Summary—Rose Hsu Jordan: “Half and Half”

Rose Hsu Jordan begins by describing the Bible belonging to her mother, An-mei. Although An-mei carried the white leatherette volume with great pride for many years, the Bible now serves to prop up one of the kitchen table legs in her apartment. Rose sits at her mother’s kitchen table, watches her mother sweep around the Bible, and wonders how she will break the news that she and her husband, Ted, are getting divorced. Rose knows An-mei will tell her that she must save the marriage, but she also knows that an attempt to do so would be hopeless.

Rose remembers when she first began dating Ted. At that time, both An-mei and Mrs. Jordan, Ted’s mother, had been opposed to their relationship. As a result, Rose and Ted clung to one another. Ted made all the decisions, and Rose enjoyed playing the part of Ted’s maiden in distress, whom he would always save. However, after they married, Ted, a dermatologist, lost a serious malpractice suit; he lost his confidence and began forcing Rose to make some of the decisions. He became angry when she resisted, accusing her of shirking responsibility and blame. Soon afterward, Ted asked for a divorce, to Rose’s utter shock.

This meditation leads into a narration of another such emotional blow, an event from Rose’s childhood that scarred her and engendered An-mei’s loss of religious faith. The family had taken a trip to the beach, in what Rose describes as an attempt to act like a white American family. An-mei instructed Rose to watch over her younger brothers, and because Matthew, Mark, and Luke were only a few years younger than Rose and could play together self-sufficiently, the four-year-old Bing became Rose’s main responsibility. At one point during the day, Bing asked if he could walk out on the reef to where their father was fishing. Rose gave him permission, but watched him nervously as he made his way out along the crashing waves. Suddenly, Mark and Luke started a fight, and An-mei called to Rose to separate them. Rose looked up just in time to see Bing fall into the water without leaving a ripple. She stood motionless, in shock, but her sisters, returning at that moment from another stretch of the beach, instantly noticed Bing’s absence. The family rushed to the water in panic. They called state authorities, but the search for Bing’s body lasted hours with no success. Each person felt responsible for the accident.

Refusing to accept their fate, An-mei drove with Rose to the beach early in the morning, although to Rose’s knowledge her mother had never driven before. An-mei took her Bible with her and stood on the shore, offering prayers to God. She also attempted to appease “the Coiling Dragon,” whom she said had stolen Bing because one of their ancestors once stole water from a sacred well. To the Dragon, An-mei made offerings of sweetened tea and a watery-blue sapphire ring, both of which she tossed into the ocean. She also voiced to Rose her belief that her nengkan, her “ability to do whatever she put her mind to,” would bring Bing back. Only after she threw a rescue tube into the ocean and saw it sucked away and turned to shreds did An-mei give up her search for Bing.

At the time, Rose thought that her mother had yielded to the realization that faith could not change fate. Yet Rose comments that she now realizes “fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention” (hence the title of the story, “Half and Half”). Just as she believes her inattention caused Bing to drown, she thinks that her inattention to signs of her marriage deteriorating resulted in Ted’s request for a divorce. Rose ends her story on an optimistic note, by emphasizing the “expectation” side of fate. She concludes by returning to the Bible under the kitchen table, saying that she once flipped through it and saw her little brother’s name written in the “Deaths” section, “lightly, in erasable pencil.”

Summary—Jing-mei Woo: “Two Kinds”

In the section’s next story, Jing-mei speaks again. She describes her childhood, which was full of pain and resentment linked to having never become the “prodigy” that her mother desired her to be. Suyuan felt certain that Jing-mei could become a prodigy if only she tried hard enough, and at first Jing-mei eagerly complied, trying her skill at a wide range of talents. As Waverly Jong won championship after championship in chess, with Waverly’s mother, Lindo, bragging day after day, Suyuan became ever more determined that she would find her daughter’s hidden inner talent. But Jing-mei always fell short of her mother’s expectations, and as she looked in the mirror one night, she promised herself that she would not allow her mother to try to twist her into what she was not. However, after seeing a nine-year-old Chinese girl play the piano on The Ed Sullivan Show, Suyuan made Jing-mei take lessons from their neighbor, a retired piano teacher named Mr. Chong. When Jing-mei discovered that Mr. Chong was deaf, and that she could get away with playing the wrong notes as long as she kept up the right rhythm, she decided to take the easy way out. As long as she kept time, she did not have to correct her mistakes.

Mr. Chong and Suyuan entered Jing-mei in a talent contest. Jing-mei played “Pleading Child” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. Everyone from the Joy Luck Club attended the show. Refusing to practice hard but still vaguely believing that her inner prodigy would emerge and allow her to play well, Jing-mei came to the recital entirely unprepared. She sat down feeling confident, but the performance proved a disaster. Two days later, when Suyuan insisted that she continue her regular schedule of practice, Jing-mei declared that she wished she were dead like her two sisters (Suyuan’s long-lost children from her first marriage in China). Suyuan never mentioned piano lessons again.

Years later, Suyuan offered the family’s piano to Jing-mei as a gift for her thirtieth birthday. She stated quietly that Jing-mei could have become a skilled pianist if she had tried. A few months after Suyuan’s death, Jing-mei had the piano tuned. When she tried to play “Pleading Child,” she was surprised how easily the music returned to her. She then played the piece on the facing page, “Perfectly Contented.” After playing both pieces several times, she realized that they were complementary pieces, as if two halves of the same song.

