Ying-ying tells the story of the Moon Festival she attended when she was four. Although she can recall everything about that day, she had forgotten about it for many years. She laments that she has kept so quiet throughout her life that even her daughter Lena does not see or hear her. The reason for her reticence, Ying-ying explains, was her fear of voicing selfish desires.
On the day of the Moon Festival, Amah, Ying-ying’s nurse, dressed her in a silken yellow outfit with black bands. She told Ying-ying that she would see the Moon Lady, who granted secret wishes, but cautioned that if she voiced her wishes to anyone else they would become only selfish desires. Amah told Ying-ying that it is wrong for a woman to voice her own needs, and that “[a] girl can never ask, only listen.” This notion stays with Ying-ying her whole life.
The feast was held in a boat on a lake. Mesmerized, Ying-ying watched the chef kill and gut the fish for the meal. After a while, she looked down and realized that her dress was spattered with fish blood and scales. Hoping to hide the specks by dying the whole outfit red, Ying-ying smeared her clothing with some turtle blood that was being kept in the kitchen. When Amah saw her, she became angry and, after stripping off Ying-ying’s bloody clothes, went to a separate part of the boat where the party was being held, leaving Ying-ying alone in her white underclothes and slippers.
Partway into the celebrations, firecrackers began to go off, and Ying-ying, startled, fell overboard into the water. A fisherman caught her in his net and pulled her into his boat. He tried to help her find her family, but when Ying-ying spotted a floating pavilion and asked the fisherman to row over to it, she found that the faces above the railings all belonged to strangers. The fisherman finally brought her ashore, where he assumed her family would find her eventually. Feeling so alone that she believed she had lost her own self, Ying-ying watched a play that was being staged about a Moon Lady, and she made a wish that she would be found.
An-mei’s, Lindo’s, and Ying-ying’s stories of their childhoods in China deal with the maternal figures who influenced them and with the societal role of Chinese women in general. All three tell of how they learned of the expectation that they would sacrifice themselves for their husbands. An-mei suffered because her mother had been disowned for choosing to become a concubine rather than remaining as a widow—for refusing to sacrifice herself for her husband even after his death. Lindo lived a life of near enslavement to her future husband and mother-in-law, and then endured a marriage of further degradation, in which her bed became a kind of “prison” because she wasn’t fulfilling her wifely duty of giving birth. Similarly, Ying-ying’s lifelong reticence traces back to her Amah’s assertion that girls should not think of their own needs, that they should “only listen” to the needs of others. On the day of the Moon Festival, Ying-ying “loses herself” not only by becoming temporarily lost from her family but by learning to stifle her own desires.
Instead of being angry with their mothers for abandoning them and for treating them coldly, An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying sympathize with them and attempt to excuse their mothers’ actions by portraying a tradition that requires women to sacrifice their daughters. Their mothers’ opinions were never asked, and they had no say in whom they married or in whether their children would be taken from them. This may account for their cold behavior: by acting sternly, they hoped to steel themselves to their pain, and to harden up their daughters, whom they knew would have to face similar sorrows. Lindo notes that her own mother, upon bidding her farewell and leaving her with the Huangs, acted with particular sternness, which Lindo knew to belie great sorrow. The Huangs were wealthier than Lindo’s family, and Lindo’s mother knew that marrying Tyan-yu would considerably elevate Lindo’s social position and provide her with material comfort. When her mother would refer to her as Taitai’s child, Lindo knew that she did not do this out of lack of love. Rather, Lindo explains, she said this only “so she wouldn’t wish for something that was no longer hers.” An-mei’s grandmother, Popo, repeatedly said that she and her brother had fallen to earth out of the insides of a goose, like two unwanted eggs, bad-smelling and bad-tasting. But, An-mei realizes, “[s]he said this so that the ghosts would not steal us away. . . . [T]o Popo we were also very precious.”