By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Fish Cheeks’ is a short autobiographical narrative by the American writer Amy Tan (born 1952). Tan is probably best-known for The Joy Luck Club, her 1989 novel containing a series of interwoven short stories told by a number of Chinese-American women who are members of the titular club; but ‘Fish Cheeks’ was published two years before that novel appeared: it was first published in Seventeen magazine in 1987.
This short narrative is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Amy who is ashamed of her family. You can read ‘Fish Cheeks’ here, before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Fish Cheeks’: plot summary
The narrator of ‘Fish Cheeks’ is Amy, whom we may consider to bear some resemblance to Amy Tan, the author of the essay. Indeed, ‘Fish Cheeks’ is often analysed as an autobiographical text.
In the story (if we can call it by such a name), Amy is a fourteen-year-old girl living in the United States, born to Chinese parents who are immigrants to the country. She begins her narrative by telling us that, when she was fourteen, she fell in love with the minister’s son, an American boy with blond hair, named Robert.
Amy found out that her parents had invited Robert and his family round to their home for dinner on Christmas Eve. Amy was so upset about what Robert would think of the family’s ‘shabby’ Chinese meal that she cried. She anticipated that he would be shocked by the food they ate and their lack of ‘American’ manners at the dinner table.
Sure enough, Amy’s fears were hardly allayed when she saw the food her mother was preparing for the meal, which included ‘fleshy prawns’ and ‘slimy’ fish with bulging eyes. The tofu, meanwhile, resembles ‘rubbery white sponges’ and the squid look like bicycle tyres.
When the minister arrived with his family – including, of course, his son Robert – both families had dinner together, and Amy watches in despair as her family display a lack of table manners in front of their guests. When the fish was brought out, Robert pulled a face which Amy interpreted as distaste, but Amy’s father offer his daughter some fish cheek, pointing out that it’s her favourite.
Amy wanted to disappear, and things weren’t helped when her father burped loudly at the end of the meal, to signal to Amy’s mother that he had enjoyed the meal she had cooked. He then explained to their guests that this was a ‘polite Chinese custom’, and in response, Robert’s father burped quietly out of politeness.
When the minister and his family had left, Amy’s mother remarked that her daughter wanted to be like American girls, and handed Amy an early Christmas present of a miniskirt. But she tells her that she can only wear it if she promises to remain Chinese on the inside, and proud of her heritage.
Amy concludes her narrative by saying that it took her ‘many years’ to appreciate what her mother had meant when she said that to her all those years ago. And she realised that her mother had chosen to cook all of Amy’s favourite foods, but Amy had been so preoccupied with what Robert would think of them that she hadn’t appreciated them.
‘Fish Cheeks’: analysis
Although this short text is more non-fiction than a short story, it can be scrutinised and analysed as closely and carefully as any of the stories included in Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Indeed, it prefigures a number of the most prominent themes of that novel: the daughter who wishes to become more fully integrated into American society, the Chinese mother who wants her daughter to succeed but also wants her to be true to her Chinese heritage, and the social embarrassment which teenagers endure thanks to their parents’ behaviour.
But of course, the moral lesson of ‘Fish Cheeks’ – if we can call it ‘moral’ – is that Amy’s embarrassment, whilst understandable, is misplaced. There are plenty of reasons for a teenage girl to feel socially awkward when the boy she has a crush on meets her parents for the first time, but Amy is peculiarly fixated on the Chinese aspects of her parents’ behaviour and cooking, which mark them out as different from their American guests.
Robert, who has blond hair and is a minister’s son, is thus a ‘traditional’ American archetype: of European descent, from a Christian family, and therefore (we are invited to infer) civilised and well-mannered, with a good moral framework, owing to his father’s vocation. However, there is little in Amy’s account of the families’ dinner together to suggest he is worthy of her veneration: according to her, he grimaces when the Chinese fish is brought out, suggesting that she was right to fear his response to her mother’s food.
Furthermore, Amy acts cold and uninterested when he grunts hello at her when he and his family arrive, playing it cool, and attempting to hide her true feelings towards him. But in reality, she is also suppressing her ‘Chineseness’, too: she is, consciously or unconsciously, mirroring his disdainful and laid-back attitude in the hope that he will become more keen on her, and she is even prepared to conceal her fondness for her mother’s Chinese cooking – a key part of her culture and her family life – in order to do so.
And it is significant that Tan titles her autobiographical text ‘Fish Cheeks’ in homage to her mother’s traditional Chinese food, and, more specifically, her own favourite dish at the time: the very food she had affected to disown when trying to impress her American crush.
This reminds us that the narrator of the fragment is not fourteen any longer: as the final paragraph makes clear, Amy is now a grown woman and is looking back on that Christmas Eve meal from a position of hindsight and maturity. She is now able to assess her own conduct and attitudes and realise that her mother was right. What’s more, her ‘crush’ on Robert was just that: a passing phase.
By contrast, her Chinese identity, her sense of herself, remains. ‘Fish Cheeks’ is, in the last analysis, an essay about family and about cultural belonging which hovers somewhere between autobiographical non-fiction and short story, or fiction. We cannot tell how much of the story is based on real events and how much is Tan exercising artistic licence and her own imagination.