Analysis—“Half and Half” & “Two Kinds”

Like the first two stories of the section, these latter stories examine the struggle between Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters. In “Half and Half,” Rose Hsu recalls her mother telling her about The Twenty-six Malignant Gates, the book that is mentioned in the section’s opening parable. She explains that every child is exposed to one particular danger on certain days, according to his or her birthday. Because the book is in Chinese, Rose is never able to understand it. Even her mother, An-mei, cannot be sure when to worry, because she cannot translate the book’s dates, which use the Chinese lunar calendar, into American dates. Rose’s explanation of The Twenty-six Malignant Gates sheds light on the section’s opening parable. Did the mother in the parable know for sure that the daughter was fated to fall on her bicycle, or was she, like An-mei, constantly scared because of her inability to translate the book into English? Or was she merely anticipating the possibility that her daughter could fall? The parable makes us wonder how the fall could have been avoided: if the mother hadn’t forbidden the daughter to ride around the corner, perhaps the daughter would not have become so reckless in her anger and would not have fallen at all. Yet, if the mother had said nothing, the daughter could have fallen out of sight and earshot, as the mother initially feared.

Read more about the theme of cultural translation and its challenges.

Closely connected to the section’s examination of fate is its discussion of guilt and blame. After Bing’s death, each member of the household feels responsible. Rose connects her reluctance to make decisions to her feelings of guilt surrounding her brother’s death: not wanting to feel accountable for bad outcomes, she fears to take on any responsibility. After her husband, Ted, loses a malpractice lawsuit and is also the victim of guilt and blame, he too is unwilling to make decisions.

Read an in-depth analysis of Rose Hsu Jordan.

Rose believes that her mother also experienced feelings of guilt and resignation. She asserts that her mother lost her faith in God after Bing’s death. As evidence, she points to the way An-mei stopped carrying her Bible to church and began using it as a wedge under a too-short leg of the kitchen table. Because Rose herself sank into passivity after Bing’s death, she assumes her mother reacted the same way. Yet, by the end of her story, she also notices that her mother sweeps the Bible off and keeps it from gathering dust. The fact that Bing’s name is written under the heading “Deaths” in erasable pencil demonstrates that An-mei still values the Bible enough to find meaning in the act of inscribing her dead son’s name there. The erasable pencil speaks to her belief that Bing might still live. After the loss of Bing, An-mei may have become less openly religious, but she never resigned herself to thinking that human beings have no control over what happens to them. Thus, when Rose asks why she should try to save her marriage, saying there is no hope, no reason to try, An-mei responds that she should try simply “because [she] must. . . . This is not hope. Not reason. This is your fate . . . what you must do.” Rose believes her mother is bitter and hardened from Bing’s death, but her story about her marriage shows that Rose herself suffered the most lasting emotional damage.

Read more about the motif of destiny and its control over the characters in the novel.

Jing-mei’s story also deals with a clash between a mother’s faith and belief in persistence versus a daughter’s inner sense of futility. Jing-mei believes that she is simply not “fated” to be a prodigy, that ultimately there resides within her an unchangeable element of mediocrity. When she tells her reflection in the mirror one night that she will not allow her mother to change her, that she will not try to be what she is not, she asserts her will in a strong but negative manner. At that moment, she recalls, she saw the “prodigy side” of herself in the anger and determination that were in her face. This comment suggests that “prodigy” is really one’s will, one’s desire to succeed. In retrospect, Jing-mei muses that perhaps she never gave herself a chance at the piano because she never devoted her will to trying.

Neither Jing-mei nor Suyuan is completely to blame for the piano recital disaster. It is Suyuan’s incessant nagging and insinuations regarding her daughter’s inadequacies that partially drive Jing-mei to refuse to practice seriously. The pain Jing-mei feels after the recital stems not just from her own failure but also from her shame in having disappointed her mother. This shame will persist into her adult life, as she continues to fall short of her mother’s expectations. Perhaps Jing-mei’s shame in fact stems from her guilt in having willed her own failure.

Suyuan’s inflated expectations and excessive pressure backfire, contributing to Jing-mei’s failure to achieve what she might have achieved if left to herself. Yet, at the same time, the disastrous piano recital also testifies to the power of Suyuan’s love for Jing-mei, and to her faith in her daughter’s ability. The immense energy that Suyuan devotes to the search for Jing-mei’s “inner prodigy”—cleaning for her piano teacher, saving up for a used piano—demonstrates that her motivations probably lie deeper than the promise of bragging rights at church each Sunday. Many years later, Jing-mei realizes that Suyuan’s attempt to bring out her “prodigy” expressed her deep faith in her daughter’s abilities rather than her desire to make her something she was not.

At the end of her narrative, Jing-mei adds that Suyuan offered her the piano for her thirtieth birthday, a gesture that shows that Suyuan understands the reasons behind Jing-mei’s refusal to play: Jing-mei did not regard the piano lessons as something she did for herself. By offering the piano to her daughter as a gift, Suyuan gives Jing-mei the opportunity to try again without feeling as though she is doing so for someone else’s benefit. Although Jing-mei says she did not take the piano right away, she is comforted by Suyuan’s expression of faith in her ability to do what she wanted.

Sadly, Jing-mei did not understand until after Suyuan’s death that her conflicts with her mother did not arise from any cruel expectations on Suyuan’s part but from Suyuan’s love and faith in her—even when Jing-mei failed, or even purposefully failed, to live up to that faith. Jing-mei comes to this understanding when she sits at the recently tuned piano, Suyuan’s peace offering, and tries to play Schumann’s “Pleading Child” once again. When she plays the piece on the facing page, “Perfectly Contented,” and realizes that the two are “two halves of the same song,” Jing-mei is articulating the fact that she has journeyed psychologically from a place of pained longing for her mother’s acceptance to a place of understanding why her mother pushed her so hard: the pleading child has come to a place of contentment, though the path she has taken may be littered with regrets.

Read more about the motif of sacrifices made for love.