"Don't let your father know that I told you [about your forgotten aunt]. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful" (1.9).
We learn that some of the stories Kingston has been told were meant to be warnings. She must be a good girl for the sake of the family's reputation. It's ironic, that the very stories that later empower Kingston are the same ones told to her to limit her.
"I'm not a bad girl," I would scream. "I'm not a bad girl. I'm not a bad girl." I might as well have said, "I'm not a girl" (2.152).
Kingston grew up feeling like being born a girl was a set-back. The world treated her differently through no fault of her own.
It was said, "There is an outward tendency in females," which meant that I was getting straight A's for the good of my future husband's family, not my own. I did not plan ever to have a husband. I would show my mother and father and the nosey emigrant villagers that girls have no outward tendency. I stopped getting straight A's (2.160).
Because of other expectations of girls, Kingston manipulated her behavior in order to react against those patriarchal expectations. It becomes tricky because then Kingston's sense of self becomes confused – should she let herself do well in school or not? Who is she doing it for?
"When your father lived in China," Brave Orchid told the children, "he refused to eat pastries because he didn't want to eat the dirt the women kneaded from between their fingers" (4.218).
Kingston remembers how her mom would tell her about her father's sexism. Our narrator's ardent vow to fight unfair treatment of women quickly causes conflict within the family.
"She's very pretty and very young; just a girl. She's his nurse. He's a doctor like me. What a terrible, faithless man. You'll have to scold him for years, but first you need to sit up straight. Use my powder. Be as pretty as you can. Otherwise you won't be able to compete" (4.269).
Some might call Brave Orchid a complicated feminist. She wishes Moon Orchid to confront her husband for leaving her in China, but Moon Orchid has no wish to do so. Then Brave Orchid makes Moon Orchid feel like she'll need to be prettier to please her husband.
"You want a husband, don't you?" said Brave Orchid. "If you don't claim him now, you'll never have a husband. Stop crying," she ordered. "Do you want him to see you with your eyes and nose swollen when that young so-called wife wears lipstick and nail polish like a movie star?" (4.290).
Brave Orchid speaks for her sister in a way that is not helpful. Why doesn't she just let Moon Orchid do what she wants to do?
Brave Orchid told her children they must help her keep their father from marrying another woman because she didn't think she could take it any better than her sister had. If he brought another woman into the house, they were to gang up on her and play tricks on her, hit her, and trip her when she was carrying hot oil until she ran away (4.367).
Brave Orchid coaxes her children to punish a potential second wife of her husband instead of the husband himself. Why is that?
Normal Chinese women's voices are strong and bossy. We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine. Apparently we whispered even more softly than the Americans. Once a year the teachers referred my sister and me to speech therapy, but our voices would straighten out, unpredictably normal, for the therapists (5.69).
Kingston is confused which model of femininity she should use as a standard. The very relativity of femininity according to culture, belies how arbitrary those standards can be.
When my sisters and I ate at [the great-grandfather and great-uncle's] house, there we would be – six girls eating. The old man opened his eyes wide at us and turned in a circle, surrounded .His neck tendons stretched out. "Maggots!" he shouted. "Maggots! Where are my grandsons? I want grandsons? Give me grandsons! Maggots!" He pointed at each one of us, "Maggot! Maggot! Maggot! Maggot! Maggot! Maggot!" (5.124).
Kingston gives us another example of a (male) relative who demonstrates shockingly inappropriate behavior toward his female relatives. No wonder Kingston felt during childhood that girls were bad by default.
"Improve that voice," she had instructed my mother, "or else you'll never marry her off. Even the fool half ghosts won't have her." So I discovered the next plan to get rid of us: marry us off here without waiting until China. The villagers' peasant minds converged on marriage (5.133).
Kingston comes to scorn marriage.
"Chinese smeared bad daughters-in-law with honey and tied them naked on top of ant nests," my father said. "A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that." Confucius, the rational man (5.134).
Patriarchal values are written into ancient texts, too. Stories that are considered classic and have been passed down for years and years are often infused with sexism.
My aunt haunts me – her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes (1.49).
Kingston pays tribute to her aunt's memory by writing her story.
