Pearl Louie Brandt, the Chinese-American daughter of Winnie Louie, begins the narration of the novel by telling the reader of a conversation she had with her mother on the phone. Her mother has invited her to come from San Jose to Pearl's cousin's (Bao-Bao) engagement party in San Francisco. Pearl and her American husband, Phil, do not want to go but decide to make the trip, especially after Winnie tells her daughter, in another phone conversation, that her Auntie Du has died and that the funeral is planned for the day after the engagement party.
There is quite a bit of background information in this first chapter. The reader is told, for example, that Pearl is a forty-year-old married woman with two young daughters, that her parents are Chinese, and that she lost her father at the age of fourteen. Her father had been a good man, the assistant pastor of a Chinese Baptist church, dying of stomach cancer. We also hear about Pearl's condition, in which she is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, a condition she is hiding from her mother.
After making the drive into San Francisco, Phil, Pearl, and their two children (Tessa and Cleo) stay the night at Winnie's house, upon Winnie's request. The next day, Pearl promises to help at the flower shop that both her mother and Auntie Helen (Bao-Bao's mother) own. Winnie is there putting together the flower arrangements for the party. Once in Chinatown, Pearl is stopped by the owner of the Sam Fook Trading Company, who sells statuettes of gods and goddesses, altars, and good luck charms. The owner gives Pearl a package for Auntie Du's funeral containing some of the necessities for a Buddhist funeral.
Once at the wedding, Pearl is talking to Mary, Auntie Helen's daughter, whose "sympathetic" behavior concerning Pearl's multiple sclerosis angers and irritates Pearl. It is also at the wedding that Auntie Helen calls Pearl aside. While cutting the cake, Helen tells Pearl that she must tell her mother about her condition, and, that if she does not, then Helen will be forced to do so herself. Helen reveals to Pearl that she has a brain tumor that she believes to be malignant, even though everyone is trying to keep it from her and is telling her that the mass in the X-rays taken has turned out to be benign. She says that she cannot go to the grave knowing Pearl's secret and that Winnie has a right to know. Pearl is upset by this.
This chapter opens on the morning after the engagement party, as Pearl, Phil, and their children are preparing to go to the Auntie Du's funeral.
Winnie had told her daughter that the casket would be closed, which is why she had decided to bring the girls. Yet, when they arrive they see that the body is, in fact, visible. So, when Tessa tells Cleo that the body is dead, Cleo shouts, and the girls make a scene. Phil says he will take them out for ice cream and return for Pearl in an hour. Pearl continues to feel out of place but participates in the rituals, until she begins to sob aloud during a specific ritual where the guests are circling the body. Both she and her mother realize that she is not mourning for Auntie Du but for her father. It is at this time that there is a flashback of her father's funeral. Pearl had not cried at her father's funeral, and her mother had seen this as wrong. Winnie began to slap Pearl, telling Pearl that maybe that would make her cry.
Neither Pearl nor Winnie attend the burial and buffet that follows, and instead Pearl takes Winnie home. While at Winnie's house, Winnie gives Pearl the gift that Auntie Du had left for Pearl in her will (an altar for the Kitchen God), and Winnie tells Tessa and Cleo the story of the Kitchen God. The story of the Kitchen God is the story of a man named Zhang who had everything he could possibly want, including a wonderful wife named Guo. Zhang, however, begins to have an affair with a woman named Lady Li, who eventually expels Guo from her own house. Lady Li, however, after two years, leaves Zhang for another man, and Zhang is left a loveless beggar. It is at this point that Zhang is taken in by a woman, but when he finds out that the woman who took him in is actually his wife, Guo, he throws himself into the fireplace and dies. It was then that he became the Kitchen God, made to watch over everyone and tell the Jade Emperor in heaven who deserved good luck and who deserved bad luck.
Winnie explains, however, that the Kitchen God must be kept happy with offerings and that she does not believe this is the kind of luck Pearl needs, so she removes the picture of the God and promises to fill the altar with the image of another god. After this Phil, Tessa, and Pearl head home.
It is in this chapter that Winnie begins to narrate the novel. She tells a story about Helen having bought a fish that was on sale, even against Winnie's advice. The fish, however, turned out to be delicious. This story is juxtaposed against one of Winnie's own stories about the time she had bought a fish so fresh it was still alive when she purchased it for her husband Jimmy Louie, so that he could have a special meal. Jimmy Louie, however, choked on a fish bone and had to be taken to the hospital. Winnie tells these two stories in order to show us that she has not had luck like Helen has enjoyed throughout her life.
She then begins to tell pieces of anecdotes that indicate she has many secrets. She touches upon many subjects. For instance, she mentions a horrible marriage to a man named Wen Fu and another marriage she had, stupidly, turned down. She talks of dead children and of the fact that Helen is not really her sister- in-law—as her friends and family believe—or a sister—as the US immigration believes. The chapter then ends with Winnie remarking that she and Helen had kept each other's secrets and that now Helen wanted to expose them.
From the beginning of the novel the issues that arise out of being an American born of Chinese parents is evident. Pearl feels more American than she does Chinese and is, in fact, married to an American. Her children respond better to fast food than to the jellyfish served at the engagement party; the jellyfish actually upsets Cleo, who is only appeased when Auntie Helen points to another dish, telling them it is just like McDonald's meat.
The gulf between Pearl's Asian and American selves becomes most evident at the funeral where she feels "silly, taking part in a ritual that makes no sense" to her and one that she cannot explain, even when asked by her husband to explain the customs of the Buddhist ceremony. Pearl knows as much about the lucky money and the candy handed out at the funeral as Phil does. In fact, it is Bao-Bao who explains, claiming that the lucky money is like "insurance in case you pick up bad vibes here" and that the candy is simply to eat for good luck. This, in itself, is an Americanized explanation of an Asian tradition, which makes sense coming from Bao-Bao, who is, like Pearl, caught between two worlds.
Perhaps the greatest symbolic representation of the gulf between Pearl and her Asian heritage is the distance she feels between herself and her mother. This distance is one that she mentions more than once and one that is also symbolized by the physical distance between their homes—from San Jose to San Francisco. Figuratively speaking, the distance is not very far, but the ride can seem long. The distance between Pearl and her background is brought to the foreground, but alongside it comes the idea that this rift can be, in many ways, sealed. There are hints at Pearl's desire to be closer to her past, just as she wonders at the distance between her and her mother. For example, when Pearl begins to cry at the funeral, there is a silent connection and understanding between mother and daughter. Also, when Phil criticizes the altar that Auntie Du had left her in her will, Pearl does not join in this criticism but merely says "Umm," as if she has not yet decided what to think or does not know yet how to think about this gift. The connections and links exist; it is only that she has ignored them for so long.
Another element that arises out of these chapters is that the distance between mother and daughter seems to be filled with secrets. Pearl has not told her daughter about her multiple sclerosis, and Winnie has many secrets of her own, as Helen suggests and as is evidenced in the third chapter. In the third chapter, Winnie points to anecdotes that are heavy with implications. This chapter is full of literary device and technique because it is here that Tan gives us the pieces that will unfold before our eyes as mother and daughter unfold before each other. It is in this chapter that the narrator changes and the point of view shifts to Pearl's, who will be the listener and the one who takes in the story that her mother will tell her.