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's 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.
Yep—you read that right: she cuts a piece of flesh from her own arm.
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.