The novel opens after the death of Suyuan Woo, an elderly Chinese woman and the founding member of the Joy Luck Club. Suyuan has died without fulfilling her “long-cherished wish”: to be reunited with her twin daughters who were lost in China. Suyuan’s American-born daughter, Jing-mei (June) Woo, is asked to replace her mother at the Joy Luck Club’s meetings.
At the first meeting, Jing-mei learns that her long-lost half-sisters have been found alive and well in China. The other three elderly members of the Club – her mother’s best friends and Jing-mei’s “aunties” – give Jing-mei enough money to travel to China and meet her sisters. Essentially, Jing-mei has the opportunity to fulfill her mother’s greatest wish. Jing-mei’s aunties assign her the task of telling her twin sisters about the mother they never knew. The only problem is, Jing-mei feels like she never really knew her own mother.
This simple premise allows the book to cast a much wider net, as it raises the question of how well daughters know their mothers. The other three members of the Joy Luck Club – Ying-ying, Lindo, and An-mei – all have wisdom that they wish to impart to their independent, American daughters. However, their daughters – Lena, Waverly, and Rose – all have their own perspectives on life as Americans. This gives the book a total of eight perspectives and life stories to draw from. The novel is comprised of sixteen chapters, with each woman (with the exception of Suyuan) getting two chapters with which to tell her story.
At the end of the book, Jing-mei flies to China to meet her half sisters. She is extremely apprehensive about meeting them. When the sisters do meet for the first time, they instantly hug and cry. Jing-mei’s mother’s wish has been fulfilled, and through the process, Jing-mei feels that she has come closer to her mother.
In Shanghai, a woman buys a swan with an incredible story.
Though the swan began life as a duck who stretched its neck in the hopes of becoming a goose, it stretched its neck too far and became more than what it had hoped for.
The woman sails to America with her swan.
She hopes to have a girl in America who’s value will not be judged based on her husband, and who will not have to ignore herself and “swallow sorrow.”
The woman wants to keep the swan and one day give it to her American daughter (along with, we presume, a better life). Aw.
When the woman arrives in America, immigration officials take the swan away, leaving only one feather in the woman’s possession.
She fills out immigration paperwork until she forgets why she came to the U.S. in the first place.
Now the woman is old and she has an American daughter who speaks only English. The old woman is waiting for the day that she can give her daughter the feather, and tell her the story of the feather in perfect English.
Jing-mei’s father asks her to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club mah jong table.
She is going to replace her mother, Suyuan, who founded the club. Suyuan’s seat at the table (on the east side) has been empty since she died several months ago.
Suyuan died of a cerebral aneurism – that’s when a vessel in your brain swells and pops – and her long-time friends at the Joy Luck Club say she died with unfinished business.
Now Jing-mei needs to fill her mom’s shoes, or rather her mom’s position in the Joy Luck Club.
Jing-mei tells us a bit about her mother: Suyuan arrived in America with only fancy silk dresses.
In San Francisco, Suyuan was welcomed by American missionary ladies from First Chinese Baptist Church, where she met the Hsus, Jongs, and the St. Clairs.
Suyuan Woo invited the women of these families to form the Joy Luck Club, and the four of them became BFF as well as WEE (Worst Enemy Ever – more on this later).
Jing-mei always thinks of the origin story of the Joy Luck Club as her mother’s Kweilin story.
Jing-mei recalls how her mom told the story, so let’s enter into Suyuan’s story as if it were a flashback.
Here it is:
Suyuan’s husband (an army officer) brings her and their twin daughters to Kweilin for their safety during the second Sino-Japanese War, and then he leaves for Chungking.
Thousands of people pour into Kweilin to escape the Japanese (who are winning). The crowded city now stinks and is generally uncomfortable – because hey, they also have bombs being dropped on them.
Suyuan comes up with the idea of the Joy Luck Club, a gathering of four women to fill each corner of her mah jong table. Suyuan asks three girlfriends to join the club – no boys allowed.
Each week, one of the women hosts a banquet with lots of yummy, celebratory food meant to bring good fortune.
During the club meetings, they eat, play mah jong (with gambling involved), eat more, then tell stories, and congratulate themselves on how lucky they are.
The people in Kweilin think the Joy Luck Club ladies are kind of crazy for celebrating while many people are starving on the streets and dying from bombs. But Suyuan and her friends see no point in being miserable and waiting to die from the bombs, they’d rather create their own happiness and live their lives to the fullest.
The flashback into Suyuan’s life ends.
Back in the present, Jing-mei notes that her mom always ended the story of the formation of the Joy Luck Club by bragging about her skill at mah jong.
Jing-mei says she never took her mother’s Kweilin story seriously (she thought it was like your grandfather’s “walked to school barefoot in a blizzard and it was uphill both ways” kind of story).
But then one day her mother tells her a new ending to the story.
Here’s the flashback Jing-mei listening to her mom telling the story:
Suyuan says that the Japanese were about to march on Kweilin, and her husband sent a messenger, asking her to move to Chungking, ASAP.
There were no trains, but she managed to get a wheelbarrow, which she loaded with her possession and twin baby daughters, and proceeded to push to Chungking.
Suyuan pushed the wheelbarrow until the wheel broke. Then she put her babies in slings over her shoulders and carried her luggage by hand.
Suyuan walked until her hands were bleeding so badly she couldn’t carry anything. By the time she arrived in Chungking she’d lost everything except for three fancy dresses.
Jing-mei interrupts her mom’s story. She’s shocked: what did her mother mean by “everything”?
Her mother replies that Jing-mei is not those twin babies, and that Jing-mei’s father is not the husband in Chungking. This would be a perfect movie moment for that dramatic DUN DUN DUN sound.
End flashback and background story telling.
Jing-mei arrives late to the Joy Luck Club meeting, held at the Hsus’ apartment, nervous to be taking her mother’s place.
The Hsus’ house is just like it was when Jing-mei was a little girl – stinking of greasy Chinese food and decorated with plastic-covered furniture.
Unlike when Jing-mei was a little girl, the Joy Luck Club’s main event has changed from playing mah jong to buying stocks, since the same people kept winning at mah jong and taking the other players’ money all the time. Now with the stocks, they all win or lose together. They still play mah jong, but only bet trivial amounts of money.
Jing-mei chats with Auntie An-mei (“Auntie” just means that An-mei is a really good family friend), who is making wonton. She remembers her mother’s constant criticism of An-mei and others.
Jing-mei describes her mother’s version of categorizing people’s personalities. It’s a system based on five elements.
Suyuan believed that An-mei lacks the element wood in her character, leaving her unable to stand on her own.
Jing-mei, according to her mom, has too much water so she “flows in too many directions,” as exemplified by studying too many different things in college and then never even graduating.
On the subject of Suyuan criticizing everyone, Jing-mei remembers a time when she told her mom that parents should encourage their kids, not criticize them. Her mom says that if she encouraged Jing-mei, the girl would be lazy and not rise to the occasion. Ouch.
Everyone wolfs down all of the delicious food that An-mei has made and then the women play mah jong.
Jing-mei sits at her mom’s seat, the one on the East side of the table. She recalls how her mom used to say, “The East is where things begin.”
The ladies are horrified that Jing-mei has only ever played mah jong with Jewish friends. Auntie Lin says that Jewish mah jong involves no strategy.
The women begin to play and chat as they go. They speak in a combination of broken English and Chinese and topics of discussion include: bargain-priced yarn, returning a skirt with a broken zipper, gossip about mutual acquaintances, etc.
Jing-mei thinks back to a story her mom had told her about An-mei’s last trip to China. An-mei had brought a bunch of stuff from America for her brother, as well as $2,000 to spend on him. But when she got there, her brother’s massive extended family greeted her (like his wife’s step-siblings) all scrambling to get stuff from the Americans. An-mei and her husband end up down $9,000 on stuff for her brother’s greedy relatives.
In spending time with her mother’s friends, Jing-mei continues to stumble across the realization that she and her mom didn’t know each other very well.
Jing-mei describes Auntie Lin, who was best friends and arch enemies with her mother. The two women used to compare their daughters (Auntie Lin’s daughter is Waverly), but Auntie Lin always had more material to brag about because Waverly was a chess prodigy.
Jing-mei tries to leave, but Auntie An-mei accidentally blurts out that they have something to tell Jing-mei about her mother.
Remember how the JLC ladies said that Suyuan died with unfinished business? We know find out what that “business” is: the Suyuan’s twin girls have been found in China.
Suyuan had apparently been looking for the twin girls for years.
After Suyuan died, the aunts wrote to the twins.
Now the aunts give Jing-mei $1,200 to travel to China and meet her sisters and tell them about their mother.
Jing-mei says she doesn’t know anything about her mother.
All the aunts freak out at this idea.
Jing-mei realizes that they fear that their own daughters don’t know them, so she promises to tell her sisters everything about Suyuan.
Jing-mei once again realizes that she’s at her mother’s seat of the table, “on the East, where things begin.” So Jing-mei’s adventure beings, and so does the book.
An-mei tells the story of her youth as a child in her uncle’s house, where she lived with her uncle, auntie, grandmother (Popo), and little brother.
Now we get a flashback to when An-mei is a little girl. Popo tells An-mei that her mother is a ghost, meaning that An-mei is forbidden to talk about her mother.
Still in flashback mode, the story jumps to 1923, when An-mei is nine years old and her grandmother is very ill.
Popo tells An-mei never to say her mother’s name, because that would be a disgrace to An-mei’s dead father. Clearly, An-mei’s mom has done something bad.
An-mei only knows her dad from a scary, stiff painting of him that she sees on the wall.
One day when An-mei’s short-tempered aunt is mad, she yells at An-mei about her mother’s disgrace. This is how An-mei learns that her mother is now the concubine of a rich man (who already has a wife and two other concubines).
An-mei’s relatives look down on her mother, viewing her as a traitor to An-mei’s dead father, a woman with no honor who brings shame to the family.
An-mei begins to imagine her mother as a carefree woman who laughingly abandoned her family and her honor. This image of her mother disappoints her.
One day a woman arrives to take care of Popo. An-mei immediately knows it is her mother.
An-mei’s mother brushes her daughter’s hair, whispering, “you know me.” And then she rubs the scar on her daughter’s neck, leading An-mei into a memory of when she was four years old and her mom tried to take her away from her grandmother.
