Study Guide

Dragonwings Friendship

By Laurence Yep


There were groceries and herbal shops, clothing shops and laundries, halls that housed the brotherhoods or the district associations or the offices of family clans. Uncle pointed out the building of the district from which any family came and to which I could go for help. Besides that there was the Lee family building, which would help everyone who was named Lee. (2.35)

Without their biological families allowed intact in America, Chinese immigrants formed other alliances that created systems of support in a foreign land.

During the next year, I learned that the Company was more than a group of men wanting money. We were brothers: strangers in a strange land who had banded together for mutual help and protection. There were arguments, of course, but they were always worked out. (4.1)

Brotherhood takes on a new meaning in the Tang people's village in the early twentieth century. The brotherhood of the Company blurs the boundary between family and friends, putting the emphasis on the protection and well being of others rather than shared blood.

Miss Whitlaw had a smile like the Listener, She Who Hears Prayers, who refused release from the cycle of lives until all her brothers and sisters too could be freed from sin. (6.32)

Moon Shadow's first impression of Miss Whitlaw turns out to be a fortuitous premonition, for Miss Whitlaw is a selfless friend who comes to be as close as family.

As I lay down on my mat and pulled the blanket up about my neck, it seemed to me that if this was the case, the demoness would surely be reborn as a rich Tang woman in her next life. I even toyed with the idea that perhaps we had been close to each other in some former life – a mother and child, even. (6.134)

Moon Shadow's hunch that he was related to Miss Whitlaw suggests that he takes an immediate liking to the landlady. This is a bit surprising, because Miss Whitlaw is the first non-Tang lady the narrator meets, and he had expected her to be pretty awful. This excerpt shows that friendship, and even family, does not need to rely on external similarities like race or gender.

My brother and I are always happy to meet another flying enthusiast. Our brotherhood is too small to lose any one of us. Enclosed you will find some tables and diagrams that should prove of some service to you. If we can be of any further assistance to you, please let me know. (6.149)

Moon Shadow and Windrider are not only a part of the brotherhood of the Company, but also the brotherhood of "flying [enthusiasts]," as Orville Wright writes here. These multiple forms of community build a sense of belonging for the Lees in America.

The Company's days were filled with cheerful shouting and singing and swearing and hammering. We were putting up a new building, one made of stone and guaranteed to last a century. It was hard work, but it was exhilarating – the kind of feeling that comes from being alive and taking part in some great common enterprise. (10.127)

The shared act of rebuilding the Tang people's village together, specifically the new Company building, reflects the sense of family Moon Shadow senses is being built between the men of the Company and himself.

We loaded the two suitcases Miss Whitlaw had onto the wagon and drove them down to the Ferry Building. We would arrange to sell her wagon and horse for her. There was always a need for a good horse and wagon over here now with the rebuilding. The whole trip was made in a long silence. In the years we had known them, we had grown probably as close as we could to demons. (10.159)

Like family, the Lees take care of the details of the Whitlaws' move to Oakland. Even this deep into their friendship, however, Moon Shadow speaks of them as demons, as though this were an irrefutable barrier between them.

I had found my mountain of gold, after all, and it had not been nuggets but people who had made it up: people like the Company and the Whitlaws. I had not realized until I had left it that I had been on the mountain of gold all that time. (11.46)

Moon Shadow realizes that the mountain of gold he had dreamed of was achieved not in a place but in people. Home is not a place but a network of people to count on.

"I came to help," Uncle snapped. "Not because I believe in your crazy dream. Call it an old man's whim if you like." But then Uncle relented for a moment. "And we didn't come to laugh. There will be those among the Tang people who will laugh – but now they will have to laugh at all of us, for we'll share in your folly."

"All of them, Father," I said. "All the Company came." (12.35-36)

Uncle Bright Star lets down his pride and shows his love for Windrider when he brings the Company to make their friends' dream come true.

And all of a sudden I saw that if life seems awfully petty most of the time, every now and then there is something noble and beautiful and almost pure that lifts us suddenly out of the pettiness and lets us share in it a little. It did not matter whether Father flew or not. It was enough that the Company had come. (12.75)

Moon Shadow realizes that the goal of flying is not nearly as amazing as the uncalled-for support of friends. Friendship is the bigger dream that "lifts" Moon Shadow before Dragonwings even moves a propeller.

I think the reason Uncle had originally been so strict with Father was that he thought of Father as his spiritual son. He hoped that Windrider would be everything that Uncle had once wished Black Dog to be. And like any parent with a child, Uncle was hurt and angry when Windrider did not behave as Uncle wanted. But then, with Dragonwings, Uncle came to accept the fact that he was not always right. (12.150)

After Black Dog's death, Moon Shadow realizes that Uncle's tough love is a sign of affection. Uncle realizes that there is worse disobedience than pursuing a dream.