When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves […] [The white crane boxing story] was one of the tamer, more modern stories, mere introduction. My mother told others that followed swordswomen through woods and palaces for years. Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I couldn't tell where the stories left off and the dreams began, her voice the voice of the heroines in my sleep (2.1-2).
Brave Orchid equipped her children with role models through storytelling.
When I dream that I am wire without flesh, there is a letter on blue airmail paper that floats above the night ocean between here and China. It must arrive safely or else my grandmother and I will lose each other (2.183).
Kingston imagines that the ties between her grandmother and her is in the form of a letter.
The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are "report a crime" and "report to five families." The reporting is the vengeance – not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words – "chink" words and "gook" words too – that they do not fit on my skin (2.189).
Kingston describes writing as a form of combat, as a potential act of heroism.
To make my waking life American-normal, I turn on the lights before anything untoward makes an appearance. I push the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible stories. Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear (3.138).
Kingston shows how language shifts one's way of thinking and believing. Knowing more than one language only complicates any idea of reality.
"Why didn't you write to tell her once and for all you weren't coming back and you weren't sending for her?" Brave Orchid asked.
"I don't know," he said. "It's as if I had turned into a different person. The new life around me was so complete; it pulled me away. You became people in a book I had read a long time ago" (4.323-324).
Moon Orchid's husband treats his old life with Moon Orchid as an old book, suggesting that he has created a new life for himself, a new story.
Brave Orchid saw that all variety had gone from her sister. She was indeed mad. "The difference between mad people and sane people," Brave Orchid explained to the children, "is that sane people have variety when they talk-story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over" (4.363).
Brave Orchid believes that variety and even inconsistency are necessary attributes in a good storyteller. The ability to change and create new stories makes one better able to live in reality.
Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America (1.10).
Kingston describes the added difficulty of growing up an immigrant's child. When one's family culture and parents know a different reality than the one you're growing up in, it gets tricky to negotiate both places and senses of time.
I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that "aunt" would do my father mysterious harm. I have thought that my family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here (1.47).
Kingston describes her frustration in realizing that she too readily believed the reality that her parents painted. Her sense of reality growing up, and thus her sense of how to behave in that reality, was largely dependent on the stories her parents told. We might wonder then how we react to the kind of reality that Kingston creates.
I had met a rabbit who taught me about self-immolation and how to speed up transmigration: one does not have to become worms first but can change directly into a human being – as in our own humaneness we had just changed bowls of vegetable soup into people too (2.40).
In the chapter "White Tigers," Kingston suspends reality and considers a more spiritual approach to being in the world, one where humanity is demonstrated by all creatures.
I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium (2.44).
While training to be a warrior, Kingston works on her mind's ability to imagine the world other than it is by imagining the world as a dragon.
The bird flew above me down the mountain, and for some miles, whenever I turned to look for them, there would be the two old people waving. I saw them through the mist; I saw them on the clouds; I saw them big on the mountaintop when distance had shrunk the pines. They had probably left images of themselves for me to wave at and gone about their other business (2.73).
Kingston imagines a world where you can see the figures of people long after they are actually there; this is a poignant image of her thoughts and memory of the elderly couple actually projected into embodied forms.
In fact, it wasn't me my brother told about going to Los Angeles; one of my sisters told me what he'd told her. His version of the story may be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs. The hearer can carry it tucked away without it taking up much room (5.14).
Kingston begins Chapter 5 by divulging where she heard tell of the events in Chapter Four. We realize that the story of Moon Orchid in Chapter 4 is just that: a story told by Kingston, though it could just as well have been told by her brother or sister.
Long ago in China, knot-makers tied string into buttons and frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore. If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker (5.14).
The author likens storytelling to knot-making and imagines what it would have been like to live in another place and time. The opening with "Long ago in China" shows us how this story has been passed down from generation to generation.
Maybe because I was the one with the tongue cut loose, I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the true things about me and to stop the pain in my throat (5.150).
Kingston wants to share her truths with her mom, but she soon learns that her mom has a different sense of truth.
"And I don't want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. They scramble me up. You lie with stories. You won't tell me a story and then say, 'This is a true story,' or, 'This is just a story.' I can't tell the difference. I don't even know what your real names are. I can't tell what's real and what you make up. Ha! You can't stop me from talking" (5.163).