In the memory, her mother, uncle, aunt, and Popo are fighting. They are criticizing An-mei’s mother, saying she has no honor and is only a lowly concubine. They won’t let her have her children.
In the scuffle, a large pot of boiling soup falls on four-year-old An-mei, burning her neck.
Popo nurses An-mei back to health and the scar heals.
End memory – but back to An-mei as a nine-year-old girl.
Popo gets steadily sicker.
An-mei’s mother cooks up a soup and then cuts a piece of flesh from her own arm. PAINFUL! GROSS!
She adds it to the soup, along with herbs and medicines. The soup is a last-ditch effort to save Popo.
The ancient remedy fails to work, but An-mei learns to love her mother by seeing what a faithful daughter her mother is to Popo.
Lindo Jong begins her narrative by talking about promises. She says that she sacrificed her life to keep her parents’ promise, but her own daughter doesn’t have the same understanding of what it means to keep your word.
Lindo no longer worries about her daughter (it’s too late!), but focuses her energy on her granddaughter. She worries that her granddaughter will forget about her.
We enter into a flashback.
Lindo is two-years-old and a matchmaker comes to her house to arrange a match between Lindo and Huang Taitai’s one-year old son.
Unlike in the cities where men could choose their wives, the rational for this match is based on old-fashioned, rural ideas about Lindo being an “earth horse” and whether Lindo will be a dutiful daughter to Huang Taitai (her future mother-in-law).
After the contract is signed, Lindo’s parents stop treating her as their daughter, but as Huang Taitai’s daughter. Now that’s just confusing.
Lindo continues living with her parents, and meets her future husband for the first time when she is about nine-years-old. He’s a spoiled crybaby who continues to sit on his grandma’s lap despite being eight-years-old. He’s probably crushing the poor woman.
Lindo continues to see the Huang family during festivals and learns to be polite to her future mother-in-law, even calling Huang Taitai “Mother.”
When Lindo is twelve, a flood destroys most of her family’s property, leaving them essentially bankrupt.
The entire family moves to Wushi, leaving Lindo behind to join the Huang household.
Her mother tells her not to disgrace the family, and gives her a beautiful pendant called a chang. She also reminds Lindo what a lucky girl she is.
When Lindo arrives at the Huang house, she’s immediately put in her place. There’s no welcome of any sort. Huang Taitai pushes her straight to the kitchen – the realm of servants and cooks.
When she sees Tyan-yu (her future husband), he acts like a little jerk or “a big warlord” in Lindo’s words. The punk is still shorter than Lindo but makes every effort to bully her and make her cry. Awesome future husband.
Lindo is treated badly, but even though she can’t trick herself into thinking she’s happy, she remains determined to honor her family. Props to her.
She learns to cook, clean, and embroider to suit the exacting standards of Huang Taitai, who never does any work herself.
Lindo learns to treat Tyan-yu as a god and his mother as her real mother.
When Lindo turns sixteen, Huang Taitai makes preparations for Tyan-yu and Lindo to be married.
Huang Taitai prepares an elaborate wedding, but the week before the wedding, Japanese soldiers begin invading the region. Talk about a wedding disaster.
On the day of the wedding, there’s a thunder and lightening storm. People mistake the bad weather for Japanese bombs and decide not to leave their homes for the wedding. So, there are very few guests.
Before her wedding, Lindo cries over her bad luck and the promise she made to her parents.
Lindo watches the wildness of the rainstorm and contemplates the wind – although it is invisible, it is powerful.
She vows never to forget herself, her value, and her inner, genuine thoughts. This is a moment that most New Age-y LA women would call “finding yourself.”
During the ceremony, a candle with two ends is lighted. It is supposed to burn continuously throughout the night, symbolizing a marriage that can never be broken. Even if Tyan-yu died, the marriage bond would still hold so Lindo would never be able to re-marry.
The candle is supposed to seal Lindo to the Huang family forever.
After the marriage ceremony, the guests push the newlyweds up to their bedroom.
Once the guests leave, Tyan-yu throws Lindo out of his bed, instructing her to sleep on the sofa.
Lindo isn’t really disappointed, after all, Tyan-yu is more of a 15-year-old bossy momma’s boy than a Brad Pitt.
Lindo goes out to the courtyard where she can see a servant looking after the marriage candle. The servant is supposed to ensure that the candle never goes out.
The servant is scared by loud thunder and runs away. Lindo creeps up and blows out one end of the candle. Clever girl. She’s taking some action to change her fate.
In the morning, the matchmaker declares that the match is good – the candle didn’t go out. But the servant who was supposed to be watching the candle looks guilty – she probably relit the candle after Lindo went back to bed.
Lindo and Tyan-yu never consummate their marriage, but Lindo remains an obedient wife.
Huang Taitai finally gets mad that she doesn’t have any grandchildren yet. Tyan-yu points the finger at Lindo, telling his mom that his wife refuses to sleep with him.
In order to avoid Huang Taitai wrath, Lindo gets daring and creeps into bed with Tyan-yu. She’s practically throwing herself at her husband!
Tyan-yu refuses to touch her, even when she decides to model her birthday suit for him. What’s wrong with this guy?
Lindo speculates that he’s like a little boy that never grew up, and begins to love him as a younger brother who needs protection.
Huang Taitai gets super frustrated that Lindo still isn’t pregnant.
Huang Taitai is sure this is all Lindo’s fault because Tyan-yu has told mama that “he’s planted enough seeds for thousands of grandchildren.” First of all, planted them where? Secondly, it’s not cool to lie to your mom and make your wife deal with the mess.
Huang Taitai confines Lindo to bed rest. She follows all sorts of superstitions to make Lindo fertile, like removing all the scissors and knives from Lindo’s bedroom.
Four times a day, a nice servant girl feeds Lindo some awful medicine.
Lindo watches the servant girl enviously, watching her go about her chores and flirt with a cute delivery man.
After the bed rest goes on for a while with no results, Huang Taitai consults the matchmaker, who argues that Lindo is too balanced in all the elements. Huang Taitai is more than happy to reclaim all of Lindo’s jewelry and liberate the girl from her metal element.
But instead of making Lindo pregnant, getting rid of metal has the effect of lightening up Lindo and making her start to think independently. She plots a way to escape her marriage without breaking her promise to her parents.
She waits for a lucky day – the Festival of Pure Brightness, a day for honoring your ancestors when Huang Taitai is sure to be thinking of grandsons.
Lindo “wakes up” wailing and tells Huang Taitai about a (made up) dream in which Tyan-yu’s grandfather came to her to inform her that a) the marriage candle blew out; b) Tyan-yu will die if he stays married to Lindo; and c) that a pregnant servant girl is really of imperial blood, is Tyan-yu’s true wife, and is carrying Tyan-yu’s baby. (The servant girl is actually carrying the cute delivery man’s baby.)
Lindo manages to convince Huang Taitai by arguing that the marriage is rotten, offering as proof an empty spot in her mouth where a tooth fell out, and a mole on Tyan-yu’s back.
The evidence is indisputable. Without much urging, the servant girl admits that she’s of imperial blood and carrying Tyan-yu’s child.
Everyone winds up happy: Huang Taitai gets a grandson, Tyan-yu doesn’t have to have sex with anyone, and the servant girl is a respectable, wealthy wife instead of a poor single mom. As for Lindo, she gets enough money to go to America.
Well, that’s the end of the flashback of Lindo’s life.
Back in the current time, Lindo wears many twenty-four carat gold bracelets to remind her of her worth.
Once a year, however, on the Festival of Pure Brightness, she takes off all her bracelets to feel the lightness come back into her body and remind herself of the day she learned to follow her inner, genuine thoughts.
Ying-ying begins by saying that she was so quiet for so long, keeping her true nature hidden, that her daughter no longer hears her.
She wants to tell her daughter that both of them are lost, so lost that no one knows them.
But as Ying-ying remembers a time that she ran and shouted, telling the Moon Lady a secret wish, we get a flashback.
In the flashback, it’s 1918 and Ying-ying is an inquisitive four-years-old. She wakes up to many preparations for the Moon Festival, i.e., she is dressed in pretty clothes and her hair is done nicely despite her fidgeting.
Ying-ying’s amah (nanny) tells her what the Moon Festival is all about: it’s the day when you can see the Moon Lady and she will fulfill your “secret wish.” But your wish must remain unspoken, because if you speak it, then it’s a “selfish desire.”
Relatives from all over arrive to celebrate the Moon Festival.
They have rented a boat on Tai Lake, and Ying-ying’s nanny promises that the little girl will meet the Moon Lady.
Throughout the morning, Ying-ying is very impatient to get to the boat. Obviously. She’s four, for heaven’s sake.
She gets scolded for running around chasing a dragonfly because that’s what boys do. Ying-ying should be acting like a girl, waiting quietly for the dragonfly to come up to her.
Finally the family is brought to the lake by a team of rickshaws.
Ying-ying has fun exploring the boat.
She watches boys use a bird to catch fish.
She watches an old woman gut and clean the fish.
Ying-ying’s new clothes are completely soiled. Her nanny finds her, scolds her, and removes all her clothes.
Ying-ying continues standing in the back of the boat, waiting for her mother to come scold her.
No one comes, and when the fireworks go off, Ying-ying falls into the lake. No one notices.
She is caught by a fishing boat, and the nice fishermen joke about her being a fish.
They ask her to point to her family’s boat, and Ying-ying picks a boat, only to discover that the little girl on that boat is safe.
The people in the fishing boat try to determine Ying-ying’s identity. Briefly they wonder if she’s a beggar, but they decide that she’s from a wealthy family because her skin is pale and her feet are soft.
Ying-ying feels lost forever without her family.
Her rescuers drop her off on shore, assuming that her family will look for her there. But, what do they think they’re doing, leaving a four-year-old alone?
On shore, Ying-ying forgets her troubles when she watches a play about the Moon Lady.
She is utterly entranced by the tragic tale of separation; the Mood Lady’s husband lives on the sun while the Moon Lady is banished from the earth to the moon for stealing a magic peach.
Ying-ying sobs at the end of the play, drawing a connection between her own loss and the Moon Lady’s loss of the world and her husband.
Ying-ying runs to tell the Moon Lady her secret wish (exactly what she’s not supposed to do!), but as she runs closer and closer, the beautiful Moon Lady turns into an ugly figure.
As Ying-ying declares her wish, she realizes that the Moon Lady is a man. Bummer. Drag is always confusing.
