"The Joy Luck Club," Vocabulary from "Queen Mother of the Western Skies"

This list pulls vocabulary from Amy Tan's keenly observed portraits of Chinese-American women in "The Joy Luck Club."

Make sure to check all our lists for the novel: Feathers from a Thousand Li Away, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, American Translation, Queen Mother of the Western Skies. Here is a link to her personal essay “Mother Tongue”: Mother Tongue.

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. concubine
    a woman who cohabits with an important man
    She prepared herself to return to Tientsin, where she had dishonored her widowhood by becoming the third concubine to a rich man.
  2. impertinent
    improperly forward or bold
    “You want to take your daughter and ruin her life as well!” Uncle stamped his foot at this impertinent thought.
  3. delicate
    easily hurt
    In the rickshaw on our way to the railway station, my mother murmured, “Poor An-mei, only you know. Only you know what I have suffered.” When she said this, I felt proud, that only I could see these delicate and rare thoughts.
    "Delicate" also means "difficult to handle; requiring great tact"--this could describe An-mei's mother's thoughts. As a nine-year-old who hadn't seen her mother in years, An-mei would not know how her mother had suffered. Because she was so young, she felt proud that her mother had shared these thoughts with her, but her mother did that only because she had no one else to confide in and because she didn't really expect An-mei to respond.
  4. assure
    inform positively and with certainty and confidence
    In the early morning peasants sold vegetables I had never seen or eaten before in my life—and my mother assured me I would find them so sweet, so tender, so fresh.
    "Assure" also means "make a promise or commitment"--this could fit the image of a mother who's trying to convince her young daughter to look forward to a new life in a new city.
  5. diligent
    characterized by care and perseverance in carrying out tasks
    In the evening, when there was nothing to do, we talked about the servants: who was clever, who was diligent, who was loyal. We gossiped as we cooked small eggs and sweet potatoes on top of the houlu just to enjoy their smell. And at night, my mother would again tell me stories as I lay in her arms falling asleep.
  6. simper
    smile affectedly or derisively
    She was looking behind at everyone with a simpering smile, as if they were there to honor her. And when she was hardly in the door, I heard one servant remark to another, “Fifth Wife is so young she did not bring any of her own servants, only a wet nurse.”
  7. ramble
    continue talking or writing in a purposeless manner
    She was crying now, rambling like a crazy woman: “You can see now, a fourth wife is less than a fifth wife. An-mei, you must not forget. I was a first wife, yi tai, the wife of a scholar. Your mother was not always Fourth Wife, Sz Tai!"
  8. trek
    any long and difficult trip
    And this misfortune led First Wife to begin a trek to Buddhist temples, to offer alms and tailored silk gowns in honor of Buddha’s image, to burn incense and pray to Buddha to lengthen her daughter’s leg.
  9. docile
    easily handled or managed
    I did not like to play with Third Wife’s daughters, who were as docile and dull as their mother.
  10. refrain
    resist doing something
    So your mother kowtowed in the pagoda, pledging to observe the right harmony of body, thoughts, and speech, to refrain from giving opinions, and to shun wealth.
  11. potent
    having or wielding force or authority
    Her acting was potent enough. Soon she had a better room in the house, her own private rickshaw, a house for her elderly parents, a sum for buying blessings at temples.
    "Potent" also means "having a strong physiological or chemical effect"--this fits the situation too because Second Wife used to eat raw opium to make herself sick enough to seem like she was dying so that she could get what she wanted. But after a while, she didn't bother with the opium and simply acted like she was dying.
  12. lustrous
    made smooth and bright by or as if by rubbing
    Back then your mother had hair down to her waist, which she tied high up on her head. And she had unusual skin, a lustrous pink color.
  13. bout
    a period of illness
    Wu Tsing’s promise of a house—for becoming the mother of his only son—had disappeared the day Second Wife collapsed from another bout of pretend-suicide.
  14. vengeful
    disposed to seek revenge or intended for revenge
    Wu Tsing, fearful of my mother’s vengeful spirit, wore the coarsest of white cotton mourning clothes.
  15. conceive
    become pregnant
    I brushed my hair ninety-nine times a night to bring luck to our marital bed, in hopes of conceiving a son.
  16. penetrate
    pass into or through, often by overcoming resistance
    I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.
  17. longevity
    the property of having lived for a considerable time
    She tapped my chin and then hers. “Not too short, not too long. Our longevity will be adequate, not cut off too soon, not so long we become a burden.”
  18. circumstances
    one's overall condition in life
    I wanted everything for you to be better. I wanted you to have the best circumstances, the best character. I didn’t want you to regret anything.
    "Circumstances" also means "a person's financial situation"--Lindo Jong is a woman who named her second son "Vincent" because it sounds like "win cent" and could help them make more money, so this second definition would not be far from her mind as she says these words to her daughter.
  19. devious
    characterized by insincerity or deceit
    But my daughter has no ears for my words. She puts her smiling face next to my worried one. “Don’t be silly. Our nose isn’t so bad,” she says. “It makes us look devious.”
  20. replicate
    reproduce or make an exact copy of
    And when she said this, I saw myself transforming like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA suddenly triggered, replicating itself insidiously into a syndrome, a cluster of telltale Chinese behaviors, all those things my mother did to embarrass me—haggling with store owners, pecking her mouth with a toothpick in public, being color-blind to the fact that lemon yellow and pale pink are not good combinations for winter clothes.
    The example sentence gives many clues that a fifteen-year-old Jing-mei did not want to be a replica of her mother: the adjective "mutant", the adverb "insidiously" (in a manner that's hidden but spreading in a harmful way), and the verb "embarrass". But a thirty-six-year-old Jing-mei is on a train to China, carrying her dead mother's dream of reuniting with her lost daughters.
  21. revere
    love unquestioningly and uncritically or to excess
    They said they always revered her as their true mother. They kept a framed picture of her. They told her about their life, from the time my mother last saw them on the road leaving Kweilin to when they were finally found.
  22. revive
    be brought back to life, consciousness, or strength
    And so they couldn’t help but think of some miracle, some possible way of reviving her from the dead, so my mother could fulfill her dream.
  23. shun
    avoid and stay away from deliberately
    And that, too, would have been like my mother, to bring mountains of gifts, food, and toys for children—all bought on sale— shunning thanks, saying the gifts were nothing, and later turning the labels over to show my sisters, “Calvin Klein, 100% wool.”
  24. forlorn
    marked by or showing hopelessness
    But instead of feeling relieved, I feel forlorn. I think about what my mother said, about activating my genes and becoming Chinese. And I wonder what she meant.
  25. grieve
    feel grief
    Right after my mother died, I asked myself a lot of things, things that couldn’t be answered, to force myself to grieve more.
  26. sustain
    lengthen or extend in duration or space
    It seemed as if I wanted to sustain my grief, to assure myself that I had cared deeply enough.
  27. delirious
    experiencing hallucinations
    And later she also dropped the bags of wheat flour and rice and kept walking like this for many miles, singing songs to her little girls, until she was delirious with pain and fever.
  28. pious
    having or showing or expressing reverence for a deity
    They were pious people, Muslims, who believed the twin babies were a sign of double luck, and they were sure of this when, later in the evening, they discovered how valuable the babies were.
  29. persist
    refuse to stop
    But your mother’s friend was so sure, she persisted.
  30. cherish
    be fond of
    And although we don’t speak, I know we all see it: Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long- cherished wish.

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