Little Waverly Jong cries when she sees candy at the local shops. Her mom tells her to "bite her tongue," which is a nice way of saying that crybabies don't get candy.
Next time they go to the store, Waverly stays quiet and scores the candy. Lesson learned.
Waverly reveals that Mom tosses out those nuggets of verbal wisdom as a way of improving her and her brother.
The Jongs live in San Francisco's Chinatown above a bakery. Life is good, especially because Waverly doesn't realize that her family is poor since she always has enough to eat. Plus her bedroom must smell amazing.
She and her brothers play in the alley behind their house; there's a cool playground at the end, but they like the alley's mysterious possibilities better.
They check out the fish market (complete with live fish) and the restaurant where tourists don't go. Messing with tourists is a local pastime, so one day they take an American photographer to see the sites. Cue the laughter of children when the photographer asks a stupid question.
Waverly explains that she's named after the street on which she lives, but that her family calls her "Meimei," which means "Little Sister." A bit redundant, but the Jongs make it work.
Mom always combs Waverly's unruly hair into tight little pigtails. One day as she endures the daily hair ritual, she asks a pointed little question about Chinese torture. Mom pretends not to know why Waverly asks such a question and calmly explains that the Chinese are the best darn torturers in the whole world. Take that, Soviet Russia.
On Christmas, the Jongs go to church where a Chinese man dressed as Santa hands out presents. Waverly lands a big package of Life Savers, while her brother Vincent receives a chess set.
Mom wants to throw the chess set out because she's too proud to beg. Before she can trash it, though, Waverly's brothers start playing the game together. After watching them, Waverly decides that she wants to learn, too.
Vincent shows Waverly the rulebook and Mom decides that they're "American" rules.
Waverly loves chess and starts reading up on it at the library.
She starts beating her brothers, and they suddenly decide that it's more fun playing cowboys out in the streets than being trounced by their little sister.
Eager for another victim, Waverly heads to the park and challenges an old man named Lau Po to a chess duel.
Lau Po easily beats her, but also teachers Waverly all his chess secrets, which she soaks up like a sponge.
Waverly keeps playing in the park and draws crowds with her increasing chess awesomeness. Mom keeps telling everyone that it's luck, though. Waverly's annoyed with her mom's false humility, but in their community bragging is just shy of the crime of killing cute fuzzy bunnies.
Waverly pops some reverse psychology on her Mom by saying she doesn't want to go to a local chess tournament. Mom falls for it and makes her go.
When they get to the tournament, Mom gives Waverly a chang (a type of red jade tablet) and claims that it is for "luck." Waverly proceeds to smoke her opponent like Texas mesquite BBQ.
Waverly continues her winning streak, but all Mom can say is that she has to "do better." For obvious reasons, this response is somewhat dissatisfying to little Waverly.
Mom begins to have Waverly's brothers do all the household chores so Waverly can work on her chess world domination.
By the time she turns nine, Waverly is a national chess champion and she appears on the cover of Life magazine. The picture they use for the magazine is taken from her match against a large, sweaty American dude.
The downsides to her champion status start to tax Waverly. She doesn't get to hang out in the cool alleyway anymore; for that matter, she doesn't play much anywhere. She has to go home and practice.
While she practices, Mom hovers over her and makes loud breathy noises. In an act of supreme self-control, Waverly refrains from strangling her mother.
On the Saturdays that she doesn't have a tournament, Waverly goes shopping with Mom. Mom doesn't really buy anything, though, she just tells everyone that this is her super-special chess champion daughter.
One Saturday Waverly complains about being used by Mom to show off to everybody. When Mom gets angry, Waverly pulls away from her and knocks over an old lady's grocery bags. She runs away while Mom stops to help.
She eventually realizes that she's nine and can't go anywhere—looks like Waverly's excellent adventure is over before it really begins.
So Waverly returns home, where she finds the family eating dinner. They all give her the cold shoulder at Mom's instruction, though, so Waverly goes to her room, sans dinner.
Safe in her bedroom, Waverly imagines her mother as a chess player who destroys all of her chess pieces. As they are defeated, she feels herself floating upward until she is alone in the darkness.
Waverly ponders her next move as the story ends. Tune in to The Joy Luck Club—same Tan time, same Tan channel—to see what happens next.