From the beginning of the novel, you hear Suyuan Woo tell the story of "The Joy Luck Club," a group started by some Chinese women during World War II, where "we feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy." (p. 12) Really, this was their only joy. The mothers grew up during perilous times in China. They all were taught "to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat [their] own bitterness." (p. 241) Though not many of them grew up terribly poor, they all had a certain respect for their elders, and for life itself. These Chinese mothers were all taught to be honorable, to the point of sacrificing their own lives to keep any family members' promise. Instead of their daughters, who "can promise to come to dinner, but if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise" (p. 42), "To Chinese people, fourteen carats isn't real gold . . . [my bracelets] must be twenty-four carats, pure inside and out." (p. 42).
Towards the end of the book, there is a definite line between the differences of the two generations. Lindo Jong, whose daughter, Waverly, doesn't even know four Chinese words, describes the complete difference and incompatibility of the two worlds she tried to connect for her daughter, American circumstances and Chinese character. She explains that there is no lasting shame in being born in America, and that as a minority you are the first in line for scholarships. Most importantly, she notes that "In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you." (p. 289) Living in America, it was easy for Waverly to accept American circumstances, to grow up as any other American citizen. .
As a Chinese mother, though, she also wanted her daughter to learn the importance of Chinese character. She tried to teach her Chinese-American daughter "How to obey parents and listen to your mother's mind.