Helpful Questions worth considering:
1. What are the tensions that the narrator
feels? How do those tensions get shown early on in the
piece? Is there a tension created due to setting (place
2. How does the narrator use description to increase
3. How does the author use actions and dialogue to convey
4. Where does the moral of the story emerge?
5. Where does the catharsis emerge? What does the narrator
realize? How does she realize it? In your own words,
what is the goal of this piece?
AMY TAN, “Fish Cheeks” c. 1987
I fell in love with the minister’s son the winter
I turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but as white
as Mary in the manger. For Christmas, I prayed for this
blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.
When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s
family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What
would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas?
What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who
lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment
would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet
potatoes, but Chinese food?
On Christmas Eve, I saw that my mother had outdone herself
in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins
out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered
with appalling mounds of raw food. A slimy rock cod
with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into
a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges
of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus
back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed
with knife markings so that they resembled bicycle tires.
And then they arrived—the minister’s family
and all my relatives in a clamor of doorbells and rumpled
Christmas packages. Robert grunted hello, and I pretended
he was not worthy of existence.
Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives licked
the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the
table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food.
Robert and his family waited patiently for platters
to be passed to them. My relatives murmured with pleasure
when my mother brought out the whole steamed fish. Robert
grimaced. Then my father poked his chopsticks just below
the fish eye and plucked out the soft meat. “Amy,
your favorite,” he said, offering me the tender
fish cheek. I wanted to disappear.
At the end of the meal my father leaned back and belched
loudly, thanking my mother for her fine cooking. “It’s
a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied,”
explained my father to our astonished guests. Robert
was looking down at his plate with a reddened face.
The minister managed to muster up a quiet burp. I was
stunned into silence for the rest of the night.
After everyone had gone, my mother said to me, “You
want to be same as American girl on the outside.”
She handed me an early gift. It was a miniskirt in beige
tweed. “But inside you must always be Chinese.
You must be proud you are different. Your only shame
is to have shame.”
And even though I didn’t agree with her then,
I knew that she understood how much I had suffered during
the evening’s dinner. It wasn’t until many
years later—long after I had gotten over my crush
on Robert—that I was able to fully appreciate
her lesson and the true purpose behind our particular
menu. For Christmas Eve that year, she had chosen all
my favorite foods.