We'll admit it: we think Ying-ying has the most tragic story among the members of the Joy Luck Club—and she's in competition with a woman who was forced to abandon her daughters, a woman whose mother committed suicide, and a woman who was stuck in a marriage to a bratty man-child.
But Ying-ying is a self-proclaimed ghost. And we're not talking about a chummily morbid Nearly Headless Nick-style ghost, or even an eerie Ghost of Christmas Past. Ying-ying is just...spectral.
Through her narrated flashbacks, we see how she evolved from a free-spirited, proud, talkative girl to a "ghost" with no voice (it involved a no-good, cheating husband). In this transformation, Ying-ying loses herself and loses her identity.
Ying-ying becomes almost entirely passive in her marriage to Clifford St. Clair. St. Clair has good intentions, but he does stuff like change her name to Betty and even puts her birth year down wrong on her immigration forms, changing her from a tiger (she was born in the year of the tiger) to a dragon in one second.
Does Ying-ying complain? Nope, and it isn’t only because her husband doesn’t understand Chinese. She basically stops caring about her life and just goes through the motions of being a wife and mother without actually feeling it:
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)
That secrecy and ghostliness is comforting (in the same way that hiding yourself under your blankets is comforting), but it's also supremely alienating.
Part of this ghostliness springs from Ying-yings reliance on the ideas of fate and omens: she believes that she can predict the future if it pertains to her or her family. For example, she "knows" that she'll marry a bad man before it happens. She also "knows" that she will marry St. Clair, later "knows" that her baby will not be born alive, and also "knows" that St. Clair will die.
But Ying-ying just takes this knowledge passively; she has this idea that something is fated to happen and so simply lets it occur. For example: even though she thinks the man who will be her first husband is a total jerk, she does nothing to prevent the marriage.
The main problem with Ying-ying’s passivity is that she’s set a bad example for her daughter; and she can now see Lena becoming passive and ghost-like:
"It’s true," I say evenly. "I’ve hated ice cream almost all my life."
Harold looks at me, as if I too, were speaking Chinese and he could not understand. "I guess I assumed you were just trying to lose weight… oh well."
"She become so thin now you cannot see her," says my mother. "She like a ghost, disappear."
"That’s right! Christ, that’s great," exclaims Harold, laughing, relieved in thinking my mother is graciously trying to rescue him. (III.1.90)
Lena’s marriage is heading for disaster, but Lena’s doing nothing to prevent it. Ying-ying wants her daughter to be active in creating her own future, not just see the direction it’s heading in and passively go along with it. Ying-ying hopes that by telling Lena about her own tragic life story, she can prevent Lena from having an equally sad and ghostly future.