Fish Cheeks Theme Analysis
In the autobiographical story Fish Cheeks, Amy Tan compares her point of view at Christmas dinner with other people at the same Christmas dinner to highlight her cultural shame. The embarrassment that Tang feels about his culture is the main point of view portrayed in this narrative. Everyone at dinner has completely different views: the minister’s family adheres to the American point of view and follows American customs. Tang’s family and relatives view Christmas dinner through the eyes of a Chinese, a festive event celebrated by Chinese customs and ending with a Chinese food festival. Finally, Tang views Christmas dinner as Chinese American. Tan was born and raised in America.
He’s a little Americanized about what a Christmas dinner should be, but still understands Chinese culture. Her American outlook on Christmas dinner is heightened, however, when she learns that her American love interest, Robert, will be at dinner. She feels she has to conform to American culture in order to be accepted by him, so Tang’s shame in her Chinese culture is reinforced by Robert’s presence. This can be clearly seen as Tang often revolves around thinking about him in his narrative. She asks questions such as “What would Robert think of our battered Chinese Christmas?” and “What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners?” Robert’s name is never associated with a positive word; even his greeting is described as a pathetic “grunt.” This subconsciously adds to the notion that he is not enjoying Chinese culture. In addition, Tan’s use of the words “Chinese” and “American” highlights the contrast between two very different cultures. By frequently mentioning Robert’s thoughts, Tan successfully underscores her fear of disappointing him with her strange, exotic culture compared to the American norm. For example, while serving steamed fish, “Robert grimaced,” and then Tan said, “I wanted to disappear.” This is a direct example of how Robert’s opinion of Tang influenced her cultural shame. Because of Robert’s presence, Tan feels nothing but embarrassment about his culture.
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Tan’s attempts to conform to American culture can also be seen in the narrative. She uses unattractive words like “raw” and “slimy” to describe the “weird menu” her mom has prepared for Christmas dinner. Tang likens tofu to “folded wedges of rubber white sponges” and squids to “bicycle tires,” even as Tang reveals they were her favorites at the end of the story. An unpleasant description of these products describes Tang’s attempt to reject his native Chinese culture for Robert. Later, the two cultures came together at the dinner table, and this “plunged [Tang] deeper into despair.” The contrast between cultures emphasized Tan’s desire to follow American traditions. The Tang then contrasted even more with the cultures, distinguishing the two groups’ eating styles. “Tang’s relatives licked the tips of their chopsticks and reached across the table,” while “Robert and his family waited patiently for the plates to be handed over.” Perhaps the most significant event named after the narrative is the offering of a fish cheek from Tanya’s father to Tan.
During the offering, her father tells everyone that it is her favorite food, saying, “Amy, your favorite.” Unbeknownst to her father, Tang is horrified when he reveals that her favorite food is something extremely atypical in American culture. At this point, Tang feels that she is not in line with American culture and will not be accepted by American guests at dinner. This feeling is only heightened by the presence of her crush, Robert, as she thinks he will forever be branded as a strange Chinese girl eating fish on her cheek. After eating, Tang’s father “leaned back and belched loudly,” which was considered rude in American culture. Tang’s father then explains that this is acceptable in Chinese culture for “surprised guests.” Since Tang wants to match American culture in order to gain Robert’s acceptance, she is ashamed to show him the huge difference in her culture, and “she is stunned in silence for the rest of the night.” As the minister’s family leaves, Tana’s mother acknowledges her daughter’s desire to match and be noticed by her crush, saying, “You want to be like the American girls outside.” She then gives an important lesson to Tang. “But on the inside, you always have to be Chinese. You should be proud to be different. Your only shame is to have shame. “
With a specific language and detail in writing, Tang effectively portrays the largely contrasting gazes of people at a Christmas dinner. She talks about her inner struggle between two conflicting cultures, exacerbated by Robert’s presence. She uses Robert’s gaze to further emphasize her fear of frustration with the Chinese culture. Although at the time that Tang felt like dinner was a disaster, in hindsight, she realizes that she has learned a very important life lesson from her mother’s point of view. Eventually, she gains a new perspective by reflecting on this event, and only then is she finally “able to fully appreciate [her mother’s] lesson.”