Summary—Rose Hsu Jordan: “Without Wood”

“A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you,” she said. . . . “A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.”

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Rose Hsu Jordan describes finding divorce papers and a ten-thousand-dollar check from her husband, Ted, in her mailbox. Paralyzed with shock and pain, she leaves them in a drawer for two weeks while she tries to decide what to do. She stays in bed for three days, mostly unconscious, with the help of sleeping pills. Finally, she is wakened by a phone call from An-mei, who asks her why she refuses to speak up for herself. Ted calls a few minutes later to ask why she has not yet signed and returned the divorce papers. He announces that he wants the house because he now plans to marry someone else. After the initial shock, Rose laughs and tells him to come to the house to pick up his papers. When he arrives, Rose gives him the papers still unsigned and announces that she will not be leaving the house. She refuses to allow him to uproot her and throw her away.

Summary—Jing-mei Woo: “Best Quality”

A few months before her death, Suyuan cooked a crab dinner for ten people to celebrate the Chinese New Year. As she and Jing-mei shopped together in Chinatown for the ingredients, Suyuan explained that the feistiest crabs are of the best quality; even beggars would reject a crab that has died before being cooked. During the marketing, Suyuan grumbled about the tenants who lived above her in the building she owned. When the couple’s cat disappeared, they accused Suyuan of having poisoned it. Jing-mei wondered whether her mother did poison the cat, but she knew not to question her.

While the two women were choosing crabs, the leg of one of the crabs became detached, and the grocer demanded that Suyuan pay for the creature. Suyuan thus bought eleven instead of ten, stating that the damaged crab would be extra. Back at home, Jing-mei could not bear to watch crabs being cooked, though she knew in her rational mind that the crabs probably lacked brains big enough to realize what was happening to them.

The Jongs and their children attended the dinner. Vincent brought his girlfriend, Lisa, and Waverly brought Rich and Shoshana. Mr. Chong, Jing-mei’s old piano teacher, was also invited. Suyuan had not counted Shoshana when buying the crabs, but Waverly now carefully chose the best crab and gave it to her daughter before choosing the next best two for herself and Rich. The rest of the party continued to pick the best crabs until there were two left, one of which was the crab missing a leg. Jing-mei tried to take the defective crab, but Suyuan insisted she take the better one. Suyuan then sniffed her crab, and took it into the kitchen to throw away, veiling the trip by returning with more seasonings for the table.

Waverly complimented Jing-mei’s haircut and was shocked to learn that Jing-mei still went to her gay stylist. Waverly warned Jing-mei that the stylist might have AIDS and urged her to consider using her own stylist, Mr. Rory, instead. Waverly added that Mr. Rory’s prices might be too high, deliberately referring to Jing-mei’s less successful career. Infuriated, Jing-mei mentioned that Waverly’s law firm had not paid her for some freelance work she had done, writing a publicity brochure, and after several insults from Jing-mei, Waverly replied that her firm had decided not to use Jing-mei’s work, adding that she had only praised the work to Jing-mei because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Jing-mei offered to revise the brochure, but Waverly refused, mocking the quality of the work she submitted. Jing-mei cleared the table and retreated to the kitchen, fighting back tears.

After the guests left, Suyuan joined her daughter in the kitchen. Suyuan explained that she did not eat the legless crab because it had died before she cooked it. She teased Jing-mei for choosing the worse of the two remaining crabs, because anyone else would have taken the better one—the “best quality” available. She remarked that Jing-mei’s way of thinking differed from that of most people. She gave Jing-mei a jade pendant, telling her that it was her “life’s importance.” She advised Jing-mei not to listen to Waverly, whose words always “move sideways” like a crab, and explained that Jing-mei could and should move in a different direction. Now, at the time of Jing-mei’s reminiscence, she is cooking dinner for her father. The upstairs tenants’ tomcat jumps onto the windowsill outside, and Jing-mei is relieved to see that her mother didn’t kill it—the cat is alive and well.