My mother and I never really understood each other. We translated each other’s meaning and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more.

June reflects on how she and her late mother, Suyuan, interpreted each other’s words. A college dropout, June had once told her mother that she’d think about going back to school but never had a serious intention to do so. June thought her mother understood that she was only making a verbal gesture of goodwill but now realizes that her mother assumed she would not only look into colleges but follow through on going. June experiences her mother’s habit of hearing more than was meant as pushy, but readers may later note that Suyuan’s hope and optimism are what create her high expectations.

[W]ith me, when we were alone, my mother would speak in Chinese, saying things my father could not possibly imagine. I could understand the words perfectly but not the meanings. One thought led to another without connection.

Lena St. Clair explains that she understands Chinese but her white father does not. Lena’s mother, Ying-ying, is frail, prone to depression, and steeped in ancient Chinese knowledge about the spirit world, zodiac signs, the five elements, and feng shui, which she uses as she rearranges her home’s furniture. Ying-ying shares her knowledge with her daughter, but because the ideas are based in a system of belief and symbolism that Ying-ying does not and possibly cannot translate, Lena can’t convert the words she hears into coherent information.

I often lied when I had to translate for her . . . “Shemma yisz?” —What meaning?—she asked when a man at a grocery store yelled at her for opening up jars to smell the insides. I was so embarrassed I told her that Chinese people were not allowed to shop there.

Just as Lena cannot understand the fundamental meanings behind her mother’s words, Lena does not try to make her mother understand the real truth behind what others say to her in English. Perhaps because she has never been able to truly understand her mother, Lena seems to accept the lack of perfect communication as inevitable. Also, Lena has absorbed her mother’s fearful attitude toward the rest of the world and wants to protect both her mother and herself from the conflicts and embarrassment that true communication might engender.

[F]or all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible accusations afterward. . . . All that remained unchecked, like an accusation that remained unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable.

June and Suyuan’s disagreement over Suyuan’s determination to make June into a piano prodigy abruptly ends when June says she wishes she were dead like her twin sisters. The argument, and piano playing in general, is not spoken of again for many years. The suggestion that Suyuan’s twins are dead upsets her the most: She left them with money for their care, and in her natural hopefulness she believes that they are still alive, although readers may infer that she has her doubts. When June asserts that the twins must be dead, she knowingly breaks a family taboo.

“Ai-ya, why do you think these bad things about me?” Her face looked old and full of sorrow. “So you think your mother is this bad. You think I have a secret meaning. But it is you who has this meaning. Ai-ya! She thinks I am this bad!”

After Waverly accuses her mother of hating Waverly’s fiancé, Rich, and trying to undermine their relationship with her criticism, her mother, Lindo, responds. She claims to be deeply hurt by Waverly’s accusations. Readers may note that Lindo certainly is critical, of everyone from long-suffering waiters to her own friends and family. But Lindo may be sincere when she says that she has not intentionally criticized Rich. In fact, looking back on the dinner in which the family met him, Lindo made one factual comment about his appearance, but every other criticism happened inside Waverly’s imagination as she anticipated her mother’s feelings.