In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.
Here, one of the older women, perhaps Suyuan, makes plans during her journey to America. She knows little about what to expect, but she does believe that any daughter she has will be judged in America by her own worth, not by how well she pleases and feeds her husband, as would be the case in China. Although she might be expected to desire a son, knowing that his life would be even easier than a daughter’s, this woman wants a daughter because she wants to replicate herself but in a better version, the version she could have been with American opportunities.
A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is his nature. . . . But a girl should stand still. If you are still for a very long time, a dragonfly will no longer see you. Then it will come to you and hide in the comfort of your shadow.
Ying-ying’s mother advises her on how a proper girl behaves. Although the advice for catching a dragonfly might actually be effective, the mother’s insistence that there are specific roles and acceptable behaviors for boys and girls, and that only boys naturally run around, is belied by four-year-old Ying-ying’s preference for action. Later in this same episode, Ying-ying’s attraction to active pursuits rather than sitting still nearly gets her permanently lost or killed when she falls off the family’s boat. Ying-ying may internalize this terrifying event as a natural consequence for a misbehaving girl.
An eternity had passed since she last saw her husband, for this was her fate: to stay lost on the moon, forever seeking her own selfish wishes. “For woman is yin,” she cried sadly, “the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds.”
Ying-ying recalls a performance about the Moon Lady. According to legend, the woman and her husband received an immortality potion. They were supposed to share the potion, but the woman couldn’t resist consuming all of the potion herself, which made her fly to the moon. The concept of yin and yang recognizes that duality exists within each person, but yin specifically represents the female, passive, negative, and hidden aspects of character and thus the moon, while yang represents the male, active, positive, and light and thus the sun. Equating femininity with darkness mirrors long-standing western beliefs that women operate as seductresses who lack self-control—for example, Eve and Pandora.
I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl.
Here, An-mei reflects on the fact that she taught Rose the opposite of what she was taught. She wanted Rose to stick up for herself and her own needs. But Rose has not done so and now she is passively accepting her marriage’s end. An-mei observes that her own mother had to live in the same passive way: Her society definitely gave her no choice. An-mei worries that centuries of the women in her family having no choice are “like stairs, one step after another, but all going the same way.” She wonders if passivity, once a survival skill for a woman in China, may now be genetic.
She told no one but me what had happened. But Second Wife complained to many people about the shameless widow who had enchanted Wu Tsing. How could a worthless widow accuse a rich woman of lying?
An-mei’s mother’s maid explains how An-mei’s mother became Wu Tsing’s Fourth Wife: Wanting the beautiful widow, An-mei’s mother, as concubine, Wu Tsing, with Second Wife’s help, raped An-mei’s mother. In Chinese society at the time, as elsewhere, a woman’s virtue was her own responsibility. In addition, widows had fewer rights than wives. They could not legally remarry. Meanwhile, a man could have, in addition to one official wife, as many concubines as he wished. After ruining An-mei’s mother’s reputation, Second Wife asked her to become Fourth Wife. She would be disowned by her family either way, so she took the position.