End of flashback.
In the present day, Ying-ying says she eventually forgot both her secret wish and her return to her family.
However, as she ages, she remembers more of the beginning of her life and how she lost herself.
Her secret wish to the Moon Lady was that she be found.
This is a dialogue between a mother and a young daughter.
The mother knows that if the daughter rides her bike around the corner, she will fall.
The girl refuses to believe her mother.
The mother knows her daughter will fall because of a book called The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, which details twenty-six horrible fates for children.
The girl wants to see the book, but the mom says it’s written in Chinese so she won’t understand it.
The daughter demands to know these twenty-six fates.
When her mother doesn’t answer, the girl rides her bike away in anger, shouting “You don’t know anything,” and falling before she even rounds the corner.
Score one for mom.
We get a flashback to when Waverly was six-years-old and her mother teaches her about the art of invisible strength via a weekly trip to the supermarket.
When Waverly throws a hissy fit because she can’t have a treat – a bag of salted plums – her mom tells her the “Strongest wind cannot be seen.” So next time when they go shopping, Waverly doesn’t make a fuss, and her mom quietly buys her the salted plums.
Waverly’s family lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, above a Chinese bakery.
Waverly and the other neighborhood kids spend their time playing in the dark alleys and poking around the local shops: a medicinal herb shop, a fish market, a café, etc.
Waverly is named for their address: Waverly Place. She is the youngest in the family, and the only daughter. Her name at home is “Meimei,” which means “Little Sister.”
During the annual Christmas party at First Chinese Baptist Church, Waverly sits on Santa’s lap. She knows he’s not the real Santa, because Santa isn’t Chinese. Still she says that she’s a good girl, and strategically selects a present, already having observed that the biggest presents aren’t always the best, and attempting to judge the gift by it’s weight.
Waverly ends up with a twelve pack of lifesavers, not bad. Her older brother, Vincent, receives an old chess set – one that’s missing pieces.
Waverly rapidly becomes obsessed with the game, watching her brothers, Vincent and Winston, play.
Vincent allows her to play in exchange for some lifesavers.
Waverly begins by questioning all of the rules, stuff like, why can’t pawns move more than one step at a time. Waverly’s mom compares the arbitrary rules of chess to “American rules” that immigrants have to deal with.
Waverly researches all of the rules and studies the strategy involved in the game.
She learns that chess “is a game of secrets in which one must show and never tell.” Sounds like her mom’s invisible strength of the wind.
Soon, her brothers get sick of losing to their little sister, and Waverly begins playing against an old man, Lau Po, in the park. She loses lots of lifesavers to him, but he becomes a great mentor.
Waverly begins playing (and beating) a bunch of locals, until someone recommends she try a local tournament.
In her first tournament, she beats a fifteen-year-old boy, the whole time she’s thinking of wind analogies from her mom.
Waverly becomes a neighborhood celebrity when she starts winning all sorts of tournaments.
By the time she is nine, she is featured in Life magazine as a child prodigy, after beating a fifty-year-old man. During this particular competition, Waverly uses all kinds of strategic body language designed to make her opponent underestimate her as an indecisive, cute little girl.
Waverly stops doing everything but going to school and practicing chess.
There’s a problem though: Waverly’s annoying mom likes to hover when she practices.
In return for all this chess success, Waverly gets a lot of perks. She no longer has to do the dishes, sleep in the room next to the street, or finish her food at meals.
She cannot, however, avoid going with her mother to the market.
On one such trip, Waverly gets fed up and yells at her mother, alleging that these shopping trips are just to show her off.
Waverly runs away.
When she comes home, she imagines a chess match against her mother.
This chapter is a flashback into Lena’s childhood.
Lena’s mom tells her a family story about how her great-grandfather sentenced a beggar man to the “worst possible” death. Little Lena imagines what the worst possible death could be, and thinks up all sorts of gruesome ways in which the death sentence might have been carried out – maybe he’s cut one thousand times.
When Lena asks her mom how the beggar died, Lena’s mom calls her a morbid American and says that the way the beggar died doesn’t matter.
Lena wants to know how the beggar dies so she can know the worst that’s out there, taking away some of the power of the “unspeakable.” Her mom allows the unspeakable it’s power, and as a result, little by little, her mother is reduced to a ghost.
Lena recognizes that her mother has a dark side.
When she is five, Lena falls into the basement, and her mother warns her never to open the door again, telling her that an evil man has lurked in the basement for a thousand years, ready to eat anyone who comes through the door.
Lena begins to imagine all sorts of gruesome fates in everyday activity, i.e., a tetherball that would smash a girl’s head in. She attributes this dark side of herself, to her mom and her Chinese side.
Lena’s mom is Chinese and her dad is white. To lots of people, Lena just looks white, but Lena herself tries to make her eyes rounder by massaging them and opening her eyes really wide.
Lena’s dad shows her a photo of her mother looking scared after being released from Angel Island Immigration Station.
According to her dad, he saved her mother from some awful life in China.
During the immigration process, Lena’s father gave his wife a new name and birth date on her papers – she went from being Gu Ying-ying born in the year of the Tiger to Betty St. Clair born in the year of the Dragon.
Ying-ying sees danger everywhere, so she constantly makes stories up in order to teach Lena to avoid danger. The stories are absurd things like, that homeless lady’s fingers are rotting off because she slept with a bad man and got pregnant.
Lena’s mom and dad have communication issues. Ying-ying only speaks a little bit of English, and Lena’s dad doesn’t speak Mandarin, so he’s always guessing what she’s saying, putting words into his wife’s mouth.
Lena, however, does understand Mandarin, but that doesn’t mean she really understands what her mom wants, or why her mom is so paranoid about Lena getting hurt or getting kidnapped and impregnated.
Lena’s family moves from Oakland to the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, where their apartment is on a very steep hill.
Some strange Chinese man comes running at Lena and her mom on the street. Ying-ying is terrified and Lena screams. It’s really unclear what’s happening in this episode, but Lena’s mom is clearly becoming more frantic.
Also, you get some glimpse of racism that Lena has to deal with: some men on the street think that Lena’s mom is really her maid, since Lena looks pretty Caucasian and obviously all Asian women are maids…Their logic is stunning.
Lena’s mother is unhappy in their new apartment, muttering about things not being balanced, and spending time constantly rearranging the furniture, kitchen, and decorations. Her concerns are things like, “This house was built too steep, and a bad wind from the top blows all your strength back down the hill.”
Lena’s father really doesn’t get it and figures it must be “nesting instincts,” because Lena’s mother is expecting a baby.
But Lena feels worried. Her mom keeps bumping her pregnant belly into things, as if she doesn’t remember that she’s pregnant. Lena’s worried for the baby, and feels that the family is headed towards danger.
At night, Lena can hear a mother and daughter arguing next door. She imagines the daughter being beaten to death, or sliced to death with a sharp knife. The next night it happens again.
Lena runs into the girl from next-door in the hallway. She looks like a normal, happy girl, not one who’s being murdered every night.
One day Auntie Su and Uncle Canning, pick Lena up from school and take her to the hospital.
Lena’s mother is shouting accusations at herself, saying that she knew this was going to happen, but she did nothing to prevent it.
Lena’s dad is calling his wife “Betty darling” and he can’t understand what she’s saying or what has happened. He wants Lena to translate for him.
Ying-ying tells sort of a magical realism story where the baby boy was clinging to her womb, trying not to be born, and when he came out his head is just an empty eggshell. (Sounds like anencephaly where a baby is born without some or all of their brain.) The baby then accuses her of not wanting him, and of killing her first son (more on this later).
Lena tells her father a different story in English, saying that her mother hopes the baby will be happy “on the other side.”
Lena then watches her mother and father fall apart: her mother just becomes really distracted and starts crying all the time. Her father keeps trying to fix everything (unsuccessfully).
Lena comforts herself by thinking that the girl next door (who gets murdered every night) has an unhappier life.
Lena begins comparing her mother to a living ghost.
One day the girl from next door, who’s name Teresa, rings their doorbell. Her mother kicked her out, but she plans to use the fire escape to get back into her bedroom. She seems proud. Apparently, this is business as usual for Teresa and her mom.
Later that night, Lena realizes that the women next door love each other. Now Lena can’t comfort herself by thinking that Teresa’s life sucks.
Lena imagines saving her mother.
She envisions that she sees a girl, in pain because she is ignored, tell her mom that the only way to save her is to die by being cut a thousand times (like the beggar man who gets the “worst possible” death sentence). She slices her mother as her mother yells out in pain, but at the end there is no blood and the mother isn’t dead.
Now the mother has experienced the worst there is in the world, so she doesn’t have to worry anymore about what the worst might be. The mother is saved.
Rose’s mother used to carry a white Bible, but it’s been used for over twenty years to prop up one leg of their dining room table. We envisioned other ways in which religion can be useful, but we guess it’s a “to each his own” type of deal.
Rose knows that her mother still sees that Bible, because it is still immaculately clean. Fishy…
Rose is watching her mother sweep the kitchen, waiting for the right moment to tell An-mei that she’s divorcing her husband, Ted. Rose knows that her mother will want her to save the marriage.
We get a flashback of how Rose met Ted.
The two meet in college and Rose is initially attracted to him in part because he’s not Chinese and therefore very different from the guys she’s previously dated.
Neither of their mothers approve. An-mei points out that he’s American.
Ted’s mother pulls Rose aside and basically tells Rose that she better not marry Ted, because that would hurt her son’s future career as a doctor, with the Vietnam War being unpopular and all. Clearly, to this woman, all Asian people are Vietnamese.
Ted and Rose cling together against the world’s prejudice.
As their relationship progresses, Rose and Ted fall into roles: she plays the victim and he’s the hero.
They marry and buy a house.
Ted becomes not only a dermatologist, but the proverbial decider, choosing everything from their furniture to their vacation spots. Rose never thinks of protesting.
After a malpractice suit, Ted pushes Rose to make more decisions.
Ted accuses Rose of not being able to do anything without him. Then he asks for a divorce.
That’s the end of Rose and Ted’s romantic history.
Rose has another flash back to the day her mother lost faith in God.
Enter flashback: The entire family goes to the beach because Rose’s father wants to catch ocean perch, despite not being a fisherman.
Rose’s parents believe in their nengkan, which is a person’s ability to achieve anything she sets her mind on.
