It started to rain again, just a light rain. The people from downstairs called up to me once again to hurry. And my thoughts became more urgent, more strange.
I asked myself, what is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn’t see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.
I threw my head back and smiled proudly to myself. And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never forget myself. (I.3.45)
The night of her wedding, Lindo "discovers herself," so to speak. She decides that she doesn’t need to give up her inner identity, even though her new family has definitely been trying hard to make her give up her own sense of self. Lindo decides that she has an unchanging core and an invisible inner strength, which cannot be taken from her even though it may be hidden beneath a veil of seeming obedience and passivity.
Part 1, Chapter 4
Ying-ying St. Clair
All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. (I.4.2)
Ying-ying claims that she has always kept her true nature hidden "like a shadow" – we will see what this means in our next quote.
Standing perfectly still like that, I discovered my shadow. At first it was just a dark spot on the bamboo mats that covered the courtyard bricks. It had short legs and long arms, a dark coiled braid just like mine. When I shook my head, it shook its head. We flapped our arms. We raised one leg. I turned to walk away and it followed me. I lifted the bamboo mat to see if I could peel off my shadow, but it was under the mat, on the brick. I shrieked with delight at my shadow’s own cleverness. I ran to the shade under the tree, watching my shadow chase me. It disappeared. I loved my shadow, this dark side of me that had my same restless nature. (I.4.53)
Ying-ying’s shadow is restless, clever, and adventurous – just like her, she says. This darker shadow side of Ying-ying, we later learn, is part of her identity as a Tiger – the two tones of the tiger stripes represent the golden nature and the dark, cunning nature.
Part 2, Chapter 2
Lena St. Clair
And after that I began to see terrible things. I saw these things with my Chinese eyes, the part of me that I got from my mother. I saw devils dancing feverishly beneath a old I had dug in the sandbox. I saw that lightning had eyes and searched to strike down little children...And when I became older, I could see things that the Caucasian girls at school did not. Monkey bars that would split into two and send a swinging child hurtling through space. (II.2.8)
Lena sees part of her identity as handed down from her mother. Part of this identity includes her "Chinese eyes," which see freaky things…Lena’s intense and dark imagination comes from her mother’s side.
Part 2, Chapter 4
Jing-mei (June) Woo
"Why don’t you like me the way I am! I’m not a genius! I can’t play the piano. And even if I could, I wouldn’t go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!" (II.4.32)
Jing-mei’s determination to be ordinary manifests itself as hostility towards any kind of self-improvement.
And after seeing my mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and the failed expectations. Before going to bed that night, I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and when I saw only my face staring back – and it would always be this ordinary face – I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made high-pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror.
And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me – because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised to myself. I won’t be what I’m not. (II.4.17)
Here Jing-mei begins to determinedly believe in her own ordinariness and refuses to let her mother mess with her identity.
Part 3, Chapter 2
He had no inhibitions, and whatever ones he discovered I had he’d pry away from me like little treasures. He saw all those private aspects of me – and I mean not just my sexual private parts, but my darker side, my meanness, my pettiness, my self-loathing – all the things I kept hidden. So that with him I was completely naked, and when I was feeling the most vulnerable – when the wrong word would have sent me flying out the door forever – he always said the right thing at the right moment. (III.2.78)
Rich sees all of Waverly’s entire character – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and knows how to handle that knowledge. Basically, she can be completely herself with him.
Despite all the tension she places on herself – and others – the doctors have proclaimed that my mother, at age sixty-nine, has the blood pressure of a sixteen year old and the strength of a horse. And that’s what she is. A Horse, born in 1918, destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness. She and I make a bad combination, because I’m a Rabbit, born in 1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism. (III.2.9)
We’d say that sums up Lindo and Waverly’s characters pretty well, actually.
Part 3, Chapter 3
Rose Hsu Jordan
Ted pulled out the divorce papers and stared at them. His x’s were still there, the blanks were still blank. "What do you think you’re doing? Exactly what?" he said.
And the answer, the one that was important above everything else, ran through my body and fell from my lips: "You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away." (III.3.104)
Rose finally stands up for herself, realizing that she has a strong voice and character.
Part 4, Chapter 1
In the afternoon, my mother spoke of her unhappiness for the first time. We were in a rickshaw going to a store to find embroidery thread. "Do you see how shameful my life is?" she cried. "Do you see how I have no position? He brought home a new wife, a low-class girl, dark-skinned, no manners! Bought her for a few dollars from a poor village family that makes mud-brick tiles. And at night when he can no longer use her, he comes to me, smelling of her mud." (IV.1.90)
An-mei’s mother’s identity and social position is based on her husband, Wu Tsing, and the order in which he married his wives. An-mei’s mother is insulted at who Fifth Wife is, and the place she occupies in Wu Tsing’s bed rotation. Moreover, she despairs at her position as Fourth Wife, ashamed that she has no rights.
Part 4, Chapter 3
It is like what happened when I went back to China last year, after I had not been there for almost forty years. I had taken off my fancy jewelry. I did not wear loud colors. I spoke their language. I used their local money. But still, they knew. They knew my face was not one hundred percent Chinese. They still charged me high foreign prices. (IV.3.97)
Years of living in America irrevocably altered Lindo.
My daughter did not look pleased when I told her this, that she didn’t look Chinese. She had a sour American look on her face. Oh, maybe ten years ago, she would have clapped her hands – hurray! – as if this were good news. But now she wants to be Chinese, it is so fashionable. And I know it is too late. All those years I tried to teach her! She followed my Chinese ways only until she learned how to walk out the door by herself and go to school. (IV.3.6)
Now that it’s in fashion, Waverly likes to think that being Chinese is part of her identity, and doesn’t appreciate it when her mom points out how American Waverly is.
Part 4, Chapter 4
Jing-mei (June) Woo
And when she said this, I saw myself transforming like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA suddenly triggered, replicating itself insidiously into a syndrome, a cluster of telltale Chinese behaviors, all those things my mother did to embarrass me – haggling with store owners, pecking her mouth with a toothpick in public, being color-blind to the fact that lemon yellow and pale pink are not good combinations for winter clothes. (IV.4.4)
For Jing-mei, being Chinese basically means being her mother.
"Cannot be helped," my mother said when I was fifteen and had vigorously denied that I had any Chinese whatsoever below my skin. I was a sophomore at Galileo High in San Francisco, and all my Caucasian friends agreed: I was about as Chinese as they were. But my mother had studied at a famous nursing school in Shanghai, and she said she knew about genetics. So there was no doubt in her mind, whether I agreed or not: Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. (IV.4.2)
Suyuan is adamant that being Chinese isn’t a choice you can make – is in one’s genes.
Lena St. Clair
And I think that feeling of fear never left me, that I would be caught someday, exposed as a sham of a woman. But recently, a friend of mine, Rose, who’s in therapy now because her marriage is falling apart, told me those kinds of thoughts are commonplace in women like us.
"At first I thought it was because I was raised with all this Chinese humility," Rose said. "Or that maybe it was because when you’re Chinese you’re supposed to accept everything, flow with the Tao and not make waves. But my therapist said, Why do you blame your culture, your ethnicity? And I remembered reading an article about baby boomers, how we expect the best and when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more, because it’s all diminishing returns after a certain age." (III.1.45)
Rose and Lena share the idea that they’re not good enough; Rose blames it handily first on Chinese culture, and secondly on generational expectations.