations past, or we can try and cut them off. And I think what the movie shows and what I am absorbing as an adult is that cutting them off is not so successful. Even moving across continents doesn’t allow you to not be from where you’re from. [laughs] There’s probably a more eloquent way to say that, but we carry all of this with us, and it’s like, how do we actually integrate it into our lives and try and be whole with it if it’s not a positive experience that you don’t necessarily want to impact you every day?

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

Ms. Percy: Even though I am not Asian, I’m not Chinese, this movie portrays —

Ms. Choi: Are you sure?

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Well, I gotta tell you, watching this movie I was like, “Maybe my mom is Chinese,” because there are things that some of these mothers say that, verbatim, my mother has said. But what I love about the experience of watching it is how it captures what you were talking about in your own family, growing up, about these two different worlds and that there’s very clear lines about where you are, who you are, and where you’re not. For me, I completely related to the women in the movie. At home, you speak your language; at home, you have your culture. And then the outside world, that’s a whole other world that you don’t really let in. So much of what the movie navigates too is, what do you do when you are the daughter of immigrants, and you have this culture and identity, but you’re also dealing with the realities of dating other people who aren’t from this culture and identity?

I love the scene where — I think it’s Waverly introduces her white, Anglo boyfriend to her mom, and her mom just kind of gives her this smile and a look. [laughs] Later on, when they’re in the car — because she’s gonna marry this man, this guy named Rich, he asks her, “How did your mom react when you told her about the wedding?”

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

Ms. Choi: [laughs] She’d rather have rectal cancer. Oh, God, it’s so good. Now, seeing the film with a different sort of critical eye — in all of the current scenes, where the stories are all weaving in and out of this big birthday dinner where all the extended family and friends are all there — you see so many different kinds of Chinese person. And I’m not Chinese; I’m first-generation Korean-American. But to see the varieties, the representations in this film of different archetypes of Asians, so much so that there are no archetypes, is really profound and, thinking back 25 years, so radical.

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

[music: “Concerto in C Major for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, K. 299: II. Andantino” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Mozart Festival Orchestra, Peter Jancovic, Renata Modron, Ernest Bour]

Ms. Percy: I hope you’re enjoying my conversation with Amy about The Joy Luck Club. If you haven’t seen it, we’d love to give you the gift of watching it. Be the first person to email us at tmcm@onbeing.org about the movie, and we’re gonna send you your very own copy. Once again, that’s tmcm@onbeing.org, and thanks for helping us expand our movie-loving empire.

I love watching movies, all kinds of movies, but there’s something especially gratifying about seeing characters or actors that I can relate to as a Colombian-American woman. Feeling seen is at the root of The Mash-Up Americans, a podcast that I love, hosted by Amy Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. The show is by, for, and all about hyphen America: people whose lives cross cultures and identities, like mine, where Spanglish is a native tongue and being able to navigate multiple cultures is celebrated for the superpower that it is. You can listen to The Mash-Up Americans today on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. And make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss my guest spot on their next episode!

Ms. Percy: The other thing that I find so remarkable about this movie — and honestly, I can think of no other movie that captures so clearly my relationship with my own mother — I wrote this, all in capital letters, because I was like, I just gotta say this: the guilt, the constant disappointment, never doing anything good enough to please your mother. This movie captures that feeling and what it feels like for a daughter to feel that.

But something that I saw last night was, you also see how this affects the mothers, how even them, themselves, putting this pressure on their daughters is such a by-product of how they feel about themselves and how this lineage and history has been passed down. I want to put that out there to you. Talk about the guilt, the disappointment, that feeling that the movie captures of never doing the right thing.

Ms. Choi: Yes. I think something about that story that is so raw is that it is supremely honest about that. I carry all of that. I think that’s partially an immigrant thing. I won’t speak for all immigrants, but the story that I grew up with was that my parents came here and sacrificed their lives for me. There’s no greater pressure than that: to succeed and then, also, to succeed in a way that pleases them. It’s that second half of it that I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t know if we’re ever gonna get there.”

I think that that is something that is striking about the experience of watching it as a kid and relating to the girls in it so much, the daughters. Their relationships with their mothers are fraught in very distinct ways. But then you also see, like those stairs, the mothers are also all daughters of other women.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, you see that history portrayed in the movie.

Ms. Choi: What they offer in all of them is a resolution or a flicker of hope that, despite all of the agony, of the guilt, and of never being able to please and wondering if you’re living your life the right way — that there’s a resolution to that, that I think, as a kid, was deeply important to me.

Now as an adult, I don’t know if I’m ever going to have that with my mom. I don’t know if my mom’s ever going to be happy with the life choices I’ve made. I don’t know if my mom is going to feel like the life that I live now is worthy of the sacrifice that she made. That’s kind of a brutal truth of life that’s not the movies. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Yeah, to have to reconcile that, right?