Rose’s dad thinks he can catch ocean perch because of his nengkan, and Rose’s parents immigrated from China to America and had seven children on the same basis.
At the beach, Rose’s mother assigns her to watching her four younger brothers, in Chinese literally saying, “Watch out for their bodies.”
Rose begins worrying about her youngest brother, Bing. But she feels like her worry is based on superstition from The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, that Chinese book about all the ways children can get hurt.
As the family is enveloped in chaos of different kinds – some of the boys get into a fight, Rose’s father gets a tug on his line – Rose watches four-year-old Bing fall into the sea.
The rescue people can’t find Bing.
Rose’s mom jumps into the water, searching for Bing. She has so much faith in her nengkan that she’s sure she’ll find Bing even though she doesn’t know how to swim.
Rose knows that it’s all her fault that her brother has been lost to the ocean. She was supposed to look after him. She’s expecting all of her family to blame her.
Instead, each family member blames him or herself.
Rose and her mother go back to the beach the next morning.
Her mother has the white Bible with her and prays to God, begging him to return her son.
When Bing does not appear, she doesn’t lose hope, but tries another tactic.
Rose’s mother begs the Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea, to return her son, throwing into the ocean an offering of sweet tea to cool his temper, and her ring of watery sapphire to distract him from Bing.
Bing fails to appear after even a hour passes.
Rose’s mom now tosses out a life preserver tied to a fishing pole, sure it will float directly to Bing and pull him back to safety.
Despite all of her nengkan, the life preserver is shredded and Bing doesn’t appear.
Finally, Rose’s mother gives up, horrified and despairing.
So the flashback is over and we’re back in real time.
Rose’s mom wants Rose to keep trying to save her marriage, even if it doesn’t work out.
Rose draws a parallel between Bing’s death and her own marriage; both times, she sees the danger coming but does nothing about it.
Rose draws out the Bible from under the table and finds “Bing Hsu” written in erasable pencil, under a section titled “Deaths.”
When she was alive, Suyuan, Jing-mei’s mom, believed in the classic American Dream, that she and her daughter could be whatever they wanted to be.
We enter a flashback to when Jing-mei is a girl.
After seeing the wild success of Waverly, Jing-mei’s mother is convinced that her daughter can be a prodigy too.
With Suyuan’s urging, Jing-mei attempts a number of prodigy-like activities: being a Chinese Shirley Temple and attending beauty training school, memorizing the Bible, performing amazing acrobatics, etc.
At first, Jing-mei is excited about the idea of being a prodigy.
Jing-mei’s mom searches through magazines for stories about incredible children and what they are capable of, then she quizzes Jing-mei to see if Jing-mei has similar abilities. Tests range from naming the capitals of different countries to mental mathematics.
Jing-mei loses her own excitement about possibly being a prodigy when she continues to see her mom disappointed after every failed test. Instead, Jing-mei becomes determined not to be good at all of the tests, and tries to get her mom to give up on her.
On one fateful evening when Suyuan had seemingly given up the idea of Jing-mei being a prodigy, she sees a little Chinese girl pianist on The Ed Sullivan Show. Suyuan is entranced because the little girl is both Shirley Temple-ish and a good, modest Chinese child.
Jing-mei’s mom accuses Jing-mei of not being the best at anything because she isn’t trying hard enough.
Within a few days, Suyuan has arranged to clean a piano teacher’s house in exchange for Jing-mei receiving piano lessons.
Despite her kicking and screaming about not being a genius, Suyuan forces Jing-mei to go to piano lessons.
Jing-mei’s teacher is a deaf man (“Like Beethoven!”) named Mr. Chong who doesn’t notice incorrect notes and thinks all of the fake stuff Jing-mei makes up is “Very good!” because he can’t hear it. So long as she plays in the proper rhythm, the notes don’t matter.
So she determines not to try – or at least to try not to be a good pianist.
After church Jing-mei hears Lindo Jong bragging to Suyuan about all of Waverly’s chess trophies. Suyuan tries to one-up Lindo by saying that Jing-mei has tremendous natural talent at piano.
Jing-mei can’t handle her mom’s prideful lies.
A few weeks later, Jing-mei has her grand debut at a talent show. She is to play “Pleading Child” by Schumann. Everyone is there, including Jing-mei’s archrival, Waverly.
She feels totally confident, and really pretty in her white dress. The only problem is, Jing-mei’s been practicing her curtsy more often than her scales.
She completely and totally bombs her piece.
Jing-mei looks at her mom, who’s horrified, and even hears little kids talking about how bad she was. The adults say vague things about Jing-mei’s performance, and Waverly makes smug comments (“You aren’t a genius like me”).
Afterwards, Jing-mei assumes that her piano career is over, but her mother forces the issue, telling her to quit watching TV and get to practicing.
When Jing-mei says no, Suyuan literally drags her daughter over to the piano and forces her onto the bench.
Jing-mei yells at her mother, saying that she’s not the kind of daughter her mother wants.
Her mother says there are two kinds of daughters: obedient ones, and ones who follow their own minds. There is only room for one kind of daughter in this house: obedient ones.
To win the fight, Jing-mei brings up the babies left behind in China; she says that she’d rather be dead like the twins than be Suyuan’s daughter. Ouch.
The flashback ends and we return to the present day.
Jing-mei explains that she continued to deliberately and repeatedly fall short of expectations.
Jing-mei isn’t like her mom who believes that a person can be anything she sets her mind to; Jing-mei just thinks she’s herself and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
We flashback again to when Jing-mei is thirty-years-old.
That the fight over piano hasn’t been mentioned since it happened ages ago, and Jing-mei is afraid to ask her mom why she gave up hope that Jing-mei would be a prodigy.
On her thirtieth birthday, Jing-mei’s mother offers her the piano as a gift. Suyuan tells Jing-mei that she could pick up piano quickly if she wanted to. Jing-mei understands it as a sign of forgiveness.
The flashback ends and we’re back in the present with Jing-mei as an adult.
After her mother’s death, Jing-mei has the piano tuned and reconditioned for sentimental reasons.
Jing-mei sits down to play “Pleading Child,” and realizes there is a companion piece called “Perfectly Contented.”
After a while, she realizes they are two parts to the same song.
This is an exchange between a mother and her grown daughter, taking place in the master bedroom of the daughter’s new condo.
The mother insists that mirrors cannot be placed at the foot of the bed, because they turn away marriage happiness.
The daughter is dismissive, sick of her mom’s superstition and all of the bad omens she sees.
The mother corrects the imbalance by giving her daughter a second mirror to be placed at the head of the bed.
The two mirrors are meant to help fertility; the mother says that she can see her future grandchild in the second mirror.
When the daughter looks in the mirror, she finds that her mother is right: through her own reflection, she can see her future child.
Lena begins her narrative by explaining that her mother has an uncanny ability to see the future (not the future like stocks, but the future in regards to family).
Though her mom, Ying-ying, has been able to see into the family’s future and see bad events coming, Ying-ying grieves that she never did anything to stop them.
For example, Lena’s mom knew that Lena’s dad would die because of the way a plant he gave her died in spite of proper care.
Lena’s stressed out about her mom’s strange abilities because she’s worried about what her mother will see in the new house she and Harold (Lena’s husband) just bought.
Harold and Lena are driving Lena’s mom over to see the house, which is in a semi-isolated area up on a hill. Lena’s mom already has some criticisms: Harold’s driving style will put too much wear and tear on their nice car.
Right now Lena’s mad at Harold. They’re bickering about money, again. He wants Lena to pay for the flea exterminator because Lena’s cat brought the fleas in, so the fleas are obviously Lena’s as well.
Then Lena switches her narration to describe the new house, which is a converted barn.
Lena’s mother points out all the flaws with terrifying truth – it cost too much, the floors slant, and it’s full of spiders and fleas.
Lena is afraid that her mother sees her marriage problems as well. She’s convinced her mom knows that the marriage isn’t a happy one because when Lena was eight-years-old, her mom predicted that she would marry a “bad man.”
We flashback to a dinner many, many years ago.
In an effort to get Lena to finish her food, Lena’s mother tells her that her future husband will have one pock mark for every grain of uneaten rice. Then she follows up by implying that guys with pock marks are bad men.
Lena thinks of Arnold, a mean twelve-year-old with pits in his face from bad acne, who picks on her.
She doesn’t want Arnold as a husband, so she finishes her rice.
But her mother points out that Lena has left many bowls of rice uneaten in the past.
That same week, Lena sees a film in Sunday school about people with leprosy. She determines that lepers must be husbands and wives of people who failed to finish their rice.
Lena figures that if she leaves mouthfuls of her rice uneaten at every meal, she won’t have to marry Arnold. (Because then he’ll be a leper and die.)
She rapidly stopped eating just about everything. Hmmm…that’s called an eating disorder.
Five years later, Lena finds out from a newspaper that Arnold recently died of complications from measles. He contracted the measles when he was twelve (when Lena was eight and decided to stop eating her rice) and the disease resurfaced five years later.
Lena feels incredibly guilty, like she caused Arnold to die.
That night, Lena devours a half-gallon of strawberry ice cream and then promptly throws it up on the fire escape.
The flashback ends.
Lena’s still isn’t convinced that she didn’t cause Arnold to die, after all, as an eight-year-old that was her intention.
Even though Lena succeeded in avoiding marrying Arnold, she ends up with Harold (suspiciously similar name). From the way she says this, we’re not so sure that Harold is any better than Arnold in her eyes.
Lena explains the history her relationship with Harold in a flashback.
Lena and Harold meet through work, and start seeing each other on casual dates.
When they go out for meals, they split the bill in half – even though Lena only orders a salad and Harold orders full-course meals. Yeah, she has “doormat” written all over her.
During some pillow talk, Harold gives Lena some compliments: she’s “so together” and “soft and squishy.”
She’s really astonished that such an amazing man would fall for her. She worries that Harold will one day think she isn’t worthy of his love. (This is called suffering from a lack of self-respect.)
Lena encourages Harold to start his own business, and basically saves his nascent firm with her new, smart ideas for restaurant design.
Although Lena does amazing work for Harold – finding the decorations and props for the themed restaurants they work on – she never gets promoted. Harold is fair to everyone in the workplace…except Lena.
Meanwhile, Harold insists on keeping all the money stuff separate to ensure that their love is “pure” and “uncontaminated by money.” But dude, it’s really, really clear that Lena is getting the crappy deal.