Kingston calls her mom out on confusing her sense of reality with her talk story. Growing up with so many stories told by Brave Orchid, Kingston conflates her sense of truth and story.
Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation. I enjoy the simplicity. Concrete pours out of my mouth to cover the forests with freeways and sidewalks (5.181).
Kingston warns that reality is merely a matter of speaking. If you talk story, that story might as well as be true because it will be circulated and believed to be true.
The very next day after I talked out the retarded man, the huncher, he disappeared. I never saw him again or heard what became of him. Perhaps I made him up, and what I once had was not Chinese-sight at all but child-sight that would have disappeared eventually without such struggle (5.184).
Kingston suggests that truth also changes over time and age when she can't remember whether or not she's imagining the huncher.
I continue to sort out what's just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just the village, just movies, just living (5.184).
Kingston emphasizes that she continues to question the difference between truth and fiction. But how useful is it to do this? Is this an old habit that she can't kick, or something that she deliberately tries to do?
I'd like to go to China and see those people and find out what's a cheat story and what's not. Did my grandmother really live to be ninety-nine? Or did they string us along all those years to get our money? (5.186).
Stories that come from distance places and from different experiences, such as those coming from Kingston's relatives in communist China to Kingston's family in capitalist America, are difficult to trust even when time is the same.
"I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language. You'll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another. You'll be able to pronounce anything. Your frenum looked too tight to do those things, so I cut it" (5.20).
Brave Orchid's act of violence on Kingston's tongue speaks to her willingness to hurt something on the chance that it will improve it in the long run.
When I went to kindergarten and had to speak English for the first time, I became silent. A dumbness – a shame – still cracks my voice in two, even when I want to say "hello" casually, or ask an easy question in front of the check-out counter, or ask directions of a bus driver (5.30).
This excerpt about Kingston's timidity to speak English is compelling especially since The Woman Warrior is written in English. Perhaps her memoirs are a supplement to the time she spent in silence.
My silence was thickest – total – during the three years that I covered my school paintings with black paint. I painted layers of black over houses and flowers and suns, and when I drew on the blackboard, I put a layer of chalk on top. I was making a stage curtain, and it was the moment before the curtain parted or rose (5.31).
Kingston shows how silence is like the black paint that belies the drawings underneath. Just because nothing is spoken yet doesn't mean the ideas aren't there.
I liked the Negro students (Black Ghosts) best because they laughed the loudest and talked to me as if I were a daring talker too. One of the Negro girls had her mother coil braids over her ears Shanghai-style like mine; we were Shanghai twins except that she was covered with black like my paintings. Two Negro kids enrolled in Chinese school, and the teachers gave them Chinese names (5.33).
Kingston shows how language does not need to be a barrier between individuals of different races.
It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak. […] The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl (3.34).
Since Kingston does not feel bad about being silent until she is pressured to change, she suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with silence.
I could not understand "I." The Chinese "I" has seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American "I," assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight? Was it out of politeness that this writer left off strokes the way a Chinese has to write her own name small and crooked? No, it was not politeness; "I" is a capital and "you" is lower-case (5.35).
Kingston's application of cultural sensibilities proves uneasy when it's with two languages with different histories.
[At Chinese school] we chanted together, voices rising and falling, loud and soft, some boys shouting, everybody reading together, reciting together and not alone with one voice. When we had a memorization test, the teacher let each of us come to his desk and say the lesson to him privately, while the rest of the class practiced copying or tracing (5.38).
When the students don't feel pressured to speak at Chinese school, they have no problem speaking and working as a group. The problem Kingston seems to have with silence is not the silence itself but the stigma of it.
You can't entrust your voice to the Chinese, either; they want to capture your voice for their own use. They want to fix up your tongue to speak for them. "How much less can you sell it for?" we have to say. Talk the Sales Ghosts down. Make them take a loss (5.41).
Kingston implies that different languages have different expected uses.
I hated the younger sister, the quiet one. I hated her when she was the last chosen for her team and I, the last chosen for my team. I hated her for her China doll hair cut. I hated her at music time for the wheezes that came out of her plastic flute (5.75).
The fact that Kingston refers to the girl as "the quiet one" and draws parallels between her and the girl shows how she projects her own insecurities onto her classmate.
