I just finished The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan, for my book club. This was a great read, and rich with Chinese culture and history. The setting for most of the book is in China during the late 30’s and 40’s, as current-day Winnie tells her daughter about her life before coming to America.
It’s during this time the Chinese were defending themselves against invasion by Japan. If you are a fan of Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun as I am, the context will be familiar, as it takes place during the same time frame. I recognized many of the names, cities, and battles mentioned in that movie.
Two things struck me as I read this book, and they are related. In fact, it’s difficult to decide which affected the other – the age-old chicken/egg dilemma.
But I’ll start with the character of Winnie. She has strength of character that wasn’t necessarily modeled for her. She has a strong sense of right and wrong, despite the fact she is surrounded by relatives who cheat and connive and manipulate their way into favorable situations. She sees these people and their actions for what they are, and chooses to not be like them.
And here lies the other amazing thing, my second observation. Despite her strength of character and sense of right and wrong, she still submits to the system. Women in China during this time (and perhaps even now?) had no rights apart from either their parents or their husband, and marriages were arranged for them. Because her extended family wanted to be rid of her, they married her into a bad family.
She suffered greatly in this marriage, the details of which are the main plot of the book. Yet she remains strong and clear-headed. At times she rebels against her husband, but even that is done respectfully. I get the sense there were ways she could have left her husband, but she would have been left poor, a beggar, and with nothing. For years she sought a way to leave her marriage legally, and with her dignity intact.
With the closing of every tragic story I expected her tale to wrap up, for the story to return again to modern day San Francisco where it started. But her suffering continues, one tragedy after another. And though this is fiction, you get a sense that a life like hers was not uncommon in China – was, in fact, normal.
I’m not dismissing the poor treatment of women in China lightly, or advocating for their backward customs. Rather, I’m drawing from the story an important lesson for my own life. How often to I cry out for my rights! My right to be heard, my right to be understood, my right to be important, my right to hold a certain position or office or station! I fight my own battles to gain my own honor in the eyes of others. But to what gain!
I know deep down in my heart of hearts that my identity, even as a woman, is completely tied to who Jesus is and what He’s done for me. He is the vine and I am the branch. He is the head and I am part of His body. And apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15). If I can’t look to Jesus to be completely equipped for my life’s work, I know I am sunk.
If we believe that somehow it is up to us to take control of our lives and the lives of those we love, fear is inevitable, because we simply aren’t in control of anything. Many of us are quick to dismiss a link between our stress and our view of God. “I don’t hold God in low regard,” we object. “I live a Christian life and attend worship each Sunday, and I spend lots of time with other believers.” But if we suffer from chronic anxiety and fear, we are kidding ourselves. Our view of God isn’t as majestic as we think. A right view of God is the only thing that will dispel our illusion that we have to
control our lives and that everything depends on us.
In connecting all these dots, I was really struck with how little I trust Jesus to guard my reputation, to guard my heart, and to take care of me. I am a slave to my own worries, to my own attempts at protecting myself. Rather than trust in Jesus and be content with how he sees me, how he loves me, what he thinks of me, how he gently calls me to change, I puff up my chest and wag my finger around, defending who I am and what I do to others.
Romans 6:20-21 says, When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! Death! How foolish I am to work so hard at protecting myself, when I will only work myself to the bone.
Verse 22 says, But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. How much more peaceful it is to trust in Jesus alone, and not worry about what I feel like I’m lacking in this world.
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie has one weak moment in which she places her need to protect her reputation above all else, and the consequences of this decision are troubling. Yes, many things she suffered were troubling, but for this one thing she feels regret. She knows she could have done a wiser, more honorable thing.
So there you have it. I don’t know if this book will have as profound an inspiration on you as it had on me, but it’s worth reading, nonetheless!