The flashback ends and we’re back to the present with Lena’s mom visiting Harold and Lena at their new house.
Lena sees her mom looking at the refrigerator list with all of the shared expenses that Lena and Harold have, basically a long list of who owes who, so they can split all the expenses evenly.
Harold is super obsessed with money matters. Since they’ve bought an expensive house and Lena can’t afford to pay half the mortgage payment, she only owns a small portion of the house and property. And since she has less ownership of the house, Harold gets to make all of the decorating decisions. Is it just us, or is this guy a jerk?
When her mother calls her on it, after seeing the IOU list on the refrigerator, Lena doesn’t know how to respond.
After dinner, it’s really clear that Harold and Lena have marriage problems. Harold asks who wants ice cream for dessert? Lena says she’s full, Harold thinks she’s just on a diet, and Lena’s mom points out that Lena has hated ice cream since she was a kid. So there. And all this time Lena’s been paying for half of Harold’s Friday evening ice cream purchases.
When Lena’s mom says that Lena’s becoming so thin “She like a ghost, disappear.” Harold thinks she’s making a comment about Lena’s diets. But remember how Lena’s mom, Ying-ying St. Clair, is the one who became more and more ghostlike because she lost herself? Ying-ying is probably making a comment about Lena losing herself, not about dieting.
Lena gets her mom set up in the guest room, where her mom notices a totally rickety bedside table with a vase on it. The table can’t hold any weight, and her mom thinks it’s useless.
Later that night, Lena and Harold fight. She yells at him for being “so ******* fair!” and how she’s sick of their relationship being about accounting. He doesn’t get it.
Lena starts to cry while Harold dodges questions about the foundation of their relationship, and throws them back at her.
They’re interrupted by the sounds of glass shattering.
Lena goes upstairs to see what the sound was.
The fragile table in the guest bedroom (where Lena’s mother is staying) has fallen and the vase on it shattered.
Lena picks up the pieces, saying she knew it was going to happen.
Her mother asks, then why didn’t you stop it?
Waverly takes her mother out to lunch. Her mother complains the entire time: Waverly’s haircut is ugly, the restaurant chopsticks are greasy, the soup isn’t hot enough, etc.
Waverly gives up on the idea of telling her mother an important bit of news: that she plans on marrying Rich Schields.
Waverly’s mom has never met Rich, and every time Waverly tries to talk to her mother about him, her mother changes the subject.
After lunch, Waverly takes her mom to her apartment, where Waverly lives with her daughter, Shoshana. It’s clear that Rich has moved in. She wants her mom to realize the relationship is serious.
Waverly shows her mom a mink coat that Rich bought her for Christmas – a really extravagant gift that Waverly seems really proud of.
Her mother points out the coat’s flaws.
Waverly is hurt, but at the same time she sees the truth in her mother’s comments.
Waverly’s mom jabs her again. Waverly asks if her mom is going to say anything about the apartment (i.e., Rich living there), and her mom just comments on the apartment being a mess.
We flash back to the first time Waverly was seriously hurt by her mother.
Waverly is ten-years-old and sick of her mom boasting about her chess skills and taking all the credit for Waverly’s clever chess strategies.
In a crowd of people, Waverly yells at her mom to stop showing off and basically tells her that she knows nothing about chess.
Waverly’s mom is mad and gives her daughter the silent treatment for the next few days.
Waverly decides not to respond with anger; she ignores her mom right back and quits playing chess for a few days in order to spite her mother. Basically, Waverly’s trying to make her mom so mad that she has to talk to her.
Waverly decides to skip a tournament, but even this elicits no response from her mother.
After a week, she announces that she’s ready to begin playing again, hoping she’ll get a positive reaction out of her mom. But her mother tells her that it’s not so easy, just because Waverly is smart and can pick things up quickly doesn’t mean she should be so fickle.
Waverly contracts chicken pox, and her mother looks after her, ending their silent battle.
Waverly is convinced that her mother is back to her usual self, but when it comes to Waverly’s chess playing, her mother no longer seems to care. She longer polishes her daughter’s trophies, cuts out newspaper clips about Waverly, or hovers over Waverly as she practices.
Waverly loses her next tournament, saying that she felt as though she had lost a magic armor, leaving her completely vulnerable to her opponents. Waverly’s mom even seems to smile a bit when she loses the game.
The game stops coming so easily to Waverly. She has to fight hard to win, and the losses are hard on her.
After a spell of time, Waverly stops playing altogether.
We return from the flashback to the present.
Waverly is on the phone with her friend, Marlene, explaining the incident with her mom and the mink coat.
Marlene wants to know why Waverly gets so hurt by her mom, why doesn’t she just tell her mom to shut up and deal with the fact that she’s with Rich?
Waverly describes her mother as having all these little sneaky attacks. And, you just can’t tell Chinese moms to shut up.
Waverly’s afraid that amidst all her mother’s criticisms, some truth will stick and alter all of her perceptions of Rich, the man she currently adores.
Waverly says that’s what happened with her first husband, Marvin Chen.
Marvin was like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. He got a full scholarship to Stanford, played tennis, actually had chest hair, was funny, and was creative with sex.
However, all of Waverly’s mother’s criticisms of Marvin rang true, and he turned out to be kind of a jerk with an eye for other ladies. Waverly’s not sure if her mom actually did poison her marriage, but she ended up feeling mere apathy towards Marvin.
Waverly found out she was pregnant just as her marriage turned sour. She considered aborting the baby, but ended up keeping her. Waverly’s daughter, Shoshana, is now four-years-old, and Waverly adores her.
Waverly compares Rich’s love for her with her own love for Shoshana- unequivocal and without needing anything in return.
Rich is super sweet, really romantic, and great in bed, but Waverly is still worried about how her mom will criticize him.
Finally, Waverly engineers a way for Rich to meet her mother.
Waverly and Rich eat dinner at Auntie Suyuan and Uncle Canning’s house. In her thank-you card, Waverly writes that Rich thought it was the best Chinese food he had ever eaten.
Shortly after, a dinner invitation comes from Waverly’s mother. This was exactly what Waverly predicted because her mom is so competitive with Suyuan cooking skill.
Waverly hangs out in the kitchen while her mother prepares the meal. Already her mom’s pointing out how she’s a better cook that Suyuan.
Waverly builds up the courage to ask for her mom’s first impression of Rich. Waverly’s really nervous because Rich is an average-looking, kind of short, red-headed guy with freckles.
Her mom says he has a lot of spots on his face and doesn’t buy it when Waverly insists that freckles are good luck.
By Waverly’s standards, the dinner goes terribly. Let’s call it White Boy in Chinese House.
Rich brings a fancy French wine. Waverly’s parents don’t even own wine glasses.
Rich then drinks two glasses when everyone else has three sips.
Rich insists on using chopsticks, then drops almost everything he tries to eat in his lap, making Shoshana laugh hysterically.
Rich helps himself to big portions – before anyone else gets a chance.
Rich thinks he’s being polite by refusing to eat seconds, even though Waverly’s father sets the right example by taking four helpings, insisting the food is so delicious he can’t resist.
And the coup de grâce is when Waverly’s mother criticizes the main dish (cue for everyone to pronounce it the best food they’ve ever tasted!), and Rich says it just needs a little soy sauce, and proceeds to drench his food.
When Rich says goodnight, he uses butchered versions of her parents’ first names: Linda and Tim (instead of Lindo and Tin).
At the end of this debacle, Rich looks pathetic in Waverly’s eyes. He doesn’t even have any sense of how badly the whole dinner went.
The next morning when Waverly wakes up mad and decides to go give her mother a piece of her mind.
When she arrives at her parents’ house, Waverly finds her mother sleeping on the sofa, and for a terrible moment is afraid she’s died.
As she wakes her mom up, Waverly instantly starts crying. She then tells her mother that she’s marrying Rich.
To her surprise, her mom says, that’s old news. Just because Waverly didn’t tell her doesn’t mean she didn’t know.
Waverly says she knows her mom hates Rich.
Her mom is becomes kind of angry-sad, realizing her daughter thinks “I am this bad.” Really she had just said things about his freckles and the mink coat because they were true, not because she wanted to be mean.
Waverly just wants to go home because she says she doesn’t know what she’s feeling, what’s “inside of me right now.”
Her mom lets her know what’s inside of her: half is from father – the Jongs – and half is from her mother – the Suns. The people from the Sun clan are “smart people, very strong, tricky, and famous for winning wars.”
Waverly feels comforted by having a semblance of a normal conversation with her mother.
Finally, instead of a crabby old woman hell-bent on ruining her daughter’s life, Waverly sees her mother as an old woman who simply cares about her daughter.
The chapter ends with the definite possibility that Rich, Waverly, and Waverly’s mother will all visit China after the wedding. Waverly’s mom says she doesn’t want to go with them, but really she’s dying for them to invite her. That’s pretty cute.
Rose begins her narrative with the power of her mother’s words. As a child Rose’s mother would try to teach her how to know the power of true words, so that Rose wouldn’t listen so easily to other people and be swayed by their selfish desires.
We enter into a brief flashback to when Rose was a little girl.
Rose has trouble sleeping. She’s afraid of “Old Mr. Chou,” the guardian to the world of dreams, and where he takes her at night. Basically, Rose has bad dreams.
In one of her dreams, Rose finds herself in Mr. Chou’s backyard, being forced to choose one of the dolls in Mr. Chou’s sandboxes. She can hear her mother telling Mr. Chou which doll Rose will select. As not to be predictable, Rose picks a doll that she doesn’t like and runs away. Rose’s mom tells Mr. Chou to stop Rose. And Mr. Chou paralyzes Rose for not listening to her mother.
In the morning, Rose’s mom laughs at her dream, but does insist that Rose should listen to her mother.
In the present day, Rose and her mother chat at a funeral.
Rose’s mom knows that Rose and her husband, Ted, are getting a divorce.
When Rose tells her mother that Ted has sent her a check, Rose’s mother concludes that Ted is “doing monkey business” with someone.
Rose really disagrees, and from the pictures in her head, we gather that he is too much of a Neanderthal to have an affair.
When Rose refuses to talk more about the matter, her mother argues that Rose should talk to her own mother, not to a psychiatrist, because mothers know their children best.
Rose has been talking to a lot of people, such as Waverly, Lena, and her psychiatrist – but not to Ted.
