Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.
Tired of Being What You Want Me to Be
The stories "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" by Yiyun Li and "Teenage Wasteland" by Anne Tyler both deal with the theme of communication, or rather, lack thereof, between parents and their children. Both stories also deal with the expectations that parents have of their children, and how the parents react when the child has a contrasting vision for their own life and different values than those of their parents. Both stories show how important communication is within families and what happens when children grow up without any real communication or connection with their parents.
Disappointing the Family
In "Teenage Wasteland," Donny is a troublemaker and doesn't do well in school, which makes his mother, Daisy, feel ashamed. She can see that he is what she would consider a failure, but she doesn't really know how to help him other than trying to force him to do his homework and punishing him when he doesn't do his homework or causes trouble. In "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," however, Mr. Shi still thinks that his daughter is the perfect young woman that he raised her to be until she reveals something to him that makes him feel as though she has failed her family. When she got a divorce, he assumed that her ex-husband was the one who abandoned and betrayed her, as it would be shameful, in his culture's view, for a woman to leave her husband. He finds out that she was in fact the one who betrayed her husband. Neither Donny nor Mr. Shi's daughter turn out to be exactly who their parents want them to be.
Trying Their Best
Both Daisy and Mr. Shi try to keep their children on the right track in life. Daisy tries to help her son with his homework, punishes him when he messes up, and even goes as far as to get a tutor for him as his psychologist suggested, but she still feels as though she has failed her son. Mr. Shi, on the other hand, thinks that he has done the best that he possibly can for his daughter, at least at the beginning of the story. When he finds out that his daughter was the one who abandoned her husband, he is extremely disappointed and doesn't understand how that could have possibly happened, as that was not the way he raised his daughter. Even when he realizes that he made mistakes when raising his daughter, he justifies it as trying to do what was best for his family.
A Failure to Communicate
In both families, there are problems with communication. Even though Donny's mother tries to be there for her children, Donny still doesn't feel as though he can talk to her, which is part of the reason why he spends so much time with his tutor, Cal. Cal is the only person that he really feels as though he can talk to, as he doesn't feel like his parents or his school understand or respect him at all. His mother is overbearing, and even though she does try to talk to him, it is still clear that she only sees him as a child and there is still a very distinct power difference in their relationship. With Mr. Shi, he never really talked to his daughter when she was growing up. He was always a very quiet person, which influenced his daughter to be the same as she got older. Mr. Shi's daughter ended up married to a man whom she could not communicate with, in much the same way that Mr. Shi never communicated with his wife or with his daughter. Even though her husband continually asked her to talk more, she did not even know how to really communicate in Chinese, so she turned to a man who spoke English. Mr. Shi's daughter ends up having an affair with the other man, as she can actually talk to him, similar to the way that Donny escapes to Cal's just to have someone to talk to who understands him. Both of these situations demonstrate the basic human need to be able to connect with someone else.
Daisy can see that her son is heading down the wrong track in his life, but she is helpless to do anything about it. He constantly makes excuses for the things he does and, and with the encouragement of his tutor, Cal, places the blame on the school or on other people. When Daisy calls him out on the fact that he is simply making excuses, Donny accuses her of not trusting him. Mr. Shi, in contrast, trusts his daughter and believes that she does nothing wrong, and that her divorce was her husband's fault. He doesn't even think twice about placing the blame with him before even talking with her about it, and he can't believe that his own daughter could bring such shame to herself or to her family when he finds out that it was her who betrayed her husband. He wants to believe that he raised her right and doesn't understand how his own daughter could do such a thing. In this respect, Daisy does have a more realistic idea of who her child really is than does Mr. Shi, as she can actually see him as a human being with faults.
Both Donny and Mr. Shi's daughter have become distant from their parents. Donny spends as much time away from home as possible and goes to Cal's. He avoids any actual conversation with his mother, as he sees her in the same light as any other authority figure. Mr. Shi's daughter tries to avoid conversation with her father simply because she doesn't know how to talk to him. Unlike Donny, who clearly makes a conscious effort to avoid his mother, Mr. Shi's daughter doesn't know any different, as she grew up accustomed to a lack of communication. Her father never really communicated with her while she was growing up, and she doesn't see any reason to change that now. When she actually does let him know what is going on in her life, her reasons for not wanting to talk to him are reinforced by his negative reaction when he learns about her lover and the fact that she had an affair while married.
Who Is to Blame?
Both Mr. Shi and Daisy blame themselves for the fact that their children have failed them. Even though at first Mr. Shi is angry that his daughter seemed to imply that it was his fault that she ended up having an affair and getting a divorce and initially denies that he had any part in her choice to betray her husband, he eventually realizes that he might not have done the best job in raising her. He reflects upon the fact that he never really communicated with his family, that he lied to them - and everyone else - about being a rocket scientist, and the fact that he had an emotional affair with a woman he worked with. But even with these revelations, he still maintains that the secrets that he kept were out of loyalty to his wife and daughter, as he did not want to hurt them. Similarly, Daisy blames herself when Donny runs away, but unlike Mr. Shi, she doesn't make excuses. She is constantly going back over Donny's life, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Even though occasionally she does try to pin the blame on Cal, she knows that it wasn't his fault at all, and perhaps Donny may have run away earlier if it hadn't been for him. Even so, she still appears to be making similar mistakes with Donny's sister, as she stays away from home more and more as she gets older. Mr. Shi, similarly, continues to make some of the same kinds of mistakes that he made when his daughter was younger, in that he continues to spend time with the Iranian woman, who most likely reminds him of the other woman that he was spending time with instead of his own wife so many years ago. Even when people are able to identify and acknowledge the mistakes they've made in their lives, it is rare that they will make any real effort to change, if Daisy and Mr. Shi are any indication.
These two stories show how important healthy communication between parents and children is. When parents are overbearing and over-controlling, the child will rebel against it, as was the case with Donny. On the other hand, a total lack in communication can be just as detrimental, as is seen in the relationship between Mr. Shi and his daughter. Because there was no communication in the family while growing up, Mr. Shi's daughter's relationship with her husband fell apart, as she never learned how to communicate when she was a child. Neither child grew up in a supportive environment, and both ended up being miserable. Donny couldn't stand living with his parents and didn't know how to express himself, so he simply left, whereas Mr. Shi's daughter ended up having to go outside of her marriage to find happiness, betraying her husband in the process. Without communication and the ability to connect with other human beings, humans cannot function even within their own families it seems, based on these two stories.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on June 13, 2018:
Jennifer, You do a superb job of analyzing similarities. With a mind such as yours it shouldn't take much for you to become enlighten. Objectivity is the key to comprehending life, it gives none of the "judgmental adjectives" a place to obscure one's vision of the whole. Thank you very much for your presentation.