In the parable that precedes the third section, a mother visits her daughter’s new condominium. She expresses dismay at the mirror her daughter has placed at the foot of the bed: she believes superstitiously that this mirror will cause her daughter’s marriage happiness to bounce back and deflect away. Her daughter dismisses the warning as just another example of her mother’s tendency to see everything as inauspicious. The mother then pulls out a second mirror, which she had bought as a housewarming gift, and places it at the head of the bed: the mirrors reflecting each other will multiply the daughter’s “peach-blossom luck,” she says. When the daughter asks her mother to explain this luck, the mother points into the mirror, and says that she can see her future grandchild. The daughter looks and sees the child in her own reflection.

Summary—Lena St. Clair: “Rice Husband”

Lena St. Clair, who discussed her childhood in “The Voice from the Wall,” begins by explaining how her mother has always been able to predict the evils that will affect their family. Now, says Lena, Ying-ying regrets never having done anything to prevent them. Lena wonders what her mother’s insights will reveal when she visits Lena and her husband, Harold, in their new home.

Lena thinks back to another instance of her mother’s predictive powers. Her mother had told her once that her future husband would have one pock mark on his face for every grain of rice Lena did not finish at dinner, and Lena had thought of a neighbor boy named Arnold, who had a pitted face. The boy had always treated Lena like a bully, and thus, to avoid having to marry him, the young Lena scraped every last grain of rice from her bowl: now she would marry only a smooth-faced man. Yet Ying-ying reminded Lena that for many years she had habitually left grains standing in her bowl. Terrified that she was fated to marry Arnold, Lena began to loathe her neighbor and wish for his death.

In Lena’s mind, the connection between her eating and its effect on whether or not she would marry Arnold soon progressed to a causal connection between her eating and the well-being of Arnold himself. The rice conceptually evoked his rice-grain-sized pock marks, and she believed that by leaving her rice, she would cause him to develop more marks. She refused to finish large portions of every kind of food, believing that they would somehow transfer into maladies on Arnold’s body. Five years later, although she had long forgotten Arnold, she had become addicted to not eating and was suffering from anorexia. When she learned that the seventeen-year-old Arnold had suddenly died of an extremely rare measles-related illness, she gorged herself on ice cream and spent the night throwing it up. Looking back, Lena knows that she cannot logically blame herself for Arnold’s death, and yet she wonders whether she might have willed it, whether Arnold was in fact “destined” to be her husband. Even when she dismisses these thoughts, she questions whether her evil intentions caused her to end up with her present husband as a punishment for wanting to kill her “destined” husband.

Ever since Lena and Harold met, they have kept strict accounts of the money each has spent, even when dining out together, and have shared very little other than expenses. Harold took Lena’s advice and started his own architecture firm, but because he was so intent on keeping their accounts separate, he refused her offer of a loan. Instead, he asked her to move in with him—she would pay half of his apartment rent, which meant he would be able to put that money toward his firm. Within a year, Lena was working for Harold as a project coordinator, and she essentially developed his entire business concept by suggesting that he specialize in “thematic restaurant” design. Despite the fact that she works hard and shows great talent, Harold refuses to promote Lena because he does not want to appear to be unfairly favoring his wife. He now earns seven times more than she does. Lena becomes upset when she thinks about what it means to be Harold’s domestic “equal.”

When Ying-ying visits, she notices the list of all the prices of shared items that Lena and Harold have bought for the house. When Lena explains the list, Ying-ying states that Lena should not be expected to pay back Harold for buying ice cream, because Lena has hated ice cream ever since her terrible vomiting incident. Later that night, Lena decides to mention her hatred of ice cream to Harold, who claims that he always supposed Lena abstained from it merely as part of her frequent diets. Although Harold willingly agrees to pay for the ice cream himself, Lena’s feelings of aggression toward him are not alleviated. Unsure of the source of her anger, she picks a fight. Suddenly, Ying-ying breaks a vase on Harold’s wobbly table in the guest room. Harold had designed and built the table himself during his student days, and when Ying-ying saw it in the guest room, she asked why Lena used it. “You put something else on top, everything fall down,” she says. Lena cleans up the glass and tells Ying-ying not to worry; she knew this would happen eventually. Ying-ying asks why Lena hasn’t done anything to prevent it.