Rose tells Waverly that she only realized how much she loved Ted once she lost him.
She tells Lena that she definitely doesn’t miss Ted.
To her psychiatrist, Rose says she wants revenge.
Basically, Rose doesn’t know what to think.
We flash back to when Rose receives the check and divorce papers from Ted.
Rose gets this awful terse note from Ted on one of his prescription notepads (remember, he’s a doctor) that just tells her where to sign on the forms.
She starts analyzing the note and the check, right down to the pen he used to write it.
She doesn’t know what to do or what her options are in the divorce, so she puts the papers away in a drawer.
Rose remembers a time when her mother pointed out that Rose has no wood in her character, meaning that Rose is too susceptible to suggestions from different people. (Does that sound familiar? This was the criticism Suyuan leveled at Rose’s mom.)
Rose remembers how her mother used to say that she needed to listen to her mother while growing up, so that she would grow straight. If she listened to other people, she would grow crooked.
Rose feels like she listened to other people more than her mom, and ended up with a mind full of other peoples’ English thoughts, leaving her confused and unreadable to her own mother.
In her life, she chose to live the American way, a life with lots of options. But it turns out a lot of options can mean too many options, and too many opportunities to make the wrong decision.
Rose is absolutely frozen with indecision; she doesn’t know what she wants or what she should do about the divorce.
Rose stays in bed for three days, eating chicken noodle soup and taking sleeping pills.
The phone ringing finally wakes Rose up from a nightmare about Mr. Chou hunting her down.
It’s her mother calling. She’s going to bring over some food.
Rose says she’s busy, but her mom gets to the point, asking her why she can’t face her husband. Her mom says she needs to stand up for herself.
Ted calls. He wants to know why she hasn’t cashed the check or sent him the signed papers.
Then he says that he wants the divorce soon and he wants the house, because he’s going to be remarried. So it was “monkey business,” just like her mom said.
Ted’s call makes everything clear. She starts laughing at him. Then she invites him over after work, finally ready to confront Ted for the first and last time.
They meet in the garden (his former pride and joy, now completely neglected).
Ted comments on what a mess the garden is. Rose says she likes it this way.
Rose asserts herself. She tells Ted that she wants the house, and that her lawyer will serve him papers.
Finally Rose speaks for herself and uses some true words, words of power like her mom kept trying to teach her about. Rose says, “You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away.”
Ted gets scared.
Rose dreams about Mr. Chou again. He’s with her mom in the garden. Her mom is happily planting weeds, some for herself and some for Rose. We gather that this is supposed to be a happy dream, because Rose likes the garden overgrown.
Jing-mei opens by talking about her “life’s importance,” a jade pendant that her mother gave her on Chinese New Year. She has no idea what the pedant means. She wishes she could ask her mom, but Suyuan is dead.
As a piece of jewelry, Jing-mei thinks the pendant isn’t attractive, but she’s been wearing it every day recently, wanting to find out what her mother intended it to mean.
Jing-mei notices other Chinese people wearing the same kind of pendant. She asks one guy about his. His mom gave it to him, but he basically has no understanding of what his means either.
We flash back to Chinese New Year, when Jing-mei’s mom was alive.
Jing-mei helps her mom prepare the holiday meal. They go to Chinatown and shop for crabs.
Suyuan complains about the tenants in the building she owns, how they take multiple showers a day and run up the water bill, how they always have too many bags of garbage so she has to pay extra, etc.
She also complains that her tenants think she poisoned this cat that was a pest, always glaring at her through the kitchen window. Jing-mei’s pretty sure her mom did poison the cat.
While shopping, Jing-mei has to select the most alive looking crabs, but they end up being forced to take one missing a leg, which is bad luck. Thankfully, there will only be ten people eating dinner, and the crab missing the leg makes eleven, so it’s extra.
Back at home, her mom starts preparing the crabs. Jing-mei can’t handle watching them be boiled because once she made a pet out of a crab as a child, only to have her mom cook it.
Suyuan invites Lindo and Tin Jong for dinner, which means the whole Jong family is invited, including Lindo’s son, Vincent, and his girlfriend Lisa, Waverly, Rich, and Shoshana. Jing-mei’s old piano teacher, Mr. Chong, is also invited. Eleven people in all for dinner – someone will have to take the legless crab.
When the crabs are served, the Jong family takes all the best crabs. Jing-mei’s father and Mr. Chong get the best out of what’s left, leaving Jing-mei and her mother with really bad crabs.
Jing-mei takes the worst crab (the one missing a leg), but her mother stops her and gives her the better of the two crabs.
There’s quite a bit of bickering over dinner.
Lindo criticizes the way Rich eats crab. Waverly, Rich, Vincent, and Lisa all think that Lindo is gross for eating the crab’s brain.
Tin Jong makes jokes about how he told his daughter not to marry poor, she should marry Rich. Ha ha.
Then Vincent asks when Waverly is getting married already. And she directs the same question right back at him, making Lisa uncomfortable (guess Vincent hasn’t popped the question yet).
Waverly compliments Jing-mei’s haircut, but criticizes her choice of a stylist, David, who is gay. To Waverly, this means David probably has AIDS and has given the disease to Jing-mei through her hair. (Wow, that’s a lot of assumptions to make.)
To make it worse, Waverly recommends her own hair stylist, but says he might be too expensive for her.
Now Jing-mei is mad and decides to make a jab back. Jing-mei did some freelance work for the firm Waverly works at and hasn’t yet been paid. So she says that she could afford the haircut if Waverly’s firm could get it together to pay their bills.
Then Waverly says that the firm hasn’t paid because they think Jing-mei’s work is “unacceptable.” Then she mocks Jing-mei’s work in front of everyone. Which the whole group seems to think is a great joke.
Suyuan even admits that Jing-mei isn’t as sophisticated as Waverly.
Jing-mei is totally mortified. She starts to clean off the table and do the dishes. She realizes that she’s just herself, nothing more, nothing less.
Jing-mei notices that her mom didn’t even touch the crab that was missing a leg. Suyuan says she didn’t eat it because it died before it was even cooked, so it was bad.
Jing-mei wants to know why her mom even cooked it then. Her mom responds that she knew no one but Jing-mei would ever pick it, because everyone else selects things that are top quality. Jing-mei can’t tell if this is a criticism or a compliment.
At this moment, Suyuan takes off her necklace and gives it to Jing-mei. She says that when Jing-mei wears it, she will know her mother’s meaning. She tells her daughter that the pendant is Jing-mei’s “life importance.”
Jing-mei thinks her mom gave her the necklace to make her feel better after Waverly humiliated her. Suyuan insists that Waverly is like a crab, always waking sideways and crooked.
The flashback ends.
Jing-mei is in the kitchen of her parents’ house, cooking dinner for her widowed father.
She notices that the annoying cat has returned – her mom didn’t poison it after all. The cat annoys her too, and just like her mom, Jing-mei starts pounding on the kitchen window to try to scare the cat away.
We see a grandmother talking to her baby granddaughter about innocence.
The baby is laughing for no apparent reason. The grandma reflects that she also used to be like the baby, but gave up her innocence to protect herself. She taught her daughter to do the same.
Now the grandma isn’t sure if it’s better in the end to keep your innocence or not.
The grandmother thinks that to recognize darkness in other people means you must also have that same evil in yourself.
The grandma wonders if the baby girl has some special wisdom, if she is laughing because she has lived so long (through reincarnation) and has learned that laughing is the best thing after all.
The grandmother thinks the baby must be the Queen Mother of the Western Skies, reincarnated, and there to teach her a lesson.
What she learns from the baby is that a person should always hold on to the ability to laugh and hope even after she has lost her innocence.
The grandmother hopes that her daughter will learn the same lesson from the baby.
An-mei begins by talking about her daughter, who, despite An-mei’s best efforts, grew into a woman who can’t take action to ensure her own happiness.
An-mei sees her daughter crying over her broken marriage to a psychiatrist, but does nothing to prevent the divorce. Rose, her daughter, doesn’t want to make any choices, but by saying nothing, is making a choice.
An-mei sees the flaws in her daughter because they are An-mei’s flaws as well. An-mei was raised in the traditional Chinese way, desiring nothing and ignoring her own suffering. She sees that somehow Rose turned out this way too.
Then An-mei enters into a flashback.
An-mei is nine-years-old and Popo (her grandmother) has died.
Despite hearing from her aunt that her mother is a bad woman, An-mei only sees a respectful, sad, humble woman.
An-mei cries when she realizes that her mother is going to be leaving again, returning to her second husband and all of his wives in Tientsin.
Her mom tries to calm An-mei with a story about a turtle who swallowed An-mei’s mother’s tears and then turned them into magpies, birds of happiness. She says that your tears won’t keep you from being sad, they only end up feeding someone else’s happiness. The moral of the story is you should swallow your own tears.
The only problem is, An-mei’s mom is crying while telling the story. They both end up crying together.
An-mei wakes up the next morning to the sounds of her uncle shouting at her mother. He doesn’t want to let his sister take her children with her.
An-mei runs to her mother, who gives An-mei the choice of coming to Tientsin.
An-mei decides to go with her mom, despite her aunt and uncle shouting that she’ll be disgraced like her mother if she goes.
Her mother can’t ask An-mei’s brother to come too; she can’t take a son to live at someone else’s house.
An-mei rides for seven days on a train with her mother, getting scared as she realizes how far away she is from the life she’s known. But her mother tells her enticing stories about Tientsin,
Near the end of the trip, An-mei’s mother takes off her white clothes of mourning (mourning for An-mei’s dead father) and puts on Western clothes. She gives An-mei a new, white dress and shoes.
An-mei’s mother tells her that she will be starting a new life, with a new father, sisters, and a brother.
They reach Tientsin and no one is there to meet them so they take a rickshaw home. Her mom has become cross and exhausted. It is clear that her mother is not happy to be home.
Her mother lives as the third concubine (Fourth Wife) of a wealthy merchant named Wu Tsing.
An-mei is amazed by the richness of the house – a curving staircase, huge rooms, lots of Western furniture, and her mother’s luxurious bed.
Yan Chang, An-mei’s mother’s personal servant, explains the house to An-mei.
For the first few days in her new home An-mei is really content. She now realizes that she was completely unhappy in her uncle’s home.
Two weeks after their arrival, more of the family returns.