"You're disgusting," I told her. "Look at you, snot streaming down your nose, and you won't say a word to stop it. You're such a nothing" (5.84).
In this encounter with the quiet girl from Chinese class, Kingston reveals her insecurity. She's afraid that silence amounts to a nonexistence, that she will become a forgotten being.
"What are you going to do for a living? Yeah, you're going to have to work because you can't be a housewife. Somebody has to marry you before you can be a housewife. And you, you are a plant. Do you know that? That's all you are if you don't talk. If you don't talk, you can't have a personality. You'll have no personality and no hair. You've got to let people know you have a personality and a brain. You think somebody is going to take care of you all your stupid life" (5.88).
Kingston repeats her mother's threats while bullying the quiet girl. We can tell that she is really talking out her own fears at the expense of the girl.
But when I saw Father's occupations I exclaimed, "Hey, he wasn't a farmer, he was a …" He had been a gambler. My throat cut off the word – silence in front of the most understanding teacher. There were secrets never to be said in front of the ghosts, immigration secrets whose telling could get us sent back to China (5.95).
Kingston suggests that a condition of living in the United States in an immigrant family is a silence made necessary by the law.
"That's what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite" (5.178).
Kingston's frustration with Brave Orchid's words here is one moment of many where language gets in the way of communicating the truth.
The throat pain always returns, though, unless I tell what I really think, whether or not I lose my job, or spit out gaucheries all over a party (5.184).
The longing to share her personal truths manifests itself as a physical pain in Kingston.
Then, out of Ts'ai Yen's tent, which was apart from the others, the barbarians heard a woman's voice singing, as if to her babies, a song so high and clear, it matched the flutes. Ts'ai Yen sang about China and her family there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger. Sometimes they thought they could catch barbarian phrases about forever wandering (5.197).
In this closing passage, Kingston suggests that art communicates feeling that works on a level beyond language.
After my grandparents gave their daughter away to her husband's family, they had dispensed all the adventure and all the property. They expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the food, safe for returning. But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space (1.20).
Kingston's family expects their daughter to carry on their culture and traditions while letting their sons move away from the family. Kingston shows how this different treatment according to gender manifests itself within family dynamics.
Sisters used to sit on their beds and cry together, she said, as their mothers or their slaves removed the bandages for a few minutes each night and let the blood gush back into their veins (1.25).
Kingston rewrites the painful practice of foot-binding Chinese women's feet as an opportunity for sisters to share with one another.
He may have been somebody in her own household, but intercourse with a man outside the family would have been no less abhorrent. All the village were kinsmen, and the titles shouted in loud country voices never let kinship be forgotten (1.33).
The situation with No Name Woman's lover is an example of how communities do not protect all their members equally.
Marriage promises to turn strangers into friendly relatives – a nation of siblings. […] The frightened villagers, who depended on one another to maintain the real, went to my aunt to show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the "roundness." Misallying couples snapped off the future, which was to be embodied in true offspring. The villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them (1.36-37).
The village acts against No Name Woman to punish her for not thinking of the village's greater good. But who was looking out for No Name Woman?
The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death (1.48).
The family's reaction to the villager's raid was a selfish act of pride and not at all in their relative's best interest.
"But I'm happy here with you and all your children," Moon Orchid said. "I want to see how this girl's sewing turns out. I want to see your son come back from Vietnam. I want to see if this one gets good grades. There's so much to do" (4.219).
Though Brave Orchid insisted that Moon Orchid return to her husband, maybe Moon Orchid didn't come to America for her husband but for her sister's and daughter's families. Maybe Moon Orchid was more interested in a family that cared for her than a long-lost husband who didn't show her love.
Brave Orchid held her hand when she appeared vague. "Don't go away, Little Sister. Don't go any further. Come back to us." If Moon Orchid fell asleep on the sofa, Brave Orchid sat up through the night, sometimes dozing in a chair. When Moon Orchid fell asleep in the middle of the bed, Brave Orchid made a place for herself at the foot. She would anchor her sister to this earth (4.349).
In moments like these, we see how much Brave Orchid cares for her sister despite the way she acts when Moon Orchid's husband is involved.
