A Hero of An-Mei Hsu

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The Hero’s Journey: An-mei Hsu

Heroes can be found in almost every genre of literature from every time period. What makes heroes entertaining is that each hero finds a different way to complete daring, superhuman feats to reach his or her end goal. Joseph Campbell, a prominent writer, describes heroes as those “…who has given his life to something bigger than himself” in an interview. He has boiled down the formula for a successful hero to what he calls the Hero’s Journey, which consists of three main sections. First is the departure into the unknown from the hero’s comfort zone. Next, the hero must overcome trials and tribulations in order to mature and to reach the third stage, the hero’s end goal. This end goal, or what Campbell deems “the return” is almost always either to recover something he has lost or to attain a life-giving elixir. In the novel The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, the character An-Mei Hsu struggles with finding her own sense of identity throughout her life in both China and America. By leaving her family with to live with her mother, facing grievous challenges in both America and China; and passing her wisdom of autonomy to her daughter, An-Mei masterfully embodies the departure into unfamiliarity, fulfillment in the toughest of trials, and return with a life-changing elixir – the three elements that constitute the Hero’s Journey.

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An-mei begins her journey when, as a young girl, she leaves the family that she’s known her entire life to live with her mother, a woman ostracized by her relatives for becoming a lowly concubine. Shamed by her relatives for being a child of an unfaithful woman, An-mei at first is resentful of her mother. “…I imagined my mother, a thoughtless woman…happy to be free…I felt unlucky that she was my mother and unlucky that she had left us” (Tan, pg. 44). An-mei is told by her Popo, or grandmother, that her mother was a woman who bowed with humiliation and could not lift her head up – a woman with no face. However, when her mother arrives to honor the ailing Popo, An-mei finds that her mother is far from without face. An-mei witnesses her mother carve flesh from her arm to put into a soup for her dying Popo in a heroic attempt to save a loved one, the ultimate act of daughterly love. An-mei discovers that her mother was not a disrespectful woman, but a woman who resonates “…shou so deep it is in your bones” (pg. 48). Even though she had been shunned and shamed by her family, An-mei’s mother still returns to see her own critically ill mother. This is an act of raw love – no matter how much An-mei’s mother had been humiliated, she came back for the woman who raised her up. This is a striking contrast from the mother that An-mei had always heard stories about – unlike the subservient, dishonorable woman in the tales told to An-mei by relatives, her actual mother was a woman who was both courageous and respectful. Thus, as her mother is leaving, An-mei decides to join her mother and leave “…this unhappy place” (Tan, 43) for the house of Wu Tsing, the man who had taken her mother in as a concubine. Her mother’s arrival into her life marks a clear divide between An-mei’s old life with her relatives and her new life in an unfamiliar home.

Following her departure into her new life with her mother, An-mei faces and overcomes difficult trials that would ultimately lead her to finding her own identity. After settling in for a few days in her new home, An-mei is brought to see Wu Tsing’s Second Wife. An-mei’s first impression of Second Wife is a good one: Second Wife gives her a pearl necklace as a gift upon her return home. Although her mother protests, Second Wife puts the necklace around An-mei’s neck. An-mei exclaims, “I could see…She did not like Second Wife…Yet I had this reckless feeling. I was overjoyed that Second Wife had shown me this special favor” (Tan, pg. 231). The naive thirteen-year-old An-mei is taken aback by Second Wife’s gesture, for Second Wife has given her easily the most valuable item that An-mei has ever owned. Never has she been on the receiving end of such a generous act of kindness. However, her mother urges her to be careful, telling An-mei, “‘What you hear is not genuine. She makes clouds with one hand, rain with the other. She is trying to trick you, so you will do anything for her…I will not let her buy you for such a cheap price’” (Tan, pg. 231). An-mei’s mother then proceeds to take the pearl necklace out of An-mei’s unwilling hands and steps on it. When she lifts the necklace back up, An-mei realizes that the pearls were actually made of glass. Second Wife had almost “…bought my heart and mind…”(Tan, pg 231) with a fraud of a necklace. Her mother instead gives her a beautiful sapphire ring to remind An-mei of her own self-worth, something that no one can take away. An-mei’s mother later also reveals to An-mei that the child Second Wife calls her own is An-mei’s biological brother – she had been raped by Wu Tsing and forced to give up her son to Second Wife. When she tried to return to her old home, no one believed that she had not given Wu Tsing consent, and she was shunned by her own family. Having lost her face, An-mei’s mother did not want her own daughter to become like her. Thus, in crushing the glass pearl, An-mei’s mother teaches An-mei to become someone who can find herself within even a web of lies, a person who will not be swayed easily.

