My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a home with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.
June reflects on how her mother, Suyuan, feels optimistic about American life. In fact, all the examples June includes in this thought are accurate: These events all can happen to some Americans. This belief, however, produces pain in June’s life. As Suyuan’s best friend’s daughter, Waverly, is a child chess prodigy, Suyuan decides June can and therefore must be a prodigy as well. Trying to determine June’s special talent eventually drives June to rebel and insist on making her own choices, which often include not being the best. Ironically and unhappily for Suyuan, rebelling is in itself a very American choice.
Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. . . . [I]n almost every case, the American version was much better. It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.
Rose Hsu Jordan questions how she has found herself getting divorced. She recognizes that despite her mother’s exhortations to listen only to her advice, Rose had long been listening to a variety of other people’s ideas. Rose had come to the conclusion that the American choice was consistently better than the Chinese one. In practical terms, that meant accepting her husband’s preferences over those of her Chinese community. But in fact many choices could be labeled “American,” and not all of them are correct. By abdicating the decision-making to her husband, Rose never decided what matters to her, and now she must deal with the consequences of living in such a way.
In America . . . you cannot say you want to live there forever. If you are Chinese, you must say you admire their schools, their ways of thinking. You must say you want to be a scholar and come back to teach Chinese people what you have learned.
Here, Lindo remembers the advice given to her by an American-raised Chinese girl before she immigrated. Lindo thinks very pragmatically and accepts this advice as she believes following such an idea will help her assimilate and be successful. Ironically, the best way for her to be a welcomed Chinese immigrant is to insist that she does not actually intend to stay. The advisor also specifically recommends stating an intention of learning about religion to bring back to China while instead finding a citizen husband or making a citizen baby. The advice suggests that the girl believed Chinese immigrants were unwanted in America.
Americans don’t really look at one another when talking. They talk to their reflections. They look at others or themselves only when they think nobody is watching. So they never see how they really look.
Lindo makes this observation while at the beauty salon with her daughter, Waverly. She notices that the stylist and Waverly look at each other only through the salon mirror. Lindo believes that Americans and Chinese people interact in fundamentally different ways: Since Americans do not look directly at one another, they do not truly know one another. Since Lindo looks at people, she believes she understands them. Lindo prides herself on her ability to understand others’ seemingly hidden motivations while keeping her own hidden. She considers this a Chinese trait, one she had hoped to pass along to Waverly.
“What is this nonsense?” I asked her, putting the strips of paper in my pocket, thinking I would study these classical American sayings. “They are fortunes,” she explained. “American people think Chinese people write these sayings.”
As Lindo recalls, she and An-mei met while working at a fortune cookie factory. Although fortune cookies often accompany American Chinese food, they do not truly originate from Chinese culture. And while Americans may have some exposure to “ancient Chinese wisdom,” such as quotes from Confucius, the sayings in the fortune cookies do not represent accurate expressions of Chinese belief. Ironically, Lindo, An-mei, and the other women in the novel could have provided many accurate ancient Chinese sayings because they are all steeped in that knowledge. Like the fortune cookies’ makers, their daughters misunderstand and minimize what Chinese culture could teach them.