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"Shaman" focuses on Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid, tracing her life in China from the time Kingston's father left for America. After her first two children died in China, Brave Orchid decided to use the money her husband sent her to become a doctor. She attended a medical school in the city of Canton. Looking at her mother's diplomas and graduation photographs, Kingston recreates the experience from both her imagination and her mother's talk-stories.
In Kingston's narration, her mother finds independence and success at the To Keung School of Midwifery. Away from the New Society Village, she is responsible for no one but herself, and quickly makes herself known as one of the more brilliant students in her class. She also impresses her classmates when she fights and destroys a malicious ghost and then hunts down the ghost and destroys it.
When Brave Orchid returns to her village, she is treated like a magician or shaman, with an amazing ability both to heal the sicknesses of others and to destroy or scare away ghosts. She fools ghosts that seek to prey on newborn babies and scares away an "ape-man" that runs loose in the village. Kingston, who was also told talk-stories about ghost-killers that vanquished monsters by eating them, believes that her mother's abilities are linked to her ability to eat any sort of beast. She vividly recalls one particular talk-story in which Chinese people eat brains out of the head of a living monkey.
Many of Brave Orchid's talk-stories are upsetting to Kingston. Brave Orchid bought a slave-nurse when she was in China, and one time, Kingston remembers, her mother bitterly complained to her that Kingston's birth had cost her $200 at a time when they were giving away slave girls in China for free. Other talk-stories provide Kingston with her own ghosts, which cause her to have nightmares. In one talk-story, Brave Orchid delivers a child with no anus, and the family decides to leave it in the outhouse to perish. In another, the villagers stone a crazy woman to death because they think she is a spy for the Japanese.
In America, Brave Orchid teaches her daughter to think that all the white people around them are ghosts: "Newsboy Ghost," "Garbage Ghost," and so on. Still, Kingston prefers her Californian surroundings to the places in China her mother tells talk-stories about, where "the ghosts took shapes nothing like our own."
The last section of the chapter takes place in the present, during one of Kingston's visits to her see her parents. Brave Orchid sits by the bed and complains about life in America, how hard her work in the laundry and now in the tomato fields is, how time passes too quickly in America. Brave Orchid tells Kingston that they have finally given away their remaining lands in China and now will never go back—although Kingston knows they never would have returned anyway. Brave Orchid also begs her daughter to come and live with them again, but Kingston says she gets too sick when she is home, as there are too many ghosts that bother her. In the end, Kingston is surprised and relieved that her mother seems to understand, calling her by her affectionate nickname "Little Dog."
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