The Woman Warrior
Chapter Five: A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe
Brave Orchid once told Kingston that she had sliced her frenum, the lower part of her tongue, when Kingston was a baby, to prevent her from becoming tongue-tied. If the story is true, Kingston thinks her mother did not do a good enough job. She describes her difficulties communicating with others as a little girl, beginning with the time in grade school when she would paint over her own drawings in thick black paint. Whereas Brave Orchid was aggressively outspoken and loud, like many Chinese women, Kingston was a shy and timid girl, her voice "broken" and cracked with shame. She tried to make herself seem "American-feminine" by talking as little as possible.
In grade school, Kingston fixates on a silent Chinese girl in her class who hardly speaks at all, except to read aloud. Kingston fiercely hates this girl, in large part because they rank so close to each other on the class popularity scale—pretty much last and next to last—and also because they both follow the silent girl's older sister around. One time, while they are playing, Kingston finds herself alone with the quiet girl. She begins to torment the girl—pulling on her hair, pinching her cheek, calling her names—in a desperate attempt to get the girl to speak. The girl does not speak, only stands there and cries as Kingston cruelly teases her for what seems to be an incredibly long time. Kingston is punished for her cruelty, she believes, when she comes down with a strange illness that keeps her in a hospital bed in her house day and night for the next year and a half.
Kingston writes about some of the other eccentrics in her community: "Crazy Mary," a girl who lost her mind after her parents left her behind in China; "Pee-A-Nah," the village idiot and witch who terrorizes Kingston and the other children; and a mentally retarded boy who follows her around, hanging around her parents' laundry whenever Kingston is working there. Kingston is obsessive about these personalities because she herself feels like the crazy person in her house—hearing and answering voices in her mind and constantly having bad dreams. She fears her parents' designs to betroth her to an "FOB," or "fresh-off-the-boat" Chinese man. She therefore deliberately makes herself seem even weirder when these suitors are around the house—breaking dishes, spilling the soup, pretending to limp. Soon, however, Kingston becomes paranoid that the community will try to match her up with the retarded boy.
Kingston's introversion as a little girl leads her to build in her mind a list of things that she yearns to tell her mother. She resolves to tell her mother this list in a methodical fashion, one item a day for nearly a year. However, after only the first couple of "confessions"—she once killed a spider, for instance—her mother loses patience and tells her to be quiet. Finally, when Kingston can no longer keep her list bottled in—her throat feels terrible, as if her vocal chords are about to burst from all of the words stuck in there—she lets go a torrent of verbal abuse upon her mother. She accuses her mother of lying when she talk-stories, of trying to make her "a wife and a slave," of trying to keep her from talking. Her mother responds by angrily calling her a "Ho Chi Kuei" (Ho Chi Ghost), a name Kingston cannot figure out, but believes could mean a "Good Foundation Ghost"—a person who has all the advantages of being born in America.
At the end of the chapter, Kingston looks back on her childhood with a critical distance that can only come from maturity. She proudly combines one of her mother's talk-stories, about her grandmother, with her own: the story of the poetess Ts'ai Yen, who was captured by barbarians and brought back the popular Chinese hymn "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe."
"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" is the most personal of the five chapters in The Woman Warrior. Kingston returns to a first-person narrative after the third-person voice of the third chapter, concentrating her attention on her own life for the first time in the book. We can look at the chapter as a chronicle—albeit an incomplete one—from Kingston's youth to adulthood: it begins with Kingston as a baby and ends with Kingston in her present-day role as writer and storyteller. We see Kingston at some of the most pivotal moments and phases of her life: as a quiet, insecure, and alienated young girl; as a rebellious teenager who blames her mother for her problems; as a young adult, separated from her past and finally beginning to "see the world logically"; and finally as a more mature person, embracing her past and using it to find strength as a writer.
The dichotomies and conflicts first brought up in "No-Name Woman"—speaking versus silence, individual versus community, Chinese-Americans versus emigrants—figure prominently in this final chapter. Kingston and the other inquisitive Chinese-American children are constantly told not to tell anyone outside the community about their lives. They are told to lie or keep quiet to Americans about everything, especially problems such crime and unemployment, lest any of the Chinese be deported for some reason. The emigrants want to keep their community as insular as possible; meanwhile, many of their sons and daughters are trying their hardest to assimilate—there is a brief mention, for instance, of the Chinese girls in junior high trying to tape their eyelids to appear less Asian. Kingston's own difficulty finding a voice thus parallels the plight of many of many Chinese-American children who are silenced and reined in by their parents. We must note, however, the paradox that silence is in some contexts also an "American" trait; it is the emigrant Chinese women who talk loudly, notes Kingston, who herself tries to become quiet and "American-feminine."
It is important that Kingston does not spare herself in this final chapter. Ironically, this ordinarily quiet girl has two long rants in this chapter—her diatribe against her mother and her awful ridicule of the silent girl—neither of which is particularly flattering to her character. In admitting these events, Kingston acknowledges that her words were often bottled up, and therefore came out with more vitriol than she intended. Writing, rather than speaking, becomes Kingston's way of looking at herself and her family with more maturity and perspective.
The final talk-story in The Woman Warrior is a fitting metaphor for Kingston's own project. Just as Ts'ai Yen had to translate the songs of Barbarians back to her people, so must Kingston take incomprehensible "culture" and translate it to her readers. The question, of course, is which culture we are talking about—Chinese or American or Chinese-American, Kingston's family or the community at large, the history of a people or their mythical legends and beliefs. Kingston's memoir always seems to occupy the space in between.
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