In the short story “A Pair of Tickets,” author Amy Tan explores the intricacies of an issue that most people never completely grasp: that of identity and self-awareness. Presented as a story about a young Chinese-American student’s first journey to China for the purpose of meeting her half-sisters for the first time, Tan uses the prevalence of stereotypes and internal conflict to present her theme effectively. As the protagonist and narrator, June May, and her father begin their train ride, the author establishes both the physical setting and the symbolic setting of the story. Certainly, the two riders are in China on an early October morning, but more importantly, June May provides a glimpse of her own feelings about what it would mean if she were to become what she considered to be “Chinese”:I saw myself transforming like a werewolf haggling with store owners, pecking her mouth with a toothpick in public, being color-blind to the fact that lemon yellow and pale pink are not good combinations for winter clothes.” Since June May is primarily ignorant of Chinese culture, she assumes that the stereotypical behaviors that her mother sometimes expressed are representative of what it means to be Chinese.
Often, when June May is exploring different aspects of China, she is forced to deal with the internal conflict of misconceptions about her homeland. Upon leaving the train, she has to remark: “I am in China, I remind myself.” Twice in her regal hotel she inquires, “This is Communist China?” American culture tends to instill in its citizens a mindset about other cultures particularly those to which we are antagonistic and June May is an example of how we sometimes think that we are the only ones who have certain things or certain experiences. In a moment of brief humor, June May thinks about what their meal for the night will be. At the time, she has been “envisioning my first real Chinese feast for many days already, a big banquet with one of those soups steaming out of a carved winter melon, chicken wrapped in clay, Peking duck, the works.” When she discovers what her Chinese family desires, however, it is ironically “hamburgers, French fries, and apple pie la mode the stereotypical American dinner.
Throughout the story, at many of its most emotional moments, Amy Tan involves the use of a camera, specifically a Polaroid. When her father and his aunt meet, she snaps a picture, and after giving it to them, they “still stand close together, each of them holding a corner of the picture, watching as their images begin to form. They are almost reverentially quiet.” When June May and her half-sisters are united, the sisters cling to a Polaroid that June May had sent them before arriving, and yet another one is snapped as the three girls laugh, cry, and have all the unspoken bliss that only family can bring. This time, “My sisters and I watch quietly together, eager to see what develops.And although we don’t speak, I know we all see it. Together we look like our mother.” Polaroid pictures have something that a digital camera does not: the suspense of waiting for the picture to develop in front of the taker’s eyes as they clutch the picture. As it develops, the recipient sees a moment frozen in time, a memory captured forever in the flash of a camera. In “A Pair of Tickets,” Amy Tan uses the camera and the Polaroid pictures it produces to symbolize and capture the moments of familial love. When June May looks at only her sisters, she “see[s] no trace of my mother in them,” but when the picture allows June to see not only her sisters, but the three girls as one as a family she realizes that together, they truly are united.
In the beginning of the story, June May has a misconception of what it means to be Chinese. It is one governed by American culture, stereotyping, and prejudice. As she learns of her mother’s sacrifices and life, and she sees her Chinese family, the gears in her heart begin to turn, albeit slowly. Whereas in the beginning, she likens being Chinese to “transforming like a werewolf,” as if it were something that she would have to become; she later realizes “what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood.” Being Chinese, or being American, or being Irish, or any sub-group in our world is not about becoming something, or understanding all there is to know about culture; it is about understanding who you are and that there are parts of you that are instilled beyond any control. Sometimes, that journey of understanding requires two train tickets to the country of ancestry. Sometimes, though, perhaps it merely needs a journey through our own thoughts, hopes, dreams, and heart.