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Letters About Literature National Winners 2013

National Winner, Level 2: Matilda Lin Berke

Dear Ms. Amy Tan,

When I first opened the red-and-gold, dog-eared cover of your book The Joy Luck Club, I didn’t really know what to expect, mainly because I had no idea what “joy luck” was.  Was it one of the Chinese sayings roughly translated into English that my mom was so fond of using in order to teach me about life?  Was it a phrase created by you in order to describe the people and relations in your book?  Or, was it a combination of words designed to trigger feelings of nostalgia in readers?  Needless to say, I was intrigued

When I was seven or eight, I read your short story The Moon Lady.  Even at that young age, the story’s haunting simplicity struck a chord.  The poignant closing lines in particular resonated somewhere deep within me.  I was moved, although at the time, I couldn’t understand how or why.

To explain this, I need to tell you a little bit about where I come from.  I was born in America, to a Chinese mother and American father, and was raised with the idea that I could be whomever I wanted.  My mother grew up amid smoke and fire:  during the Cultural Revolution.  The Communist Party had deprived her family of most of their possessions and forced her parents to work in factories and on country farms, leaving my mother and her three younger sisters to fend for themselves.  My mother detested the Communist Party and grew up in a state of constant oppression – she was often persecuted for not being “red” (loyal to the government).  At 13, her life was changed forever; she was selected to join a ballet training school.  She knew that this was her only chance to life her family out of poverty; and put all her effort into ballet.  Hard work eventually paid off—she eventually became the prima ballerina, the most valued dancer in the company.  When her ballet company traveled to Australia to perform, she realized the freedom that she had been missing and decided to immigrate to America.  I never quite understood how she could go through so many hardships and still remain cheerful, or why she constantly insisted that I never lose sight or give up on my dreams.

Problems in my life always seemed inadequate and insignificant compared to my mom’s hardships.  At the age when my biggest complaint was typical middle-school angst, my mother was practically taking care of a family.  I could never shake the feeling that it was my duty and obligation to achieve great things, simply because I had to carry on my mom’s “legacy.”  In times of trouble, I always thought “My mom could handle this, so why can’t I?”  This phrase dogged me; I felt like I could never live up to what my mom had achieved, and that anything short of perfection was a disappointment.

While reading your book, however, I came to a sudden epiphany.  I realized that no matter what I did, my mom would always be proud of me, simply because I was her daughter.  There were no typical “tiger mom” expectations placed on me – rather, I discovered that I was the one who dreamed of success.  Through the complex mother-daughter relationships explored and explained in your book, I came to realize that the one thing that drove my mother through all the long practices was not ambition or greed.  Rather, it was love – joy luck – that motivated my mother to push me so hard.  It was because she knew that I could never be happy without achieving my goals.  Because the same joy luck that kept her going through gunfire and death, bleeding feet and darkened studios, inspired her to sacrifice her own feelings for what she knew would ultimately improve her life.

Thanks to you, Ms. Tan, I think I know what joy luck is.  I can probably define it best as “love” or “community”, although as you probably know, many subtleties in the poetry of Chinese are lost when we try to pin concrete words to abstract phrases.  Joy luck can span all gaps of status, culture, age, or language, and it’s really not about joy or luck, although it may bring those.  No – it’s more like a state of mind, a deep understanding that no amount of studying will uncover.  It’s a timid thought that tiptoes from mind to mind, searching for an open door.

Joy luck is about finding beauty in the mundane.  It’s about optimism and love, sorrow and forgiveness.  It’s about marching in at 5 in the morning, flooding the room with light and dazed protests, screaming and slamming doors that won’t stay shut for long, creeping back out for lunch and crying and hugging, laughing through the tears and declaring “I was so wrong!  I was so stupid!”  It’s about holding my head high because, at the end of the day, I’m proud of everything that I am and I know that, given the opportunity, I’d never change a thing about my life.  It’s about making jokes and compromises and sacrifices, sometimes in the same breath.  It’s about looking past myself.  And ultimately, it’s about being a family.  Being together.

Long life, good health, and joy luck,

Matilda Lin Berke