Sometimes I felt very proud that my mother committed such a powerful act upon me. At other times I was terrified – the first thing my mother did when she saw me was to cut my tongue (5.16).
Kingston shows how heavily influenced her storytelling skills are by her family: her mom has physically changed the way she can communicate by snipping her tongue.
[Family members] would not tell us children because we had been born among ghosts, were taught by ghosts, and were ourselves ghost-like. They called us a king of ghost. Ghosts are noisy and full of air; they talk during meals. They talk about anything (5.101).
Kingston points to the complication of growing up in a culture different from the one of your family's. Both Chinese and American, Kingston is treated as an other in her own family because of cultural and national difference.
So I had to stop, relieved in some ways. I shut my mouth, but I felt something alive tearing at my throat, bite by bite, from the inside. Soon there would be three hundred things, and too late to get them out before my mother grew old and died (5.161).
Kingston's sweet determination to share herself with her mom shows us how important her mom is to her life and identity. She wants to tell her mom stories, too.
What I'll inherit someday is a green address book full of names. I'll send the relatives money, and they'll write me stories about their hunger. My mother has been tearing up the letters from the youngest grandson of her father's third wife. He has been asking for fifty dollars to buy a bicycle. He says a bicycle will change his life (5.186).
The green address book points to a larger network of family that Kingston is not close to but nevertheless feels an obligation to in the name of family.
Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family (1.15).
Kingston's specific usage of "old China" in this excerpt distinguishes the right to choose from American and modern Chinese approaches.
The immigrants I know have loud voices, unmodulated to American tones even after years away from the village where they called their friendships out across the fields. I have not been able to stop my mother's screams in public libraries or over telephones (1.30).
Kingston is fascinated by the vocality of Chinese immigrants who speak at loud Chinese volumes without worrying about American etiquette.
Walking erect (knees straight, toes pointed forward, not pigeon-toed, which is Chinese-feminine) and speaking in an inaudible voice, I have tried to turn myself American-feminine (1.31).
Kingston feels torn between the different ideas of femininity in China and in the United States. The fact that she chose to be more American, demonstrates that sometimes gender is socially and culturally constructed.
"You weren't supposed to come here," he said, the front seat a barrier against the two women over whom a spell of old age had been cast. "It's a mistake for you to be here. You can't belong. You don't have the hardness for this country. I have a new life" (4.303).
Moon Orchid's husband tells her that she is foreign and wrong for America without realizing that he is the one actively ostracizing her from his life in the United States.
"Look at her. She'd never fit into an American household. I have important American guests who come inside my house to eat." He turned to Moon Orchid. "You can't talk to them. You can barely talk to me" (4.314).
Even though Moon Orchid and her husband both speak Cantonese, another type of language becomes the barrier between the lives they lead. This is not a language between individuals but between groups.
Her husband looked like one of the ghosts passing the car windows, and she must look like a ghost from China. They had indeed entered the land of ghosts, and they had become ghosts (4.315).
Kingston reflects on the foreignness between the once married couple of Moon Orchid and her husband. Both foreigners to one another now and figments of memory, Moon Orchid and her husband represent the problem of shifting locations without shifting relations.
I like to look up a troublesome, shameful thing and then say, "Oh, is that all?" The simple explanation makes it less scary to go home after yelling at your mother and father. It drives the fear away and makes it possible someday to visit China, where I know now they don't sell girls or kill each other for no reason (5.183).
Her family's stories instilled a fear of China in Kingston. She can counteract the potency of their traumatic stories by destabilizing their authority. She makes up her own stories of other places.
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies? (1.12).
Kingston questions the idea of authenticity when it comes to Chinese identity in America. Her larger work in the memoir is to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, suggesting that there is no one truth.
I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that "aunt" would do my father mysterious harm. I have thought that my family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here. But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have (1.47).
Kingston reflects that she has believed in her family's stories without question for too long. She realizes that she relied on her family to set the boundaries of reality for her before she realized her own ability to decide for herself.
"The first thing you have to learn," the old woman told me, "is how to be quiet." They left me by streams to watch for animals. "If you're noisy, you'll make the deer go without water" (2.23).
In Kingston's myth of herself as a training warrior, she advocates the strength in silence and listening. Letting there be space and sound for others can then be seen as an ethical choice.
