This chapter is a flashback into Lena’s childhood.
Lena’s mom tells her a family story about how her great-grandfather sentenced a beggar man to the "worst possible" death. Little Lena imagines what the worst possible death could be, and thinks up all sorts of gruesome ways in which the death sentence might have been carried out – maybe he’s cut one thousand times.
When Lena asks her mom how the beggar died, Lena’s mom calls her a morbid American and says that the way the beggar died doesn’t matter.
Lena wants to know how the beggar dies so she can know the worst that’s out there, taking away some of the power of the "unspeakable." Her mom allows the unspeakable it’s power, and as a result, little by little, her mother is reduced to a ghost.
Lena recognizes that her mother has a dark side.
When she is five, Lena falls into the basement, and her mother warns her never to open the door again, telling her that an evil man has lurked in the basement for a thousand years, ready to eat anyone who comes through the door.
Lena begins to imagine all sorts of gruesome fates in everyday activity, i.e., a tetherball that would smash a girl’s head in. She attributes this dark side of herself, to her mom and her Chinese side.
Lena’s mom is Chinese and her dad is white. To lots of people, Lena just looks white, but Lena herself tries to make her eyes rounder by massaging them and opening her eyes really wide.
Lena’s dad shows her a photo of her mother looking scared after being released from Angel Island Immigration Station.
According to her dad, he saved her mother from some awful life in China.
During the immigration process, Lena’s father gave his wife a new name and birth date on her papers – she went from being Gu Ying-ying born in the year of the Tiger to Betty St. Clair born in the year of the Dragon.
Ying-ying sees danger everywhere, so she constantly makes stories up in order to teach Lena to avoid danger. The stories are absurd things like that homeless lady’s fingers are rotting off because she slept with a bad man and got pregnant.
Lena’s mom and dad have communication issues. Ying-ying only speaks a little bit of English, and Lena’s dad doesn’t speak Mandarin, so he’s always guessing what she’s saying, putting words into his wife’s mouth.
Lena, however, does understand Mandarin, but that doesn’t mean she really understands what her mom wants, or why her mom is so paranoid about Lena getting hurt or getting kidnapped and impregnated.
Lena’s family moves from Oakland to the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, where their apartment is on a very steep hill.
Some strange Chinese man comes running at Lena and her mom on the street. Ying-ying is terrified and Lena screams. It’s really unclear what’s happening in this episode, but Lena’s mom is clearly becoming more frantic.
Also, you get some glimpse of racism that Lena has to deal with: some men on the street think that Lena’s mom is really her maid, since Lena looks pretty Caucasian (and because all Asian women are maids? this is some spectacularly racist logic).
Lena’s mother is unhappy in their new apartment, muttering about things not being balanced, and spending time constantly rearranging the furniture, kitchen, and decorations. Her concerns are things like, "This house was built too steep, and a bad wind from the top blows all your strength back down the hill."
Lena’s father really doesn’t get it and figures it must be "nesting instincts," because Lena’s mother is expecting a baby.
But Lena feels worried. Her mom keeps bumping her pregnant belly into things, as if she doesn’t remember that she’s pregnant. Lena’s worried for the baby, and feels that the family is headed towards danger.
At night, Lena can hear a mother and daughter arguing next door. She imagines the daughter being beaten to death, or sliced to death with a sharp knife. The next night it happens again.
Lena runs into the girl from next-door in the hallway. She looks like a normal, happy girl, not one who’s being murdered every night.
One day Auntie Su and Uncle Canning, pick Lena up from school and take her to the hospital.
Lena’s mother is shouting accusations at herself, saying that she knew this was going to happen, but she did nothing to prevent it.
Lena’s dad is calling his wife "Betty darling" and he can’t understand what she’s saying or what has happened. He wants Lena to translate for him.
Ying-ying tells sort of a magical realism story where the baby boy was clinging to her womb, trying not to be born, and when he came out his head is just an empty eggshell. (Sounds like anencephaly, where a baby is born without some or all of their brain.) The baby then accuses her of not wanting him, and of killing her first son (more on this later).
Lena tells her father a different story in English, saying that her mother hopes the baby will be happy "on the other side."
Lena then watches her mother and father fall apart: her mother just becomes really distracted and starts crying all the time. Her father keeps trying to fix everything (unsuccessfully).
Lena comforts herself by thinking that the girl next door (who gets murdered every night) has an unhappier life.
Lena begins comparing her mother to a living ghost.
One day the girl from next door, who’s name Teresa, rings their doorbell. Her mother kicked her out, but she plans to use the fire escape to get back into her bedroom. She seems proud. Apparently, this is business as usual for Teresa and her mom.
Later that night, Lena realizes that the women next door love each other. Now Lena can’t comfort herself by thinking that Teresa’s life sucks.
Lena imagines saving her mother.
She envisions that she sees a girl, in pain because she is ignored, tell her mom that the only way to save her is to die by being cut a thousand times (like the beggar man who gets the "worst possible" death sentence). She slices her mother as her mother yells out in pain, but at the end there is no blood and the mother isn’t dead.
Now the mother has experienced the worst there is in the world, so she doesn’t have to worry anymore about what the worst might be. The mother is saved.