Amy Tan’s “A Pair of Tickets” presents an incredibly interesting perspective of a woman named June May who is traveling through her native country of China.  June May was raised as a Chinese-American in San Francisco, California.  However, after her mother passes away during her thirties, June May embarks on this journey of self-discovery to find her true Chinese roots.  Along the way, she meets her Chinese family members, including twin stepsisters whom she has never seen.  The narrator uses symbolism and imagery in Amy Tan’s “A Pair of Tickets” to intricately weave the theme that June May is “becoming Chinese” (236) into each element of the story.  We observe June May learning more about her mother’s life-long dream, embracing it as her own.  As she does, her own life blooms into spring.


Constant comparison and contrast statements fill the story, through the dramatic imagery that unfolds during the journey.  These statements represent a very, intense, internal struggle that June May is experiencing.  Divergent scenery and people are viewed through the lens of former experiences in America.  Of course, this is a natural reaction that we all have, but it is one that you sense her mother would want her to break free from in order to awaken to an authentically Chinese life.  After June May and her father disembark from the train, they must wait in line to be processed through customs.  This brings to mind waiting for a bus in San Francisco.  She is still reaching back for a sense of familiarity; she has not quite reached the place where she has fully embraced her Chinese roots.  Questions arise as she considers whether the customs officers will believe that her passport is truly her because she is heavily made-up in the picture.  For, on that day, she is without makeup.  Perhaps, they will think she is true Chinese, and it is a forged passport.  As quickly as that thought comes to mind, June May dismisses it, because she rationalizes, within her own mind, that her height is much taller than most Chinese women.  She is torn between what was and what will be.  Sensory images of “skin…tingling” (236) and “blood rushing” (236) emerge as she reaches forth with excitement to welcome what is ahead, but she must first process through these changes within the depths of her mind and soul.  The passport reveals her American name of June May.  However, she chooses, only a few minutes later, to introduce herself to her family by her Chinese name of Jing-mei.  This marks the beginning of her acceptance of her true identity as a Chinese woman.  Still, we continue to see her struggle to accept these strange yet wonderful encounters. 


New vision emerges as Jing-Mei slowly begins to view life through a new and evolving prism of light.  A few more times she considers burgeoning situations in the dim light of the past.  This light is fading as the new light shines on the path to lead her to her destiny.  Jing-Mei ponders the

obvious lack of safety requirements at a construction site in light of how Americans may have addressed the danger.  In fact, it is an outward expression of her subconscious questions regarding her own lack of emotional safety as she struggles to embrace a new season of her life, yet still longing for the sense of security that is found in those familiar things at home in America.  Later, she is incredibly surprised by how much the hotel looks just like one that would be found in America.  She is seeing that things are very similar, and, at this point, she is turning to accept all the things that represent Chinese culture.  Strangely enough, she is restrained by her family to remain at the hotel and spend time together eating American fare cuisine and relaxing in American luxury accommodations.  Her young cousin, Lili, poses for a picture, “in the manner of a fashion model” (242).  All indications are that her Chinese family is more American than

she may have expected.  Is she really all that different after all?  Does it merely depend on what lens you are using to view your surroundings?  At last, the realization rises like a new day dawning that her family is really not that different than her. 


An even deeper level of self-discovery occurs as Jing-Mei’s father shares a time of intimate story-telling about of Suyuan’s (Jing-Mei’s mother) heartrending journey from China to America.  With rapt attention, she hears for the first time of that journey and accepts with sorrow that she did not discern her mother’s cherished dreams.  Shedding tears of sorrow, Jing-Mei envisions Suyuan, stricken with painful dysentery, traveling through war-torn China to find safety for Suyuan and two precious little girls.  With tremendous heartache, her mother resolves to leave her twin baby girls by the roadside in the hopes that someone will take them in and care for them.  Jing-Mei describes these dear moments as “finding my mother in my father’s story” (249).  She has found her mother and now she will seek to find her twin step-sisters.  The importance of this connection with her Chinese roots is growing within Jing-Mei.


Color plays a very important symbolic role in the story, as we see the changing of the seasons.  Distinct fall colors of yellow, green and brown bring to mind the leaves of the trees changing colors that are carried by the wind to their place on the ground.  The yellow color, observed during the first part of the train ride, shows the apprehension within Jing-Mei as she ventures into the unknown future.  Earthy, brown tones suggest being drawn to the soil from which one originates.  Revelation of her deep family roots becomes more and more apparent to her with each passing mile.  She is returning to the earth to be re-born.  Finally, the green color shows the budding of new life that Jing-Mei is traveling towards.  References to the old spelling of Chinese cities represent that she is, in a sense, falling back in time.  Astonishing discoveries of who her mother was and how she lived will cause Jing-Mei to realize who she is as an individual.


