I watch Auntie An-mei make more wonton. She has quick, expert fingers. She doesn’t have to think about what she is doing. That’s what my mother used to complain about, that Auntie An-mei never thought about what she was doing.
“She’s not stupid,” said my mother on one occasion, “but she has no spine. . . . Auntie An-mei runs this way and that . . . and she doesn’t know why.”
June reflects on how her mother, Suyuan, used to criticize An-mei for her lack of spine. As readers will learn, however, An-mei’s passivity allowed her to survive her childhood. She may have been somewhat passive by nature, and her mother also taught acceptance, saying that one’s tears only serve to quench someone else’s thirst. So Suyuan may have been incorrect in asserting that An-mei did not know why she behaved spinelessly: An-mei may never have gotten over her upbringing and the lessons on survival learned then.
Here is how I came to love my mother. How I saw in her my own true nature. . . .
It was late at night when I went to Popo’s room. My auntie said it was Popo’s dying time and I must show respect. . . .
I saw my mother on the other side of the room. Quiet and sad. She was cooking a soup, pouring herbs and medicines into the steaming pot. . . .
And then my mother took her flesh and put it into the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time.
An-mei reflects on a pivotal moment in her relationship with her mother. An-mei has been taught for years to hate her mother, who was disowned by her family. But when her grandmother becomes sick, An-mei’s mother returns to care for her, even physically sacrificing part of herself to try to save the mother who kicked her out. Seeing this act, An-mei connects with her near-stranger mother. An-mei recognizes that her mother is a good person despite what she has been told and thus chooses to leave with her.
My mother believed in God’s will for many years. It was as if she had turned on a celestial faucet and goodness kept pouring out. She said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our way, only I thought she said “fate,” because she couldn’t pronounce that “th” sound in “faith.”
And later, I discovered that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you’re in control. . . . I remember the day I started thinking this. . . . It was the day my mother lost her faith in God. She found that things of unquestioned certainty could never be trusted again.
Rose reflects on how and when her mother, An-mei, changed her spiritual beliefs. An-mei believed in God’s will because God seemed to be on her side. To her, “faith” and “fate” may have been the same thing: She had absolute certainty about her future. When that fate ceased to be perfectly happy, she lost faith, or the expectation of future happiness. An-mei no longer knew what to expect and, without an anticipated result, would have difficult decisions to make.
My mother poured out tea sweetened with sugar into the teacup, and threw this into the sea. And then she opened her fist. In her palm was a ring of watery blue sapphire, a gift from her mother, who had died many years before. This ring, she told me, drew coveting stares from women and made them inattentive to the children they guarded so jealously. This would make the coiling dragon forgetful of Bing. She threw the ring into the water.
As Rose remembers, despite many years of churchgoing, when An-mei’s youngest son disappears into the ocean, An-mei reverts to Chinese beliefs to try to get him back. She offers tea and a prized possession to the dragon spirit who she believes has the boy. Although the Chinese ritual does not work, she abandons her Christian faith instead. An-mei was not drawn to Christian rituals in her crisis, and they do not offer her comfort now.
“‘Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.’”
But after my mother finished her story, I looked at her and saw she was crying. And I also began to cry again, that this was our fate, to live like two turtles seeing the watery world together from the bottom of the little pond.
Rose reflects on a time when her mother, An-mei, tries to teach her how to remain strong through a story. An-mei asserts that one person’s crying just makes someone else happy and fails to make the sad person feel better. In this moment, however, neither Rose nor her mother is able to apply the lesson, but since neither mother nor daughter would “steal” each other’s tears, crying with each other is safe. They can cry with each other but no one else.
On the wall opposite the bed was a big wooden clock with a forest and bears carved into it. The door on the clock had burst open and a tiny room full of people was coming out. . . .
This was a wonderful clock to see, but after I heard it that first hour, then the next, and then always, the clock became an extravagant nuisance. I could not sleep for many nights. And later, I found I had an ability: not to listen to something meaningless calling to me.
An-mei reflects on how she learned to tune sounds out. She lives with her mother in the large, western-style home of her husband and his many wives and children. One of the unusual features of her mother’s room is a cuckoo clock. At first fascinating, the clock’s hourly sounds quickly become annoying, but as with so many things in her life, An-mei eventually learns to ignore the clock. This skill, while useful and necessary for An-mei to survive her circumstances, might look like passive acceptance to someone else.
“You do not believe me, so you must give me the necklace. I will not let her buy you for such a cheap price.” . . .
And before I could try to stop her, she put the necklace under her shoe and stepped on it. . . . This necklace that had almost bought my heart and mind now had one bead of crushed glass.
Later she removed that broken bead and knotted the space together. . . . She told me to wear the necklace every day for one week so I would remember how easy it is to lose myself to something false.
Second Wife gives An-mei a pearl necklace. An-mei feels bedazzled, but her mother recognizes that Second Wife hopes to steal An-mei’s loyalty. By demonstrating that the necklace is just glass, An-mei’s mother breaks Second Wife’s spell: She lets An-mei see that Second Wife thought to buy her loyalty cheaply. An-mei has no interest in the necklace now, but her mother makes her wear the piece of jewelry to drive the lesson home. An-mei never again trusts Second Wife.
I know how it is to live your life like a dream. To listen and watch, to wake up and try to understand what has already happened. You do not need a psychiatrist to do this. A psychiatrist does not want you to wake up. He tells you to dream some more, to find the pond and pour more tears into it. And really, he is just another bird drinking from your misery.
An-mei views her daughter Rose’s acceptance of her husband’s wish for a divorce as similar to how she and her own mother passively accepted their experiences. She wants Rose to assert herself. An-mei fears that if Rose sees a psychiatrist, she will learn to accept her fate, which An-mei wants her to fight instead. Rose does eventually rouse herself to oppose her husband’s plans, just as An-mei eventually opposed Second Wife years ago.