An-mei sees Wu Tsing be lifted out of a rickshaw. He’s wearing Western clothes, he’s pretty fat, and much older than An-mei’s mother.
Wu Tsing has returned with a fifth wife. Fifth Wife is very young, practically a girl, and reveling in her new status as one of Wu Tsing’s wives.
With Wu Tsing now home, An-mei’s mom mostly keeps to her own rooms.
An-mei has a feeling that something bad is going to happen.
One night, An-mei is woken up by her mother, who asks her to go to Yan Chang’s room for the night – Wu Tsing wants some private time with her mom.
An-mei leaves, crying.
The next morning, it’s obvious that Fifth Wife has been crying too, her face is all puffy. Looks like she’s found out that she’s Fifth Wife not First Wife. But like a little girl, she throws a fit and is rude to everyone.
Later in the day, Fifth Wife is happy again because she has gotten a new dress – probably a gift from Wu Tsing to shut her up.
An-mei sees her mother’s sadness for the first time. Her mother says that her life is shameful and that a fourth wife has no status at all, seemingly even less than the new Fifth Wife.
She wants An-mei to remember that she was once a First Wife, and the wife of a scholar, An-mei’s father
There’s another problem with being the fourth wife, the word for “fourth” and “die” are very similar and can come out of your mouth mixed up.
Second and Third Wife return home with their children. Third wife is plain looking, but seems nice.
Second Wife is pretty, but not young, and dressed very fancy. She’s also obviously in charge; An-mei even has to call her “Big Mother.”
Second Wife has a two-year-old son, despite her own old-ish age.
An-mei is enchanted when Second Wife gives her a beautiful pearl necklace.
Later that day, An-mei’s mother warns her against Second Wife’s tricks, her ways of buying and controlling people. When she sees that An-mei isn’t listening, she snatches An-mei’s new necklace and crushes one of the beads. The necklace is made of glass, not pearl.
An-mei wears the necklace for a week as punishment. At the end of the week, her mother gives her a beautiful sapphire ring.
First Wife comes home from her separate estate in Peking. To An-mei’s surprise, First Wife is like a ghost and doesn’t make Second Wife bow to her. Overall, First Wife ignores mostly everything around her, choosing to overlook things that might make her unhappy, like her marriage.
An-mei’s mother is excited at the prospect of having her own household estate, which Wu Tsing has promised her.
During the coldest winter month, when it is too cold to go outside, An-mei sits with Yan Chang and hears stories about Second Wife.
Second Wife used to be a famous singing girl, and while she wasn’t pretty, she was seductive.
Wu Tsing asked her to be his wife so he could own the object that so many other men desired.
Second Wife quickly learned how to control Wu Tsing; when she wanted more money she would fake a suicide attempt, because no man wants the ghost of one of his wives haunting him.
The only thing Second Wife was unable to get was children – she’s barren. Yet obviously Wu Tsing would want a son.
Second Wife went about finding Wu Tsing a third wife so she could claim the new wife’s sons as her own. This is how Third Wife came about – a virgin, but clearly not a threat to Second Wife because she’s so ugly.
Third Wife bore no sons, so Second Wife needed to come up with a fourth wife – An-mei’s mother.
Yan Chang then tells An-mei about how Second Wife manipulated An-mei’s mother into becoming a concubine.
After An-mei’s father had died, An-mei’s mother went to the Six Harmonies Pagoda to pledge to observe the virtues of Buddhism in honor of her dead husband.
Wu Tsing and Second Wife were also in the area, and Wu Tsing was immediately struck by An-mei’s mother’s beauty.
Second Wife pretended to be nice to An-mei’s mom, and invited her over for dinner, but kept her so late that she had to stay the night.
During the night, Wu Tsing entered the room and raped An-mei’s mother.
No one believed that she was raped, they all preferred to think that she was a widow without honor. She had no choice but to submit to being Wu Tsing’s concubine.
An-mei’s mother later bore Wu Tsing a son, which Second Wife claimed.
Now An-mei sees through all of Second Wife’s manipulations.
An-mei’s mother is denied her own household when Second Wife performs another pretend suicide, making An-mei’s mother feel even more depressed and hopeless.
Two days before the lunar new year, An-mei’s mother commits suicide by taking poison. She dies slowly, and An-mei watches, unable to help.
An-mei’s mother strategically planned her suicide such that the third day after she died, the day when one’s ghost comes back to get even, is the lunar new year.
In order to prevent bad luck from following him all throughout the year, Wu Tsing has to appease the spirit of An-mei’s mother.
Wu Tsing promises to revere An-mei’s mother as if she were First Wife, and to raise An-mei and her brother as his honored children.
Second Wife loses her power.
The flashback ends and An-mei says that her mother had no choice, no control over fate, and no ability to speak for herself. But nowadays, people can control their own destiny. That’s why she wants her daughter to speak up and not swallow her tears.
An-mei says that the people in China no longer have to watch the magpies taunt them.
The peasants of China used to be plagued by magpies which would swarm the crops, eating the seeds and swallowing the peasants’ tears.
But eventually the peasants got sick of the magpies and decided to shout at them and make a lot of noise. The magpies became confused and didn’t land to eat the seeds, but eventually died of starvation.
Ying-ying is in her daughter’s guest bedroom, the smallest room of the house. This is very un-Chinese. The Chinese put the guest in the nicest room.
Ying-ying feels like she needs to try to save her daughter before it’s too late, and the only way to save Lena is for Ying-ying to tell her daughter about her past.
Ying-ying doesn’t understand her daughter; why is she an architect if she lives in such a useless house and has such useless furniture and decorations? Ying-ying sees her daughter’s house as ready to break into pieces, just like she’s been able to predict other family disasters.
We flash back to Ying-ying as a pretty, young girl in Wushi, China.
Ying-ying’s family is immensely wealthy, and she is a stubborn, wild, and independent girl.
Her mom tries to keep her in line, but can’t scold her too much because Ying-ying is just like her mom. Ying-ying is so much like her mother that she was named for that similarity; Ying-ying, means “Clear Reflection.”
Ying-ying knew little of her family’s wealth, taking jade jars and ivory for everyday items, not valuing them.
When she is sixteen, Ying-ying meets the man she knows she will later marry.
It’s the day of her cousin’s wedding and this man is a guest. During the post wedding party, he teases her, asking if she’s hungry and wants him to kai gwa or “open the watermelon.” He cracks open the melon with a knife and everyone laughs. Ying-ying is embarrassed, but too innocent to realize that kai gwa is a euphemism for taking her virginity.
Basically, this guy is bad news.
The next day, Ying-ying’s half sisters are giggling and daydreaming about getting married. Ying-ying can’t share in their chatter because there aren’t any boys that she’s met who are good enough for her (in her opinion).
Just then, a wind blows and a flower that was sitting on the table fall from its stem and lands at Ying-ying’s feet. At this moment, she realizes that she’ll marry the bad man.
Over the next few days the man is around Ying-ying’s home, making annoying comments about how she’s already his and that he dad will definitely give him the dowry that he’s asking for.
Six months later, she is married to this very bad man.
Ying-ying falls in love with him, almost against her will, and begins to live her life to please him.
She conceives a son; she knows it’s a son just like she knew she would marry this man.
Meanwhile, her husband is out womanizing. He finally leaves her for some opera singer, but she’s not the first – there were dancers, American women, prostitutes, etc.
Remember: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In anger and hate, Ying-ying aborts her child.
As a quick break from the flashback, Ying-ying begins to speak of her daughter, saying that Lena sees only a small old lady instead of a dangerous tiger lady. (Ying-ying was born in the year of the tiger.) Ying-ying will tell her daughter about this bad man, her anger, and her shame.
Returning to the flashback, Ying-ying lives with relatives in the countryside for ten years, surrounded by babies, chickens, mice, etc. It’s not a comfortable life.
Ying-ying decides to work as a shopgirl in Shanghai, and buys modern clothes and gets a stylish haircut.
Ying-ying becomes a successful shopgirl. As a tiger, she’s good at flattery and uses it on the female customers. She’s also pretty herself, which helps.
While working, she meets Clifford St. Clair, who she knows she will one day marry.
St. Clair courts her for four years, during which he’s too polite to her and gives her gifts that he’s anxious for her to like. She doesn’t even encourage him.
St. Clair thinks that Ying-ying is a peasant girl living in the city, not realizing that she comes from a rich family.
In 1946, Ying-ying gets word that her husband has died. He had last been with some young servant girl, and when he decided to move on, she knifed him.
Upon hearing of her husband’s death, Ying-ying is again angry at him.
She also decides that she’ll let St. Clair marry her. She becomes a “wounded animal” basically luring St. Clair the rest of the way to her, and willingly gave up her spirit that had caused her pain in her previous life.
Ying-ying becomes a ghost.
Ying-ying moves with St. Clair to America, learns the American way, and raises a daughter, all without caring, without any spirit.
The flashback is over.
In the present, Ying-ying admits she never really loved St. Clair (who has now passed away), or couldn’t love him because she was a ghost.
Now Ying-ying wants to give her spirit to her daughter by telling her daughter about her life and her pain. She will bring out her daughter’s tiger nature (Lena was born in the year of the tiger as well).
Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, is anxious about blending in on her trip to China; she is both worried about fitting in too well, but also mad at her mom for saying that everyone will pick her out as a foreigner instantly.
Apparently it’s now fashionable to be Chinese, whereas when Waverly was a little girl she did everything she could to avoid seeming Chinese.
Lindo rebukes herself for thinking that she could give her children “American circumstances and Chinese character.” She now realizes that the two are mutually exclusive options.
Waverly learned American circumstances – that you don’t have to accept the circumstances other people give you, and that you can have more than what you are born to. But Waverly never gained a Chinese character – respect, tact, knowledge of her own self-worth.
Then the narrative shifts to a beauty parlor, where Waverly wants Lindo’s hair to be cut in order to look decent for the wedding (Waverly and Rich’s).
Mr. Rory, the stylist, and Waverly talk around Lindo, acting like Lindo can’t understand English, is deaf, and can’t pick her own hairstyle.
To Lindo’s pleasure and Waverly’s disgust, Mr. Rory mentions that Waverly and Lindo look very similar.
Lindo and Waverly look in the mirror together. Lindo says that she can see Waverly’s character and future in her face.
In her mind, Lindo also says that their faces are so similar, and they have the same character strengths and flaws. Because their faces are so alike, Waverly will have a similar life fortune to her mother’s.
