Kingston tells the secret story her mom told her about a forgotten aunt, the sister of Kingston's dad in China. The author imagines that this already married "No Name Woman" was pressured into having sex with an anonymous villager who promptly led a village attack against her when he found out she got pregnant. Shamed and alienated, the aunt drowns herself and the baby in the family well. Kingston is ashamed for having participated in the family's erasure of her aunt's existence. She does not even know her aunt's name. She resents the double standards that Chinese women are faced with.
Growing up in America, Kingston doesn't know what kind of Chinese girl to be. She's conditioned to expect to be a wife or a slave, but she dreams of the warrior she knows she could be. She writes of herself as Fa Mu Lan, who leaves the family to train as a warrior with an elderly couple in the mountains for years. As a result of her training, Kingston's vision changes and she can see things in a dancing state. She fights the barbarians and a baron, does her country and village proud, and after all that, returns to her home village to be a dutiful wife and mom.
Kingston's mom, Brave Orchid, was a surgeon in China. We jump into Brave Orchid's past. While Brave Orchid is in medical school in China, the other girls are scared of the haunted room. Brave Orchid shows up everyone by spending a couple of nights in the room, where she does indeed encounter ghosts. She organizes a successful exorcism of the room. She buys a slave to be her nurse. This girl is much cheaper than the hospital fees for Kingston's birth, she notes. Brave Orchid is a very good eater, which Kingston says makes sense for ghost-fighting heroes.
Before Brave Orchid immigrated to the United States, she lived in the caves and ran a makeshift hospital to treat war victims. The caves provided shelter and hiding spots for Chinese people during the Japanese air raids. Kingston tells the story of a kooky woman who lives there, who goes down to the river to get some water with a cup. She dances around in the open space. Brave Orchid just watches as the other cave dwellers accuse her of being a spy and stone her to death. Years later, when Kingston goes to visit her mom, the relationship is somewhat off. Brave Orchid wants her to be near home, but Kingston claims that her life is healthier when she's away.
Brave Orchid sends for Moon Orchid, one of her two younger sisters. The sister is married to a man who has lived in America for a long time without sending for her. Brave Orchid is super excited to see her sister and persistently nags her to confront her husband. Moon Orchid seems shy and worries that her husband doesn't want to see her, because he has taken a second wife.
Moon Orchid lives with Brave Orchid's family in San Francisco while her own daughter visits. Moon Orchid's daughter needs to return to her own family in Los Angeles. Brave Orchid insists that her son drive them all down to L.A. to meet this infamous husband. Brave Orchid goes to the husband's home, which turns out to be his brain surgery practice; his receptionist is his wife. Brave Orchid notes that she barely speaks Chinese. She insists that Moon Orchid go up and demand that she be paid respect as a first wife, but her sister shrivels up into a ball and wants to die.
Brave Orchid makes her son call the unsuspecting doctor down. He does, and the doctor-husband voices his disappointment in seeing Moon Orchid in the United States. He has a new life in America with his wife, he says. Moon Orchid, who goes to live with her daughter, stops writing to her sister for fear of being spied on by Mexicans. Brave Orchid has her sister live with her for a while, where she drives everyone crazy with her morbid conspiracy theories. She eventually goes to live in an insane asylum, where she is happy to take care of the other girls. Brave Orchid makes her kids promise to never let their father take on a second wife.
Kingston's final chapter is a series of childhood memories, mostly revolving around her struggle to figure out how vocal to be. Kingston writes that Chinese women are loud but American femininity seems to call for demureness. We jump back in time as Kingston remembers going to Chinese school, where quietness wasn't an issue for otherwise quiet kids. Except for one girl, who Kingston ends up teasing so hardcore that she pinches her cheeks and tugs at her hair in the bathroom, demanding that she speak. Then there's a mentally disabled boy she nicknames "the monster" who hangs around Kingston and the family laundry.
Kingston compiles a mental list of 207 truths she is dying to tell her mom, but never feels it's the right moment to address. She decides to do it anyway, but Brave Orchid is not interested in her blabber. One night, Kingston goes on a tirade and goes through a lot of the list. She also talks a lot of junk about the "the monster," whom she never hears from again.
Next Kingston tells the story of her grandma's love for Chinese opera; she hopes that one of the operas sang the songs of Ts'ai Yen, a Chinese poetess who got abducted by barbarians. Ts'ai Yen lived with the barbarians for twelve years before returning to the Han people and passing on the barbarian-influenced songs.