Essay: Half and Half by Amy Tan

By positioning an obviously spurious myth at the structural opening of “Half and Half”, Tan gives her own text a false originary moment and thus further critiques the notion of origins. The duplicity of this opening structurally and symbolically undermines the text’ s status as an “immigration novel” that could somehow refer to and represent the “authentic” female immigrant experience.

Rose Hsu Jordan defiantly labels herself an American when her mother objects to her dating Ted Jordan on the grounds that he is an American. The daughters manage to succeed somewhat in blending into the mainstream: they refuse to learn to speak Chinese; unlike thousands of other Asian Americans they are not physicians or engineers (they are a restaurant designer who majored in Asian American studies in college, an advertising copywriter who is a college dropout, a tax lawyer, and a graphics production assistant); they marry men whom their mothers consider to be foreigners because they are not Chinese.

But the price that the daughters pay for their assimilation is their nagging sense of unease in the identities that they have laboriously created for themselves. Worse yet, as Rose notes, another cost of assimilation is the miscommunications between the mothers and daughters. Without a language in which both the mothers and their daughters are fluent, the mothers cannot share the stories and the wisdom that can help their daughters to feel comfortable in their cultural contexts.

Chinese Americans, along with other Americans of Asian origin, must frequently confront discrimination and prejudice, or, at the very least, stereotyping that is an insidious form of racism. In “Half and Half”, Amy Tan illustrates one form of racism through Rose Hsu’s encounter with her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Jordan, who carefully explains why Rose must not marry Ted.

Assuring Rose that the Jordans–unlike other unnamed people–are open-minded and harbor no prejudice against minorities, Mrs. Jordan further confides that she and Mr. Jordan personally know many fine people who are Oriental. She reveals also that their circle of acquaintances includes even individuals of Hispanic or African American ancestry.

Reminding Rose that Ted wants to be a physician and that physicians and their wives have to conform to certain social expectations, Mrs. Jordan remarks that “it is so unfortunate … how unpopular the Vietnam War is” (18). Thus she implies that by continuing the relationship with Ted, Rose would certainly jeopardize his chances for a successful medical career.

When Mrs. Jordan points out that she is “personally” acquainted with many “fine” minority individuals, she inadvertently reveals a bigotry that is so ingrained in her that she is unaware of its existence. She further displays her insensitivity by suggesting through her reference to the Vietnam War that all Asians are interchangeable – a common misperception and one that disturbs most Americans of Asian origin.

We do need to note that prejudice is not the exclusive property of the dominant culture; in her own fashion, Rose’s mother is no less bigoted than Mrs. Jordan. On meeting Ted Jordan for the first time, An-mei Hsu cautions Rose against the relationship, voicing her disapproval of the young man by identifying him as a waigoren, a foreigner, thus relegating Ted to marginal status in her own – and, she hopes, her daughter’s-Chinatown culture. Like Mrs. Jordan, An-mei Hsu fears that she might lose her child, and by extension her grandchildren, to someone from an alien culture.

By placing a false myth of origin-which refers only to other illusory origins-in the inaugural pages of her text, Tan implies metaphorically that the story can never be said to recover any sort of authentic, definitive experience. In searching for the originary moment of Tan’s writing, contrary to the “original creative act”. Through this self-conscious performance, the novel argues that any claims of ethnic and/or national authenticity are suspect; they can only be said to allude intertextually to other discursive constructions.

Tan’s structural opening is additionally significant in that it acts as a synecdoche for the thematic concerns of the novel. Through its preoccupation with a search for authenticity, origin, and/or the defining moment of one’s identity, the story helps us to recognize links between structure and thematic origins. This thematic interest in beginnings is placed in dialogue with the text’s structural openings, reinforcing its cultural critique.

For example, Suyuan Woo, who has already died as the novel opens, has spent her entire life in an unsuccessful quest to recover the fateful moment when she left her babies on the roadside in Kweilin while fleeing from the invasion of Japanese soldiers. Symbolically, she tells her daughter Jing Mei (June): “The East is where things begin, … the direction from which the sun rises, where the wind comes from” (22).

An-Mei Hsu is also preoccupied with a quest. Her narrative tells the story of an attempt to recover the source of her psychic pain as well as a search for a mother who was absent for much of her childhood. She speaks of this past as a wound: “That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much.

And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain” (40). And Ying Ying St. Clair, who is similarly in search of a lost self, remembers the sense of loss that accompanied her youth: “The farther we glided, the bigger the world became. And I now felt I was lost forever” (79). (7)

Despite the almost compulsive search for origin and identity displayed by the stories within this novel, each quest in its own way repudiates the existence of its goal. For example, although Suyuan claims that the East is where all begins, we learn that this “East” is not static; in fact, it moves and changes just as her Kweilin story changes each time she tells it.

Whereas the major problem for the older generation had been the struggle against fate, the younger generation perceives their essential difficulty to involve the making of choices. The problem, as Rose Hsu Jordan defines it, is that America offers too many choices, “so much to think about, so much to decide. Each decision meant a turn in another direction.” (22)

1. Tan, A. 1. Selected short stories. New York: Random House, 1989.

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