writing quotes

Wednesday Words of Wisdom: Amy Tan

We all know how powerful language is but what happens when you compare two different languages, two different worlds? Writers like Amy Tan give us a unique and rare glimpse into the cultures that are part of the mosaic of North American society, opening our eyes to their world. 

Amy Tan, writer of The Joy Luck Club, is best known for writing stories about Chinese-Americans and mother-daughter relationships. The Joy Luck Club was even adapted into a 1993 film and translated into 35 languages. Meaning often gets lost in translation, so I imagine that each person who reads this book interprets it not only on a uniquely individual level but on a cultural level as well.

I think this quote perfectly illustrates that:

“No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” – Amy Tan

I have never looked at language this way and never considered it like this but it’s true. When you visit another country, you’re often encountering a foreign language and culture, and consequently, another world. I’ve experienced this when reading too. Books like Ru present a different world, a different cultural perspective where you have to put aside your own cultural understandings for a moment and try to see the world through another person’s eyes.

By writing about the experiences of Chinese-Americans and their first-generation children, Tan is touching on cultural differences. In cultural differences, there’s a different understanding, a different language to the story. It influences the storytelling, the words, the feel of the piece. As a person who is unilingual with a very basic understanding of French, I think I take the complexity of language for granted. I don’t consider the fact that words in another language have a separate use in English. Like smorgasbord. A Scandinavian word that describes a buffet-style meal but also a phrase in English that refers to a wide range of possibilities or choices.

Words have their surface-level meaning and they have their deeper subjective meanings. It’s amazing to think that every person experiences and interprets a book on a deeply individual level, and it’s even more amazing to consider how language and culture affect that understanding. And yet these stories resonate on a universal level with many people, despite their cultural backgrounds.

I think instinctively we seek similarities and compare to feel a sense of connection to others, no matter how dissimilar our cultures seem to each other. We may not come from the same culture or social reality but literature seems to bridge those gaps between us.

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