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‘Fish Cheeks’ by Amy Tan: Theme Essay

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Amy Tan's short story, "Fish Cheeks," explores the theme of identity and cultural acceptance through the eyes of a young Chinese-American girl named Amy. Set during a Christmas Eve dinner with her American friends, Amy experiences a clash between her Chinese heritage and the desire to fit in with her predominantly white peers. Through the vivid portrayal of her internal struggles, Tan illuminates the complexities of embracing one's cultural identity while navigating the pressures to conform to societal norms.

One of the central themes in "Fish Cheeks" is the tension between Amy's desire to be accepted by her American friends and her discomfort with her own cultural background. Throughout the story, Amy feels embarrassed and ashamed of her family's Chinese traditions, particularly during the dinner when her mother serves traditional Chinese dishes, including fish cheeks, which her American friends find strange and unappetizing. Amy's embarrassment is evident when she states, "I prayed for Christmas to be our real Christmas could begin."

This theme of cultural acceptance is further developed through Amy's infatuation with the American boy she has a crush on. She yearns for his acceptance and validation, believing that if he sees her as an American, she will be spared from the embarrassment of her Chinese customs. However, the climax of the story occurs when her father embarrasses her by eating the fish cheek, causing her to feel even more alienated and different from her peers. It is through this experience that Amy comes to realize the importance of embracing her own cultural heritage.

The story's theme is reinforced by the use of vivid imagery and sensory details. Tan describes the dining table adorned with "crystal glasses...big, juicy hams and turkeys," highlighting the stark contrast between the lavish American feast and the humble Chinese dishes. This stark contrast serves as a metaphor for the clash between cultures and emphasizes Amy's feelings of otherness. The description of her mother's "shabby old kitchen" and the "grayish rice" further underscore Amy's sense of embarrassment and cultural inferiority.

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However, as the story progresses, Amy's perspective begins to shift. The turning point occurs when her mother reminds her of the importance of embracing her heritage and being proud of who she is. Through her mother's wisdom and guidance, Amy realizes the beauty and richness of her Chinese culture. This realization is symbolized by her final sentence: "And my cheeks burned with shame."

In "Fish Cheeks," Amy Tan explores the universal theme of identity and cultural acceptance, highlighting the struggles faced by individuals torn between their cultural heritage and the pressures to conform to societal norms. Amy's journey towards self-acceptance and embracing her Chinese identity is a powerful message about the importance of honoring and cherishing one's heritage.

Through the effective use of vivid imagery, sensory details, and internal monologue, Tan creates a relatable and poignant story that resonates with readers of all backgrounds. "Fish Cheeks" serves as a reminder that cultural diversity should be celebrated and that true acceptance comes from within. It encourages readers to embrace their unique identities and to find strength in their cultural heritage, even in the face of societal expectations.

In conclusion, "Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan delves into the theme of identity and cultural acceptance. Through the eyes of a young Chinese-American girl, the story explores the internal struggles of embracing one's cultural background while yearning for acceptance from others. By the end of the story, Amy learns to appreciate her heritage and finds the courage to embrace her true identity. Tan's powerful storytelling and evocative imagery make "Fish Cheeks" a compelling exploration of the complexities of cultural identity and the importance of self-acceptance.

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‘Fish Cheeks’ by Amy Tan: Theme Essay. (2023, September 22). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“‘Fish Cheeks’ by Amy Tan: Theme Essay.” Edubirdie, 22 Sept. 2023,
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