When you have been walking through trees hour after hour – and I finally reached trees after the dead land – branches cross out everything, no relief whichever way your head turns until your eyes start to invent new sights. Hunger also changes the world – when eating can't be a habit, then neither can seeing. I saw two people made of gold dancing the earth's dances. They turned so perfectly that together they were the axis of the earth's turning (2.37).
While training to be a warrior, Kingston writes how her sense of interacting with the world changed. This seems to suggest that one's life experiences shape the reality that one lives.
"Let's tie it to a flagpole until it dries," I said. We had both seen the boxes in which our parents kept the dried cords of all their children. "This one was yours, and this yours," my mother would say to us brothers and sisters, and fill us with awe that she could remember (2.109).
Kingston hopes to carry on her mother's tradition. She is happy that her mom remembers such intimate details about her life because it shows that her life is worth remembering, worth telling stories about.
"We've never met before. I've done nothing to you."
"You've done this," I said, and ripped off my shirt to show him my back. "You are responsible for this." When I saw his startled eyes at my breasts, I slashed him across the face and on the second stroke cut off his head" (2.132-133).
Kingston takes the political to be personal; even if the baron has not directly hurt Kingston, she reacts against his sexist behavior. Kingston identifies as a female avenger, someone who looks out and stands up for womankind.
I could not figure out what was my village. And it was important that I do something big and fine, or else my parents would sell me when we made our way back to China. In China there were solutions for what to do with little girls who ate up food and tantrums. You can't eat straight A's (2.146).
Kingston worries that she will never get the opportunity to unleash her inner warrior. Her fear here, however, does not seem to be for her own sense of pride but out of concern that her parents will find her unworthy if she does not prove heroic. On one level, she interprets the stories of Fa Mu Lan that her mother tells her as threats to show how she is lacking as a woman.
I refused to cook. When I had to wash dishes, I would crack one or two. "Bad girl," my mother yelled, and sometimes that made me gloat rather than cry. Isn't a bad girl almost a boy?
"What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?"
"A lumberjack in Oregon" (2.163-165).
Kingston demonstrates that a part of her self-identity was in reaction to her mother's and society's expectations of her. But what does it mean to have an identity dependent on others' ideas?
It seemed to hurt her to tell me [that Chinese people often say the opposite] – another guilt for my list to tell my mother, I thought. And suddenly I got very confused and lonely because I was at that moment telling her my list, and in the telling, it grew. No higher listener. No listener but myself (5.179).
Kingston wishes to share herself with her mother, but realizes that she has so many complex thoughts that there is no other person who could know all her stories other than herself. She worries that stories can only do but so much to connect people.
I saw two people made of gold dancing the earth's dances. They turned so perfectly that together they were the axis of the earth's turning. They were light; they were molten, changing gold – Chinese lion dancers, African lion dancers in midstep. I heard high Javanese bells deepen in midring to Indian bells, Hindu Indian, American Indian (2.37).
In an especially lucid moment, Kingston sees different nationalities for their similarities and not their differences.
I live now where there are Chinese and Japanese, but no emigrants from my own village looking at me as if I had failed them. Living among one's own emigrant villagers can give a good Chinese far from China glory and a place. "That old busboy is really a swordsman," we whisper when he goes by, "He's a swordsman who's killed fifty. He has a tong ax in his closet" (2.188).
Kingston considers the pros and cons of living with one's own emigrant villagers. The shared sense of hometown lends itself well to storytelling.
The Japanese, though "little," were not ghosts, the only foreigners considered not ghosts by the Chinese. They may have been descended from the Chinese explorers that the First Emperor of Ch'in (221-210 B.C.) had deployed to find longevity medicine (3.162).
Kingston's centralized placement of Chinese (American) characters in The Woman Warrior and the allusions to Cantonese language complicate the black-white racial paradigm.
But America has been full of machines and ghosts – Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts (3.183).
Kingston's varied use of ghosts in her memoirs here suggest that even everyday people (like taxi drivers) were initially foreign to her and thus considered ghosts. The sense of fear that ghosts suggest show us how racial difference was frightening or at least stifling to Kingston at first.