After finding out the truth about her mother, An-mei comes to realize that this new life of hers, although lavish, is not necessarily a happy one; her mother is just another concubine, virtually powerless in the household. An-mei’s mother, although quietly defiant, is rendered helpless against the will of Second Wife. Trapped in a corner, An-mei’s mother comes to the conclusion that the only solution is to “eat her own bitterness…to kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one” (Tan, pg. 240). She decides to commit suicide two days before the lunar new year. In Chinese custom, the third day after a person’s death, his or her soul returns to settle scores; in An-mei’s mother’s case, this third day was the first day of the lunar new year. Since it is the new year, any and all debts must be repaid, or misfortune would follow. As a result, Wu Tsing promises to raise An-mei and her brother up as his honored children, revering An-mei’s mother as if she had been his only wife. By killing her “weak spirit”, An-mei’s mother gives An-mei power over Second Wife: “…on that day, I showed Second Wife the fake pearl necklace…on that day, Second Wife’s hair began to turn white. And on that day, I learned to shout” (Tan, pg. 240). An-mei overcomes oppression in her household, but not without help from her mother, who sacrificed her own life to give her children better lives. However, An-mei does not only face trials in China.

An-mei also faces challenges in the country she immigrates to with her husband: America. As Rose, her daughter, states, although An-mei and her husband came to America not knowing an ounce of English, “…their belief in their nengkan, or ability to do anything they put their minds to, had brought [them] to America. It had enabled them to have seven children and buy a house in the Sunset district with very little money” (Tan, pg. 121). An-mei, who became a devout Baptist in America, believes that God was by her side. That is, she did until an event that turns her whole life upside down occurs. On a fishing trip with her seven children, An-mei assigns Rose to watch the younger half of the family. However, Rose looks away for a few minutes from the youngest child, four-year-old Bing, and he falls into the ocean. An-mei searches frantically for her child, pleading God, “Forgive us for his bad manners…now I have come to take Bing back” (pg. 128). An-mei even throws a sapphire ring, a precious gift from her mother, into the ocean in an attempt to bring back her lost son. Her faith in the power of human will is rooted in the trials that she overcame in China. However, losing Bing is one trial that, no matter how hard she willed it to happen, An-mei cannot return from. After that event, she stops going to church and uses her Bible as a wedge to prop up a table’s uneven leg. Bing’s death is one of the lowest points in her life, rivaling the death of her mother. However, years later, when her daughter Rose picks up the Bible wedged under a table with uneven legs, she finds in a section called “Deaths”, her mother had written “‘Bing Hsu, lightly, in erasable pencil” (Tan, pg. 131). This demonstrates how her mother still values her faith enough to find meaning in the act of writing Bing’s name in the Holy Book. The erasable pencil also testifies that An-mei did not lose her nengkan completely – she still believes that humans have the power to take control over their own lives.

An-mei, in the final chapter of her hero’s journey, teaches her daughter the importance of independence. An-mei sees in Rose the same quality of her mother, that of being “without wood”, a dependency on others that led to her mother’s downfall. An-mei, who saw her mother put her flesh into soup for her Popo and witnessed her mother’s sacrifice of her weak spirit in order for An-mei to become strong, believes that the bond between a mother and a daughter is stronger than any other. When Rose tells An-mei that her marriage with Ted is falling apart, An-mei notices that “…all she can do is watch it falling…she will lie there until there is nothing more to fall, nothing left to cry about, everything dry” (Tan, pg. 215). In this way, Rose echoes An-mei’s mother, who, tired of her powerless suffering in an oppressive household tells herself that there is no other choice than to commit suicide to end her own misery. However, Rose has not reached that point yet, and An-mei is determined to show Rose her own self-worth. An-mei attests that the similarity between her daughter and her mother is because “…[Rose] was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us like stairs, one step after another…but all going the same way” (Tan, pg. 215). An-mei’s belief in the bond between mothers and daughters also helps her realize that she can free her daughter from the rubble of her dysfunctional marriage by urging her to take a stand, for “If she doesn’t try, she can lose her chance forever” (Tan, pg. 215). To complete her return, An-mei influences Rose to stand up to Ted, her ex-husband, and take back her home.

An-mei Hsu leads a life that epitomizes the Hero’s Journey. She leaps into the unknown by leaving her family with her mother, a concubine for a wealthy man. In her new home, she learns her own self-worth from her mother, but she also has to cope with her mother’s death. However, she eventually learns to utilize her mother’s gift of opportunity to stand up against Second Wife’s oppression. Her life in America is also troubled, for she has to cope with the loss of her youngest son Bing. An-mei nonetheless finds a way to let go of Bing and returns to teach her daughter the importance of independence. An-mei throughout her life, perseveres through obstacles to emerge as a mother with a strong identity. Her belief in the power of human will has been a driving force in her ability to overcome the most difficult of challenges in her life, and it is a characteristic that defines An-mei as not only a strong character, but also as a hero.

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