5. . . . I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix? I taught [my daughter] how American circumstances work. If you are born poor here, it’s no lasting shame. . . . In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you. She learned these things, but I couldn’t teach her about Chinese character . . . How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. . . . Why Chinese thinking is best.
In this passage from “Double Face,” Lindo Jong questions the feasibility of the mixed cultural identity she once wished for her daughter. She fears that Chinese identity has come to constitute merely Waverly’s exterior, while American identity dominates her interior self. Lindo blames herself for Waverly’s lopsided duality.
Yet, from Waverly’s own narrative, we know that Lindo’s fears are not entirely justified: Waverly exhibits a deep respect and concern for her Chinese identity. Waverly attributes much of her early talent in chess to her mother’s lessons in how “not to show [her] thoughts,” and she seems to have brought this skill to her adulthood.
Just as Lindo’s fears are exaggerated, her descriptions of the American and Chinese ways of life also appear idealized: she seems to believe somewhat naively in the “American Dream,” the notion of equal opportunity for all. At the same time, she describes Chinese thinking as “best” and speaks of the Chinese values of obedience and modesty as if they were universally ascribed to in China.
Thus, when Lindo fears that the American and Chinese cultures cannot mix, she is contemplating the combination of two extremes. In reality, each identity is itself mixed: just as the American culture is not wholly about autonomy and liberty, the Chinese culture is not wholly about passivity, obedience, and self-restraint. Nonetheless, the challenge of finding a way to combine aspects of both into one’s own unique personality is a challenge faced not only by Waverly, but all of the novel’s daughter characters—even, to some extent, by the mother characters, as they become increasingly accustomed to their lives in the United States.