We enter into a flashback of when Lindo was ten-years-old.
Lindo’s mother looks at Lindo’s face to deduce her character. She goes over all of Lindo’s facial characteristics: Lindo has good, thick ears, which means her life will be full of blessings; a straight nose, which is a good sign; a broad forehead, so she’ll be clever; etc.
Lindo’s face shows one flaw, her low hairline shows that she will have some troubles in her youth.
Lindo’s mother determines that Lindo will be “a good wife, mother, and daughter-in-law.”
Lindo and her mother have similar faces, and out of her adoration of her mother, Lindo wants to look even more like her.
Lindo’s flashback ends.
Lindo realizes that her face has changed, and her mother never saw the changes. Lindo’s nose has become crooked (thanks to American public transportation), and the look in her eyes has changed to be more American. Basically, Lindo has lost her Chinese face.
Lindo enters into a flashback about her preparation for immigrating to America and eventual arrival. Keep in mind that this flashback is all a narration to Waverly.
Lindo pays an American-raised Chinese girl for advice on being in America.
She gets advised to hide her true reasons for going to the U.S. and pretend to be a student of theology.
She’s also advised to find an American citizen for a husband. And if Lindo can’t find an American citizen to marry, then she should have a baby in the U.S., even though she can’t let on to the American authorities that this is her plan.
The girl also gives Lindo some addresses of people she should meet in San Francisco, “people with big connections.”
When she arrives in America, the officials don’t hassle her.
She decides to go to one of the addresses of the “people with big connections.”
When she gets to this address, a grumpy lady gives her some more addresses – which eventually helps Lindo find a crappy apartment and an awful job – and expects a big tip.
Lindo ends up working at a fortune cookie factory, folding the cookie dough into the right shape.
Lindo burns her fingers repeatedly on the hot cookie dough, but she also meets An-mei.
An-mei jokingly points out that they are very powerful women; they determine people’s fortunes. Lindo doesn’t get the joke, so An-mei explains that they are putting tacky sayings into cookies, and American people think that the cookies hold Chinese sayings that tell them their fortune.
An-mei brings Lindo to church and sets her up with a man named Tin Jong.
Although they speak separate dialects (Tin speaks Cantonese and Lindo speaks Mandarin), Lindo decides to try him out. After all, this isn’t China so she can decide for herself if she wants to marry him.
Lindo and Tin can’t communicate with each other, but they attend English classes together.
Lindo, with An-mei’s help, sets out to assist Tin in realizing that he wants to marry her. Hey, a little manipulation never hurt anyone.
At the cookie factory, An-mei and Lindo go through the fortunes, looking for one that will nudge Tin in the right direction.
Lindo finds the perfect fortune: “A house is not a home when a spouse is not at home.” Then she folds a cookie around it.
The next day, after English class, Lindo acts like she is surprised to find a cookie in her purse. She gives it to Tin and innocently ask him what the fortune says. But Tin doesn’t know what the word “spouse” means, so he’s planning on looking it up in the dictionary that night.
The next day he asks Lindo, in English, “Will you spouse me?” They joke about his poor use of the word “spouse,” but obviously her answer is “yes” since she engineered the whole proposal.
Nine months after the wedding, Lindo gives birth to a son, Winston (who dies 16 years later in a car accident). In another two years, they have a second son, Vincent. Both children are named to bring luck and wealth (“wins ton” and “win cent”).
When Lindo gives birth to Waverly and child looks so much like her, Lindo realizes she is dissatisfied with her own circumstances and wants this little girl to have a better life. She names her Waverly after the street they live on, so the little girl will know she belongs, and always carry a piece of her mother with her after she leaves home.
No longer in the flashback, we return to the beauty parlor scene.
Waverly and Lindo look into the mirror side by side. Lindo’s hair looks great.
She looks at Waverly, as if for the first time, and realizes that Waverly’s nose is crooked. Waverly says her nose was always like that, she has her mom’s nose (but remember Lindo’s nose became crooked when she busted it in a crowded San Francisco bus).
The mother and daughter talk about their crooked noses, which Waverly thinks makes them look devious, which she translates to her mom as “two-faced.”
Lindo thinks about having a double face – one American and one Chinese – and notes that when she went back to China the previous year, everyone knew that she wasn’t 100% Chinese.
Jing-mei enters China and begins feeling Chinese.
She recalls how in high school, she used to think that her Chinese-ness was only skin-deep. Turns out she was wrong, just like her mom said.
Jing-mei and her father, Canning, are on a train going to visit Canning’s aunt, who he hasn’t seen for about sixty years. Afterwards, they’ll go and meet Suyuan’s twin daughters in Shanghai.
Canning is so excited – either about seeing his aunt or just being in China – that Jing-mei compares him to a little boy.
On the train ride, both Jing-mei and her father are emotional – they have tears standing in their eyes as they look out the window. It’s almost like they’ve returned to the place they’ve been nostalgic for.
Jing-mei recaps the discovery of her half-sisters, so we flashback to this experience.
Some friend or relative of Suyuan’s locates the twin girls.
The twins send a letter to Jing-mei’s mother, telling her about their lives.
Because Suyuan is dead, Jing-mei’s father opens the letter and asks the ladies form the Joy Luck Club to write back.
The ladies from the Joy Luck Club are sad that Suyuan died without fulfilling her dream of seeing her twin daughters. They write back to the girls, posing as Suyuan, and saying that her family hopes to meet them in China.
Jing-mei didn’t learn about her sisters until after the reply letter is sent. Auntie An-mei insists that Jing-mei can’t tell the girls in a letter that their mother is dead – she must do it in person.
For obvious reasons, Jing-mei feels a lot of anxiety. She has to be the one to tell her sisters the bad news.
Finally, Jing-mei begs Auntie Lindo to write the twins another letter, explaining that their mother has died. Lindo refuses until Jing-mei admits that she’s afraid the twins will hate her, thinking that she didn’t care enough about her mom to keep her alive and well.
Eventually, Lindo writes the letter and gives it to Jing-mei.
The flashback ends.
Jing-mei and her father arrive in Guangzhou, and Jing-mei knows she stands out. She’s much taller than everyone but the tourists.
As Jing-mei is trying to get a taxi, a little old lady wanders up saying, “Syau Yen.” Canning recognizes the old lady as his aunt. She’s calling him “Little Wild Goose.” It’s a joyful reunion and both of they cry and laugh.
Canning and Jing-mei are introduced to the rest of the aunt’s family and Jing-mei feels overwhelmed by the rapidly spoken Mandarin and Cantonese.
Jing-mei’s Mandarin is bad, but her Cantonese is worse – she learned from friends only how to cuss and say some phrases about food, neither of which will help her much in the current situation.
They arrive at a sumptuous hotel, which, despite its grandeur, is very affordable (only thirty-five bucks a night!).
The aunt’s family seems wowed by the hotel, and are excited to hang out there with Canning and Jing-mei.
For dinner the family wants to have room service and eat American food: hamburgers, French fries, and apple pie.
Jing-mei wakes up in the middle of the night to hear Canning telling his aunt about Suyuan.
He tells his aunt that he studied at Yenching University and afterwards worked in Chungking. That’s where he met Suyuan.
Together, Canning and Suyuan went to Suyuan’s mother’s house, only to find it destroyed by the Japanese. Her family had all died.
Eventually they made it to San Francisco, but throughout all the years of their marriage, Suyuan never told her husband that she was looking for her twin daughters.
Canning tells his aunt about how Suyuan lost her daughters while fleeing Kweilin.
Canning’s aunt falls asleep and Jing-mei starts asking her father questions about the meaning of names.
The twin sister’s names mean “Spring Rain” and “Spring Flower.” Suyuan means “Long-Cherished Wish.” But written a different way, Suyuan can mean “Long-Held Grudge.”
Jing-mei wants to know what her name means. Canning says that “Jing” means the quality essence of something and “mei” means little sister. Jing-mei determines that he mother wanted Jing-mei be the essence of her older twin sisters.
Canning’s aunt wakes up again and wants to know why Suyuan abandoned the little girls. Canning tells her, and it’s like a flashback to Suyuan’s life.
Suyuan walks for several days carrying her twin daughters, trying to find a main road.
She has money and jewelry sewed into her dress with the thought that she can use it to barter for rides.
No such luck. Everyone is trying to get a ride.
Weak and convinced she is going to die soon, Suyuan leaves her babies on the side of the road, along with money, jewelry, family photos, and her home address so the babies might be returned to the family after the fighting dies down.
Suyuan is later saved by American missionaries – too late to save her babies.
When she arrives in Chungking, she learns that her husband has died.
In the hospital, she meets Canning. She is sick with dysentery, and muttering like a madwoman.
The flashback ends.
Then we enter into a different sort of flashback, following the fate of the twin girls, as told in the letter they sent to Suyuan (which Canning read).
The girls are found by an old peasant woman, Mei Ching, and her husband, Mei Han, who live in a cave to hide from the Japanese.
The couple raises the girls well, and after Mei Han dies, Mei Ching decides to look for the girls’ true family. She loves the girls, but can see from the photos Suyuan left with them, that they come from a wealthy family, where they can have a better life.
Mei Ching brings the girls to the address that was left with them, but the house has been destroyed.
The flashback into the twin girls’ lives ends.
Canning says that he and Suyuan toured China, visiting different cities; Suyuan was always on the lookout for her girls.
From America, Suyuan wrote to many of her old classmates, asking them to look for her twin girls.
About a year ago, Suyuan asked Canning if they could go back to China. He thought she just wanted to be a tourist, so he said, “it’s too late,” meaning they are too old for the traveling. Canning now realizes she probably thought he meant it was too late because the twin girls were dead.
Canning thinks that this horrible idea is what killed Suyuan.
Canning says that one day, one of Suyuan’s classmates saw twin sisters, and approached them. The lost were found!
Jing-mei and Canning’s visit with the aunt ends. They are now heading to Shanghai to meet the twins.
Jing-mei is incredibly nervous.
As Jing-mei gets off the plane to Shanghai, the twins spot her. They instantly run up to each other, hug, and cry. The meeting isn’t at all awkward or sad like Jing-mei had feared it would be.
Canning snaps a Polaroid of the three women together. They eagerly watch as the picture appears. Between the three of them, they look like Suyuan.
Finally, Suyuan’s long-cherished wish has been fulfilled.