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The major theme in the novel is the difficulty of preserving oneís heritage and culture when one immigrates to a foreign country. Although all four of the mothers (Suyuan, Ying-ying, An-Mei, and Lindo) have terrible experiences in China, they love their native land even after they come to America. When they have children, they try to teach them about China and its customs and traditions. The children, however, are not really interested in the past. Born in America, Jing-Mei, Lena, Rose, and Waverly all want to minimize their Chinese appearance and heritage. They all want to look like and be accepted as Americans. During the course of the novel, each of the daughters realizes the strength and dignity of her mother and, to differing degrees, learns to appreciate her Chinese heritage.
The four mothers all want the best for their daughters. They want them to have all the advantages that America has to offer, but they also want them to live their Chinese heritage and exemplify the Chinese values. All four mothers, however, feel that their daughters have become so Americanized that they have lost their ways. The mothers realize that the daughters struggle with who they are because they have never had to fight or suffer. Life has been easy for them; as a result, they have not built the strength or character that Suyuan, An-Mei, Ying-ying, and Lindo were forced to build because of what they endured in China and what they had to endure as first generation immigrants to America.
The mothers finally tell their daughters about their suffering in hopes of inspiring them and giving them strength. When the daughters begin to appreciate the spirits of their mothers and their Chinese heritage, they become stronger and happier women. In accepting their past and blending it with their present identify, Jing-Mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose all become more whole people.
Appearance vs. reality is the main minor theme of the novel. All the daughters appear educated and enlightened, completely Americanized; but underneath the appearance, each of them is incomplete and unfulfilled. Although they appear to be happy and content, the reality is that they are all unhappy. Jing-Mei is unmarried and works at an unfulfilling copywriting job. Waverly is divorced from her first husband and is planning to soon remarry. Lena and Harold live together as husband and wife, but he is totally insensitive to her and displays no affection or love. Roseís husband, Ted, has announced that he wants a divorce, for he is in love with another woman. All of them lead lives that are somewhat shallow. They also live artificial lives as they try to downplay their Chinese appearance and heritage.
Because the daughters want to appear American rather than Chinese, there is conflict between them and their mothers. Suyuan, An-Mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying all want their daughters to be proud of their Chinese heritage and practice their values and traditions. When the daughters refuse, the mothers are frustrated and appear to be failures. In reality, each of the mothers teaches her daughter a great deal about the Chinese way of thinking and living. By the end of the book, Jing-Mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose have all successfully blended some part of their motherís Chinese spirit into themselves.