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.”
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.