Summary—Waverly Jong: “Four Directions”

Waverly Jong wants to tell her mother, Lindo, that she is engaged to her live-in boyfriend, Rich, so she takes Lindo to Four Directions, a Chinese restaurant Waverly likes. Every time Waverly mentions Rich, however, Lindo changes the subject. Waverly invites Lindo to her apartment to show her the mink coat Rich gave her. Her apartment is littered with Rich’s belongings, so Waverly knows that Lindo cannot ignore the seriousness of their relationship. But Lindo says nothing about the evidence of Rich’s presence in the apartment.

Waverly returns to the story that she began in “Rules of the Game”—the story of her childhood chess talent and her disagreement with Lindo over Lindo’s constant bragging in public. After days of silence between her and her mother, Waverly decided to quit chess temporarily. She initiated the break by purposefully missing a tournament. Although Waverly had meant to hurt Lindo by skipping the event, Lindo was not upset; Waverly alone suffered, as she knew that she could have easily beaten the boy who won. Soon, Waverly broke the silence to tell Lindo that she had decided to play again. Although she expected her mother to react joyously, Lindo was reproachful and told Waverly that it is not so easy to quit and begin again so glibly.

Lindo no longer polished Waverly’s trophies, and she stopped hovering over her as she practiced. Waverly lost her next tournament, and other defeats followed. Her once steady confidence vanished, and she felt as though the wind had gone out of her sails. At age fourteen, Waverly gave up chess entirely.

Waverly describes her first husband, Marvin. Lindo used to criticize him, and Waverly feels that this criticism poisoned her marriage, as it caused her to see only Marvin’s faults. Now she fears that Lindo will spoil her marriage to Rich as well. She knows that if the marriage failed it would crush Rich, for he loves her unconditionally, the way she loves her own little daughter, the child she had with Marvin, Shoshana.

Waverly brings Rich to dinner at her mother’s house, intending to break the news at last. However, Rich unwittingly commits several blunders in etiquette during dinner, so Waverly does not mention their marriage plans. The next day, Waverly visits her mother, ready to unload her burden of anger and resentment, but when she arrives she finds Lindo asleep. Seeing her mother looking so innocent and powerless, Waverly breaks down and begins to cry. When she wakes, Lindo reveals that she has known all along about the engagement, and she expresses surprise at Waverly’s assumption that she hates Rich. Waverly realizes that she has long misunderstood her mother. She adds that she and Rich have postponed their wedding because Lindo told them they should wait until October to take their honeymoon in China. Waverly contemplates inviting Lindo to come with them. Even though she knows a joint trip would prove a disaster, she believes the trip could help the women to reconcile their differences.

Analysis—Introduction, “Rice Husband,” & “Four Directions”

The parable that opens this section of the book highlights the irrational nature of superstitious beliefs, but also emphasizes the deep wisdom that often lies hidden inside them. The mother’s seemingly ridiculous paranoia about the positioning of the mirror annoys her daughter, who wants to decorate her new home according to her own wishes, to make her own decisions based on her own reasoning.

The daughter probably sees her mother’s gift of a second mirror as another infringement upon her ability to assert her own preferences and taste. Yet, when the mother claims that her future grandchild is visible in the mirror, the text affirms the mother’s words, with the phrase, “There it was.” There may indeed be some truth to the grandchild’s presence in the mirror, because the grandchild will, in many ways, be a reflection of the daughter, just as the daughter reflects many of her own mother’s qualities. It seems that perhaps the daughter, who is impatient with her mother’s superstitious beliefs, has underestimated her mother’s insight. In any case, what does shine clearly from the mirror is the mother’s deep love for her daughter.

