After a while I didn’t think it was a terrible life, no, not really. . . . What was happier than seeing everybody gobble down the shiny mushrooms and bamboo shoot I had helped to prepare that day? . . . Can you see how the Huangs almost washed their thinking into my skin? I came to think of Tyan-yu as a god, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I wanted to please[.]
Lindo was promised as a baby to marry into a better-off family. At age twelve she already lives with the new family, learning how to be a good wife or, perhaps more accurately, a good daughter-in-law. Lindo’s natural commitment to family and enjoyment of doing a good job almost make her change her primary loyalty from her own family to her in-laws. Here, in recollection, Lindo understands the effort she had to make to reclaim herself.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. . . . And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never forget myself.
On the day of her unwanted marriage, Lindo, looking in the mirror, recognizes and acknowledges her own self-worth. Lindo possesses strength, skills in many areas, and virtue. She has promised to marry, and she will not break that promise, as that would shame her family and herself. In this scene, after recognizing her true self, she covers her face for the wedding: Her true virtue remains a secret known only to herself, for now.
[A]fter the gold was removed from my body, I felt lighter, more free. They say this is what happens if you lack metal. You begin to think as an independent person. That day I started to think about how I would escape this marriage without breaking my promise to my family. It was really quite simple. I made the Huangs think it was their idea to get rid of me, that they would be the ones to say the marriage contract was not valid.
Lindo reflects on how she devised her escape from her unwanted marriage. She understands that she is not fulfilling her most important duty: getting pregnant. Her mother-in-law uses Chinese knowledge of five elements to try to increase fertility to no avail. Lindo believes in this wisdom, claiming that the removal of metal made her more independent of thought. At the same time, she knows perfectly well that her lack of pregnancy results from her husband’s lack of interest in sex. Lindo seamlessly integrates Chinese wisdom with her own practical planning.
I gave up. And then we did the usual routine. I paid for the bill, with a ten and three ones. My mother pulled back the dollar bills and counted out exact change, thirteen cents, and put that on the tray instead, explaining firmly: “No tip!” She tossed her head back with a triumphant smile. And while my mother used the restroom, I slipped the waiter a five-dollar bill. He nodded to me with deep understanding.
Waverly describes a scene in which she foils Lindo’s attempt to omit a tip from a restaurant bill. Lindo has impossibly high standards and resists parting with money. Both of these features are sources of pride for Lindo, aspects of her stewardship of her family’s fortunes. But from her American daughter Waverly’s perspective, these characteristics feel exasperating and embarrassing. Fortunately, the waiter at the Chinese restaurant understands both Lindo’s and Waverly’s positions. He probably deals with similar older Chinese women every day and might even have one as a mother.
I saw who I had been fighting for: It was for me, a scared child, who had run away a long time ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in.
Here, Waverly views her mother, Lindo, with new eyes. First, Waverly sees her sleeping mother as a frail old woman for the first time. Then Lindo expresses sadness at how Waverly assumes Lindo’s words are meant critically. Waverly realizes that she has been the one keeping the mother–daughter relationship at arm’s length. If she shares more with her mother, including her feelings, Lindo might be less likely to hurt them.
I couldn’t teach her about Chinese character. How to obey parents and listen to your mother’s mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. Why easy things are not worth pursuing. How to know your own worth and polish it, never flashing it around like a cheap ring. Why Chinese thinking is best. . . . “Don’t be so old fashioned, Ma,” she told me. . . . “I’m my own person.” And I think, How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?
Lindo wanted Waverly to have American circumstances—the ability to change her station—but still have Chinese character, including an inviolable bond to her mother. Lindo believes that she herself is still essentially Chinese and that she failed to teach the American Waverly these Chinese traits, making the two of them more different than mothers and daughters should rightfully be. When Waverly asserts that she is her own person, a statement that Waverly asserts with pride, Lindo feels distress and questions how such a disconnect could have occurred.
Back then I thought to myself, At last I have everything I wanted. I was so happy, I didn’t see we were poor. I only saw what we had. . . . I don’t know what caused me to change. Maybe it was my crooked nose that damaged my thinking. Maybe it was seeing you as a baby, how you looked so much like me, and this made me dissatisfied with my life. I wanted everything for you to be better. I wanted you to have the best circumstance, the best character. I didn’t want you to regret anything.
Lindo reflects on how she felt perfectly content after having her second son. But after giving birth to Waverly, she started to want more. Since she sees her daughter as an extension of herself, she wants more for Waverly, the new-and-improved Lindo. While her sons are simply her children, Waverly represents her chance to rerun her own life with American circumstances. All of the mothers in the novel regard their daughters this way, though they apply this belief in different ways.
I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other. It is like what happened when I went back to China last year after I had not been there for almost forty years. I had taken off my fancy jewelry. I did not wear loud colors. I spoke their language. I used their local money. But still, they knew. They knew my face was not one hundred percent Chinese. They still charged me the high foreign prices.
Lindo realizes that she has become somewhat American over the years. She believes the change in her character is reflected in a change in her appearance, one that seemed obvious to the locals when she went back to China. Lindo feels ambivalent about this change, yet she does feel bonded her with her daughter in an unexpected way: Instead of making Waverly Chinese, as she desired, Lindo has been made American.