Like flower bulbs that must endure the hard freeze of winter to bloom beautifully in spring, Jing-Mei must undergo a wintry period to blossom into the woman she is destined to be.  As the train approaches Guangzhou, her excitement turns to disappointment as she sees the scenery filled with gray and cement buildings.  You sense a defining lack of life and vitality, almost a moment frozen in time.  This signifies the beginning of her journey through the winter period.  The poignant reunion of her father and aunt, seeing and embracing each other for the first time in about 60 years, is a rich example of time standing still.  Here, we begin to see the symbolism of the Kodak camera.  It represents the ability to immediately see what has just developed, not just the film, but June May’s family members and her link with them.  Initially, June’s father and aunt envision each other as they were so many years before.  After June takes the picture with the Kodak camera, they stand there reflecting on the developing images as they attempt to recapture all those missing years.  The photo is a true reflection of who they are today.  They are looking back, in a sense, to discover who they are today.  This period leaves you feeling the chill of things frozen – not frozen forever, but only for a moment in time.


Finally, Jing-mei has fulfilled the rich meaning of her mother’s name, Suyuan ---“long-cherished wish” (249).  Suyuan longed to be reunited with her firstborn twin daughters, and now that wish has been fulfilled through her daughter.  This captivating story of a family coming full circle

piques your curiosity, and captures your attention from beginning to end.  The full circle begins with a mother’s journey from China to America in a time of war and ends with the daughter journeying back in order to spring forward into a new life.  Jing-mei seems to have known all along what being Chinese meant, but she needed the reinforcement of uniquely Chinese memories to release those forces of life within her.  As the plane carrying Jing-mei approaches Shanghai, she continues to observe a landscape filled with the gray of winter.  Notice, though, how that changes as she leaves the plane and starts moving towards her step-sisters.   With each step, the meaning of her sisters’ names is becoming clear.  The name of the firstborn, Chwun Yu, means Spring Rain.  The Spring Rain was followed by the birth of the second twin named Chwun Hwa, meaning Spring Flower.  Jing-mei’s own name is summed up as “the younger sister who was…the essence of the others” (245).  A new chapter of life has sprung forth for Jing-mei and her twin sisters as she proclaims with understanding, “And now I also see what part of me is Chinese.  It is so obvious.  It is my family. It is in our blood.  After all these years, it can finally be let go” (249).  Like a butterfly leaving its cocoon, Jing-mei casts off the last vestiges of the winter season.  The sisters all watch with expectation as Kodak picture develops from the gray of winter to the “bright colors of our three images” (249).  Jing-mei has been deeply touched and enriched by the fall and winter seasons she has traveled through, but has now embraced this bright new spring season.


The physical journey from America to China symbolically mirrors the cultural journey of self-enlightenment.  We must often draw on the experiences of our own past, or our family’s past, in order to discover who we are as a person.  Touching letters, from her step-sisters in China to her now deceased mother, symbolically call out as a voice from the past, their arms reaching towards their mother – the mother they never knew.  Jing-Mei journeys back to China to return the loving embrace.  It might seem counterintuitive to go backwards in order to go forwards.  However, a clear understanding of who we are, as individuals, provides the foundation upon which to build our future.  She chose to leave the place of familiarity in San Francisco and move closer to the place of self-discovery that her mother told her she would experience when she said, “Someday you will see…It’s in your blood, waiting to be let go” (237).  How often have we heard that we have to leave our comfort zone in order to reach our greatest potential in life?  A return to her roots in Guangzhou was her trip to a place of yesteryear to connect with other family members.  Understanding our cultural heritage helps define us because we see where we came from.  We are returning to the soil from which we grew.  As flowers and trees draw upon the rich nutrients in the roots beneath the ground, we must look beneath the surface to receive the nourishing strength that comes from resilient roots of our family.  Full circle seems to best describe this journey, traveling into the past to find the link with the present.


Works Cited


Tan, Amy. “A Pair of Tickets.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 9th Ed. Booth, Allison, et

     al, eds. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 236-249. Print.