Ms. Choi: Yeah, and what we all crave in life that we get in this movie is that moment where June and her mom, before her mom dies — her mother sees her.

Ms. Percy: She says those words.

Ms. Choi: She actually says it, which is something that I think we hear now, in 2018, that when the book was written in ’88, ’89 was not a thing that people said. That’s the resolution. That’s what we all want in the world as human beings. And the work that I do as a daughter of a mother is to be like, “If that doesn’t happen, I have to be OK with that.”

To then watch the movie as the mother of a daughter and be like, “What do I hope for her? What are the stairs that are part of her staircase?” That kind of broke open those questions for me in a way that I hadn’t thought about.

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

Ms. Percy: Something that I saw last night in re-watching the movie is that idea of hope. They even say in the movie that their connection with each other had to do more with hope than joy or luck. Literally, that’s one of the first things we hear in the movie. At the end of the movie, June’s father tells her that her mother had no hope left for herself because she had lost these two daughters when she was emigrating, getting out of her country, tragically going through this trauma. She had no hope left for herself. Instead, she put all of her hope in her daughter, in this daughter that was born in America.

That idea of hope is something that, honestly, even though it’s so blatant throughout the movie, never struck me when I first saw it as a kid. But now I think about all those hopes and dreams that our parents have for us, not just immigrant parents but parents in general. I wonder how that idea of hope plays a role in your own life as a mother and just even how you view that differently.

Ms. Choi: This is a very lighthearted conversation.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] I know. I feel like we should also say that this movie is really funny. It has a lot of humor in it because there are so many funny moments, because we’re making it sound like such a therapy session. It’s both of those things.

Ms. Choi: Yes, it is all of it. It contains multitudes. That’s why it’s an amazing movie. I’m gonna think about the hope thing, but one thing that, in re-watching it now as a grown-ass person, I was like — listen, they needed a better costumer for the modern-day versions because not that many fucking Asian people are wearing shoes inside the house. In fact, I would venture that zero are. When there are scenes when everybody’s wearing heels in the house at the party —

Ms. Percy: Lies.

Ms. Choi: Lies! All of them. I was like, “Why are they wearing shoes?” Even my husband, my Colombian husband, was like, “They would never be — why are they — I can’t even focus on what’s happening here. Why are they wearing those shoes?”

Ms. Percy: [laughs] You’re so distracted by this. I know. I agree. I agree completely.

Ms. Choi: Yes. It’s wrong. That’s where you needed more Asian people that had opinions that were listened to in the costume choices.

Ms. Percy: I was gonna say, because they had a lot of Asian people working on this movie, but apparently, nobody was listening to them.

Ms. Choi: I know. [laughs] Oh, God, anyway. I needed to get the shoe thing off my chest.

Hope. Well, it’s funny. I don’t think that struck me either as a younger person. And it wasn’t like I watched it one time as a young person. I watched it a million times.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, neither did I. I watched it with my mother. We both cried. We never talked about it, but we both watched it and cried.

Ms. Choi: I obviously never watched it with my mother. [laughs] But when I think about hope now in this particular moment, hope feels both essential, more essential than it did, and it also feels more fragile.

I think that impacts how I parent and how I think about what I hope for my kids and who I hope that they will be. My daughter, who was born in 2015 — I was pregnant with her at a different time. I had a very traumatic pregnancy with her, and then she was sick when she was a baby, which was very scary. She’s always proven to be a fighter, and my hope for her and my goals in how I parent her are very different. Whereas, with my son, our goals are very much to erase traditional masculinity — essentially, to gentle him, because the world will always make him tough or tell him that’s who he’s supposed to be. With my daughter, it’s to shield her from the world making her gentle. I, of course, want her to live a life of service, the way I want for my whole family. But I want her to be a fire. I feel like me being a successful mother to her will be to make sure that neither me — because I think, certainly, mothers have the potential to do this — or the world, dampens that.

[excerpt: The Joy Luck Club]

[music: “An-Mei’s New Home” by Rachel Portman]

Ms. Percy: Amy S. Choi is the co-founder and editorial director of The Mash-Up Americans, an awesome podcast, website, and newsletter that is your guide to hyphen America. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Women’s Wear Daily, and TED, among others. Amy’s also the co-head of podcasts at Hello Sunshine. I highly recommend you check out her deeply moving Shondaland piece, “A Letter to My Daughter About Heroes.” It stayed with me for weeks.

[music: “One Fine Day” by The Chiffons]

This is our last episode of This Movie Changed Me’s first season. We’ve had so much fun. And we’ve loved hearing from you about what you’ve been connecting with, what movies you’ve been watching, and what movies have changed you. If you’ve been digging what we do, don’t worry. We’re going to be back with a second season of life-changing movies in 2019. To make sure you don’t miss our return, subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And more importantly, don’t stop watching movies.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, and Kristin Lin and is an On Being Studios production.

I’m Lily Percy. Winter’s coming, so let the movie binge-watching begin.

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