The stories in “American Translation” explore superstition: its irrationality, the annoyance and even harm that it can cause, its occasional intersections with deep wisdom. The stories also examine notions of other cultural barriers between mother and daughter—often in the form of taste—and the ways in which, despite the barriers that seem to differentiate them so markedly, daughters nevertheless resemble and reflect their mothers.

Ying-ying’s unexplained, superstitious fears and constant anticipation of tragedy have contributed to a similar, “reflected” attitude of fatalism in Lena. When Lena was young, her mother’s warnings about her failure to finish all her rice engendered a sense that she lacked all control over her life and whom she would marry. This in turn led to Lena’s attempts to gain control. At first, she manipulated her eating so as to “kill” Arnold and avoid marrying him; later, even after she had forgotten all about Arnold, she tried to maintain control by restricting her eating more strictly, to the point of anorexia. Yet she remains convinced that she lives in a world of forces that exceed human control: this causes her to passively accept the imbalance and lack of fulfillment in her marriage as her fate, rather than trying to speak up for herself.

Read more about the opposing concepts of destiny and fate as a motif.

Lena is blind to the factors that contributed to her fatalism. Clifford used to speak for Ying-ying, and Lena similarly allows Harold to define what “equality” in their marriage means. In effect, he is a partner in the marriage, but she is an associate—just as she is in the architecture firm. Harold states their marriage is stronger because it is based on equality rather than money. However, because his idea of equality is based on money, the marriage is as well.

Read more about the motif of sexism.

Ying-ying uses Harold’s wobbly table, a project from his days as an architecture student, to show Lena that her marriage is wildly out of balance. She wants Lena to do something about the imbalance rather than silently accept it as fate. After years of suffering, Ying-ying finally knows that expressing one’s wishes is not selfish, as her Amah had told her. She does not want her daughter to make the same mistake of remaining passively silent. The interchange over the toppled table exudes double meaning: Lena says she knew it would happen, and Ying-ying asks her why she did nothing to prevent it. The “it” here refers not only to the shattering of the vase but to the shattering of Lena’s marriage.

Read more about Lena’s vase as a symbol.

Waverly’s story examines a mother’s place in her daughter’s life. As Waverly comes to see her mother as an invincible opponent in life, she focuses too much on her metaphoric chess match against Lindo, neglecting her actual chess matches. She intends to attack Lindo by sacrificing chess, but her move only hurts herself, and Waverly believes that Lindo has planned it this way. In the heat of battle, Waverly loses sight of her original goal of persuading Lindo to allow her space and independence. When Waverly declares her intention to return to chess, she thinks that with this simple move she can placate her mother and heal all wounds. But, as Lindo tells Waverly, “it is not so easy.” While she is referring to Waverly’s capricious and ungrateful treatment of her talent for chess, Lindo also means that the mother-daughter relationship is not so easily patched—that Waverly cannot expect to turn her mother into a pawn.

When Waverly returns to chess to find her prodigy gone, she realizes that part of what sustained her had been her mother’s love and support. Although she believed that the talent was all her own and that her mother was taking undue credit for her successes, she now sees that her achievements always depended in part upon her mother’s devotion and pride in her. Now a mother herself, Waverly has come to understand the nature of a mother’s inviolable love. She sees that this is what Lindo was expressing all those years, even in her criticism and nagging. Here again the motifs of the parable reemerge. Waverly sees herself in her mother as she develops her relationship to her own daughter; she recognizes more fully the power of maternal love.

The cultural tensions seen in the opening parable also shine through in Waverly’s story. Waverly anticipates that Lindo will dislike her white boyfriend, Rich, but Waverly cringes as much as anyone else at Rich’s culturally ignorant series of faux pas at dinner. She comes to realize that for years she projected her own anxieties through her mother, turning her into a spiteful, critical, and uncompromising woman. When she finally speaks to her mother openly about Rich, she realizes that Lindo’s criticism only expresses her deep concern for Waverly’s well-being, her profound desire for her daughter to know the happiness of marriage that she was deprived of for so many years in China.