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The Language of Discretion: Chinese

The purpose of Tan’s story is to show the American interpretation of Chinese politeness. It highlights the discrepancy between American straightforwardness and the Chinese modesty. By stating that a Chinese person could not satisfy their hunger in the United States, Tan’s mother suggests that Americans will not see the refusal to eat an offered meal as a sign of courtesy. They will rather interpret it as a lack of hunger without considering the Chinese cultural subtleties.

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Trying to explain her dual Chinese-American nature, Tan gets acquainted with Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is an idea that “one’ perception of the world and how one functions in it depends a great deal on the language used” (Bloom, 2009, p. 4). The theory implies that language determines human behavior, therefore it might be possible to influence an individual’s actions by changing their syntax, vocabulary, or grammar. “I too have experienced dramatic cognitive awakenings via the word” (Bloom, 2009, p. 5). By observing the effect of vocabulary variations on her behavior, Tan accepted the hypothesis.

Tan rejects the conclusion that language determines personality because she realized that a person’s character is shaped by their social reality, not the words themselves. She presents children who grow in immigrant families and her own experience as an argument against the belief that the method of communication has the same effect on everyone’s individuality. They encounter different languages possessing the same meaning, but the ultimate determiner of personality is the immediate social context, within which a person grows up.

Tan explains that inconsistency of rules in English is baffling for Chinese speakers. At the same time, she points to a wide variety of tone as the main challenge for English learners of Chinese. “The language – that of the person doing the comparing – is often used as the standard, the benchmark for a logical form of expression” (Bloom, 2009, p. 7). Therefore, Tan deems comparison of languages and dangerous for the reason of personal bias. In a similar way, analyzing behavior of different language speakers can also be influenced by cultural norms.


Bloom, H. (Ed.) (2009). The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan. Facts On File, Incorporated.

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