Some Negro kids walked met to school and home, protecting me from the Japanese kids, who hit me and chased me and stuck gum in my ears. The Japanese kids were noisy and tough. They appeared one day in kindergarten, released from concentration camp, which was a tic-tac-toe mark, like barbed wire, on the map (5.33).
Kingston refutes the racial category of Asian by alluding to the historical differences and interactions between Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans.
"Louder," said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl (5.34).
Kingston shows how stereotypes circulate even within one's own ethnic group, producing an idea of fact and truth.
Occasionally the rumor went about that the United States immigration authorities had set up headquarters in the San Francisco or Sacramento Chinatown to urge wetbacks and stowaways, anybody here on fake papers, to come to the city and get their files straightened out. The immigrants discussed whether or not to turn themselves in. "We might as well," somebody would say. "Then we'd have our citizenship for real." "Don't be a fool," somebody else would say. "It's a trap. You go in there saying you want to straighten out your papers, they'll deport you" (5.103-104).
In this brief moment, Kingston shows the complicated immigrant statuses in the Chinatown community. Race, then, is not the only factor but also documentation and national standing.
There were many crazy girls and women. Perhaps the sane people stayed in China to build the new, sane society. Or perhaps our little village had become odd in its isolation. No other Chinese, neither the ones in Sacramento, nor the ones in San Francisco, nor Hawaii speak like us (5.111).
Kingston clarifies that the people in her village and her family are not representative of all Chinese people.
After twelve years among the Southern Hsiung-nu, Ts'ai Yen was ransomed and married to Tung Ssu so that her father would have Han descendants. She brought her songs back from the savage lands, and one of the three that has been passed down to us is "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well (5.197).
The tale of Ts'ai Yen shows how ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences still make it possible to share stories and express feelings.
Then Moon Orchid went about the house turning off the lights like during air raids. The house became gloomy; no air, no light. This was very tricky, the darkness a wide way for going as well as coming back (4.350).
Moon Orchid's erratic behavior in Brave Orchid's home was really a temporal conflation of the past with the present. Perhaps madness is really just operating on a jumbled up sense of time.
Brave Orchid saw that all variety had gone from her sister. She was indeed mad. "The difference between mad people and sane people," Brave Orchid explained to the children, "is that sane people have variety when they talk-story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over" (4.363).
Brave Orchid suggests that sanity is the ability to tell many varied and even contradictory stories. So by this standard, is Kingston sane?
"And, you know," she said to Brave Orchid, "we understand one another here. We speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them." Sure enough, the women smiled back at her and reached out to touch her as she went by. She had a new story, and yet she slipped entirely away, not waking up one morning (4.366).
Kingston suggests that shared knowledge is the marker of sanity. That is, people who think in a different way or know different truths are seen as insane.
I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves. There were many crazy girls and women. Perhaps the sane people stayed in China to build the new, sane society. Or perhaps our little village had become odd in its isolation (5.111).
Kingston writes only about "crazy girls and women" here, not mentioning men at all. Madness is a gendered state of mind in this novel.
I thought every house had to have its crazy woman or crazy girl, every village its idiot. Who would be It at our house? Probably me. My sister did not start talking among nonfamily until a year after I started, but she was neat while I was messy, my hair tangled and dusty (5.117).
Kingston's assumption that every group has a crazy woman creates the archetype of crazy woman as a familiar thing. But is craziness still crazy if it is expected?
And there were adventurous people inside my head to whom I talked. With them I was frivolous and violent, orphaned. I was white and had red hair, and I rode a white horse. Once when I realized how often I went away to see these free movies, I asked my sister, just checking to see if hearing voices in motors and seeing cowboy movies on blank walls was normal, I asked, "Uh," trying to be casual, "do you talk to people that aren't real inside your mind?" (5.117).
Kingston suggests that madness could really just be another term for having an active imagination.
"I can't stand this whispering," she said looking right at me, stopping her squeezing. "Senseless gabbing every night. I wish you would stop. Go away and work. Whispering, whispering, making no sense. Madness. I don't feel like hearing your craziness" (5.160).
When Kingston tries to tell her list of truths to her mom, Brave Orchid calls her musings crazy and brushes her off. For Brave Orchid, anything that is not productive is crazy.