In her apartment, Ruth considers phoning Miriam, Art’s ex-wife, to ask if the girls can join the family reunion she is organizing. Ruth hesitates and thinks about the intimacy she still senses between Art and Miriam. Their closeness is confusing because Ruth is much more reserved and does not like to ask Art for a lot of details about his past life.

Analysis: Part One: Chapters Two & Three

This section reveals more about LuLing’s character from Ruth’s perspective. Ruth is obviously not an impartial observer; she has complex yet ambivalent feelings about her mother. As a single mother and child, LuLing and Ruth spent virtually all of their time together and were each other’s primary sources of companionship, which made Ruth both dependent and uncomfortable. LuLing’s limited English abilities added another layer of complexity to their dynamic. Even as a young child, Ruth always had a certain level of responsibility and was required to help her mother. Ruth’s need to act as a translator parallels how LuLing was required to interpret for Precious Auntie, who was unable to communicate with anyone else because of her injuries. Throughout her life, Ruth has had a challenging relationship with her mother because of LuLing’s intense and erratic personality.

LuLing’s history provides some explanation for why she has become a bitter woman. Although she had the presence and support of her sister, GaoLing, immigrating to California meant leaving behind all of her friends and family and an entire way of life. LuLing’s hopes were then crushed by the abrupt death of her second husband. She lost the possibility of enjoying an economically comfortable life due to her husband’s career as a physician and position as the Young family’s eldest son and heir. LuLing and GaoLing’s choice of prospective husbands forms an interesting contrast with Ruth’s approach to romantic relationships. While Ruth is secure in her own career and chooses Art because she enjoys his company, her mother and aunt viewed their choice of husband as the way to attain economic security. LuLing’s plan failed, but GaoLing’s succeeded, and this has created a rift between the women.

Ruth’s personal and professional lives revolve around ensuring that others get their needs met. While she takes pride in her career, she does not get public credit for the work she does, and she does not have the agency to communicate her own ideas. Ruth struggles to fully express herself and articulate her true ambitions and desires, meaning she experiences a metaphorical silence (in addition to the physical silence she experiences upon losing her voice each year). The other silent character in the novel, Precious Auntie, is silent because of terrible scars, and while Ruth is not physically scarred, the parallel between the two women suggests that Ruth carries some sort of psychological wound within her. When she talks with her friend Wendy, Ruth is astonished by the intimacy and open communication that seems to exist between other couples. Ruth’s earliest model of emotional closeness was her mother, and the communication barrier between them meant Ruth has never learned what it is like to truly share herself with someone.

Ruth’s professional role parallels her personal role as a de facto stepmother and caregiver. She must shoulder many personal burdens and responsibilities, but she does not get the recognition or rewards that others do. Especially as LuLing’s behavior has become more erratic, Ruth steps into more of a caregiving role, reversing the usual parent-child dynamic. Moreover, Ruth has to juggle competing demands between people who are important to her. There exists both generational and cultural tension between LuLing and Art’s daughters. The young girls cannot relate to LuLing, do not feel any bond with her, and do not feel an obligation to respect her. LuLing has much different ideas about how children should be raised, and she is surprised to see her daughter participating in a family life that is very different from the one she understands. Ruth is often frustrated because she has a responsibility to both LuLing and Art’s daughters, but none of them feel obligated to listen to her in return.

Ruth’s childhood memory of breaking her arm reveals how underlying power dynamics in her relationship with LuLing first became established. As the child of an immigrant parent, Ruth wanted to fit in, so she was often embarrassed by LuLing. Breaking her arm symbolically connected her to Precious Auntie and to the bone healers in her maternal ancestry. At the time, however, all Ruth knows is that both her mother and her peers treat her with more kindness when they believe that she is hurt. Ruth paradoxically gains power by becoming vulnerable: when she stops speaking, people nurture and care for her. The incident teaches her that bravery is dangerous, but being quiet and uncomplaining is rewarded. Although Ruth may not see the connection as a child, readers understand how this accident likely shaped her subsequent character. Even as a woman in her forties, Ruth tries to be docile, unobtrusive, and agreeable. She still goes through periods of silence, which may now reflect an unconscious desire for greater tenderness or attentiveness from Art, in the same way that silence earned her mother’s affection when she was a child.