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Women and Femininity
On her journey she cooed to the swan: "In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English." (I.Prologue.2)
This implies that in China, the woman had her worth measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. She wants her daughter to live in a different culture, one that has better opportunities for women.
In front of his parents, I was an obedient wife, just as they taught me. I instructed the cook to kill a fresh young chicken every morning and cook it until pure juice came out. I would strain this juice myself into a bowl, never adding any water. I gave this to him for breakfast, murmuring good wishes about his health. And every night I would cook a special tonic soup called tounaui, which was not only very delicious but has eight ingredients that guarantee long life for mothers. This pleased my mother-in-law very much. (I.3.63)
Wifely obedience is a lot of hard work.
Because I was promised to the Huangs’ son for marriage, my own family began treating me as if I belonged to somebody else. My mother would say to me when the rice bowl went up to my face too many times, "Look how much Huang Taitai’s daughter can eat." (I.3.12)
According to tradition, women belong to their husbands’ family.
But even if I had known I was getting such a bad husband, I had no choice, now or later. That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs. In other cities already, a man could choose his own wife, with his parents’ permission of course. But we were cut off from this type of new thought. You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse. We were told stories of sons who were so influenced by bad wives that they threw their old, crying parents out into the street. So Taiyuanese mothers continued to choose their daughters-in-law, ones who would raise proper sons, care for the old people, and faithfully sweep the family burial grounds long after the old ladies had gone to their graves. (I.3.11)
The selection of a wife is as much the business of the parents-in-law as the husband-to-be, because the girl chosen will have as much of an obligation to her husband as to his family.
"For woman is yin," she cried sadly, "the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds." (I.4.108)
Need we say anything? This formulation clearly favors men over women.
"Why can’t I ask?"
"This is because…because if you ask it…it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire," said Amah. "Haven’t I taught you – that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen." (I.4.30)
Ying-ying is taught to give up her voice and spirit in favor of circumscribed gender roles.
My mother smiled and walked over to me. She smoothed some of my wayward hairs back in place and tucked them into my coiled braid. "A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is his nature," she said. "But a girl should stand still. If you are still for a very long time, a dragonfly will no longer see you. Then it will come to you and hide in the comfort of your shadow." (I.4.52)
An-mei is taught to repress her spirit – and in exchange, she gets what she wants? That’s not how her story seemed to play out.
"Is new American rules," said my mother. "Meimei play, squeeze all her brains out for win chess. You play, worth squeeze towel." (II.1.50)
Waverly grew up in a much different fashion than her mother did; she got to focus on chess strategy while her brothers did the chores.
The emotional effect of saving and being saved was addicting to both of us. And that, as much as anything we ever did in bed, was how we made love to each other: conjoined where my weaknesses needed protection. (II.3.19)
Rose and Ted fit a traditional roles of damsel in distress and knight in shining armor.
"So really, we’re equals, except that Harold makes about seven times more than what I make." (III.1.67)
In the most "equal" of relationships, Lena still conforms to a traditional support role. And her husband is her boss AND makes seven times as much as she does.
As I walked away from my old life, I wondered if it were true, what my uncle had said, that I was changed and could never lift my head again. So I tried. I lifted it. And I saw my little brother, crying so hard as my auntie held onto his hand. My mother did not dare take my brother. A son can never go to somebody else’s house to live. If he went, he would lose any hope for the future. But I knew he was not thinking this. He was crying, angry and scared, because my mother had not asked him to follow. (IV.1.34)
Only a daughter can leave her ancestral house, because they aren’t worth as much as sons.
I know this, because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.
And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way. (IV.1.4)
Despite An-mei’s best efforts, her daughter still followed the mold of Chinese women who are voiceless and shoulder all the emotional burdens. An-mei speculates that the long matrilineal line is like a staircase that: although each step is in a new place, they are all going the same direction.
And on that day, I showed Second Wife the fake pearl necklace she had given me and crushed it under my foot.
And on that day, Second Wife’s hair began to turn white.
And on that day, I learned to shout. (IV.1.175)
Even though she is taught that women should be silent, witnessing her mother’s suicide gave An-mei strength to find her voice.
I became a stranger to myself. I was pretty for him. If I put slippers on my feet, it was to choose a pair that I knew would please him. I brushed my hair ninety-nine times a night to bring luck to our marital bed, in hopes of conceiving a son. (IV.2.41)
Ying-ying begins to lose herself when she started placing her husband at the center of her existence.
It was not like my first marriage, where everything was arranged. I had a choice. I could choose to marry your father, or I could choose not to marry him and go back to China. (IV.3.65)
In America, Lindo makes her own decisions.
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