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The Contribution of Physical and Social Settings in “Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan

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“Rules of the Game” written by Amy Tan is a short story that focuses on the conflict in identity that Chinese Americans face when growing up with influences from both the cultures. The physical and social settings of “Rules of the Game” create an atmosphere which helps to bring out the true essence of the story. Amy Tan’s “The Rules of the Game” becomes more than a young girl’s success at playing chess when juxtaposed against the humility of immigrant life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Cultural tradition, physical surroundings and the game of chess are all elements of the physical and social setting which contribute to the meaning of the story. The story takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco. This is where the main character, Waverly Place Jong, lives with her family. The physical setting reflects the coexistence of the American and the Chinese cultures. The immigrant setting exposes the cultural clash between the Chinese American girl and her traditional mother. The description of the two-bedroom apartment above a Chinese bakery where Waverly lives with her family serves to define the humble circumstances of her childhood.

“Rules of the Game” depicts the period of 1950’s. Waverly states that “I was seven according to the American formula and eight by the Chinese calendar. I said I was born on March 17, 1951” (1425). This furnishes a better understanding of the prevailing circumstances in which the story takes place. In the late 1950’s Chinese – Americans had a harsh life in America due to Chinese immigration laws (Schauer, Gates 7). It explains Waverly’s mother‘s hostile attitude towards Americans. The physical setting throughout the story is a channel which provides an insight into the struggle which young Chinese Americans face in an attempt to navigate both the traditional Chinese culture and the melding culture of Chinese Americans. From the “warm, clean two-bedroom flat” (1423) where Waverly lives, to the “small, sandlot playground” (1424) and the “First Chinese Baptist Church at the end of the alley” (1425) the settings depict Waverly as a typical child. She is prone to mischief but tempered by discipline. Ironically, straying from this discipline leads to Waverly’s success in chess. Her brother is told to throw the chess set away but he does not obey their mother.

A detour on the way home from school results in Waverly meeting Lau Po, who teaches her the finer points of the game. As Waverly gets involved in tournaments further from home, her trophy displays move from her home to the bakery window, symbolizing her progress away from familiarity towards popularity. Waverly’s identity is linked to her surroundings. Her name is the name of the street she lives on. The alley behind the building where she lives serves to highlight Waverly’s changing attitudes. Waverly abandons her childhood haunts surrounded by other children for time with her chessboard. This change emphasizes her integration into a larger world. Looking at the transitions from the alley to the living room and the Christmas party at the church, to the tournament auditorium not only shows Waverly’s growth and struggle for independence, but also her mother’s determination to preserve Waverly’s pride in her heritage.

The role of chess as a setting in the story presents an analogy with Waverly‘s life. She uses her new knowledge of “weaknesses and advantages” (1426) to goad her mother into allowing her to compete for the first time. She continues to press her advantage, getting the bedroom to herself and berating her mother for watching her practice. In the chess game of life, however, Waverly underestimates her opponent (daltonkr4). In the final battle with her mother, It is her mother’s teaching that corners her and she must return to the reality of her apartment; “the alleys contained no escape routes” (1430). In the story’s final scene she imagines herself rising “above the alley” (1430). Waverly finds that she is alone and rising above her origins on Waverly place which by no means results in the desired triumph. The physical and social settings portrayed in Amy Tan’s “The Rules of the Game” enables the story to emerge as more than the birth of a child prodigy. Thus they make the story more profound.


Bausch, Richard and Cassill, Ronald Verlin. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Print.

Online Sources
“Rules of the Game.” Honors EnglishI -. N.P., n.d. 24 June, 2009 Web –accessible electronic journal article
“The Rules of the Game” — Michael Schauer, Nick Gates.” English /. N.P., n.d. 2 Feb, 2010

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