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This story focuses on the experience of migrancy from the perspective of an elderly Chinese lady who is taken to New York from China by her son. Mrs. Pan at first, like many migrants, misses her homeland greatly and finds it very difficult to adjust to American life. However, what restores her spirits is trying to arrange a marriage for Lili Yang, a young friend of hers. This is an important event for Mrs. Pan, who becomes rejuvenated through the experience, as she realises that she has skills and abilities that are necessary for the Chinese community in her new country that allow her to contribute to this new society whilst also remaining true to her Chinese heritage and culture. The story thus charts one migrant's experience of migrancy and leaving her homeland behind, and the gradual proces of finding her new niche in America.
The title of Pearl S. Buck's story "The Good Deed" is a double entendre because the deed which Mrs. Pan sets out to perform is both beneficial to her and to Lili Yang, thus giving it a double meaning. While Lili meets a man to whom she is clearly attracted and will probably marry, Mrs. Pan has found meaning in the foreign land to which her son has brought her.
When Mrs. Pan first arrives in New York from her ancestral village of Szechuen, which rogue local ruffians have occupied since the government fell, she experiences culture shock. Everything is strange to her; her grandchildren speak Chinese, but their pronunciation is wrong, and they also do not behave in the customary way; her daughter-in-law is kind and respectful, but she knows nothing of life in China, having been born in America. While her son tries to make his mother feel comfortable in her new home, her sense of alienation grows until she loses her appetite and becomes listless. Finally, anxious for his mother's health and happiness, Mrs. Pan's son asks his wife,
"Is there no woman you know who can speak Chinese with her? ... She needs to have someone to whom she can talk about the village and all the things she knows."
His young wife considers his question, then says that she has a friend, a schoolmate whose parents forced her to speak Chinese at home. Lili Yang is a social worker, too, so she can easily talk to Mrs. Pan. The next day Mrs. Pan calls her friend, explaining that her mother-in-law is pining away because of a sense of alienation and isolation. Lili promises to visit.
From the beginning of her visit, Lili lifts the spirits of Mrs. Pan, especially when Lili suggests that they talk about Mrs. Pan's home and village. As she talks about her home with gardens in the courtyard and a pool of goldfish, Mrs. Pan's cheeks grow pink with emotion and her eyes glow. When Lili asks her how old she was when she was married, Mrs. Pan replies that she was seventeen. Then she inquires about Lili's age, and she marvels that Lili is twenty-seven and yet not married.
Old Mrs. Pan forgot herself for the first time since she had been hurried away from the village.... Now as she looked at Lili's kind, ugly face it occurred to her that here there was something she could do. She could find a husband for this good girl....
Lili thanks her and departs. Mrs. Pan now has a cause, and she cannot wait to talk to her son when he arrives home. She asks him why marriages are not arranged as in China. Her son does not have the heart to tell her that his "arranged marriage" was orchestrated for his parents' benefit because he and his wife were already in love. Mr. Pan tries to explain how courtship is done in America, but Mrs. Pan finds it barbaric. She asks her son to find someone that he works with, but he laughs. Nevertheless, Mrs. Pan insists, so he agrees.
One day, old Mrs. Pan hears her son and his wife arguing, but she pulls a chair up to the window and looks out, an activity that she continues for days. After one young man smiles and waves, Mrs. Pan finally returns the wave one day. Then Mrs. Pan asks her son who the man is; her son tells her he works in one of the China shops, but he will want to choose his own wife. Nevertheless, Mrs. Pan pursues the idea of this man as a suitor for Lili. So one day she has her grandson help her cross the street so that she can enter the shop and purchase two bowls. When they are brought to her, after mentioning Lili Yang, Mrs. Pan begins to speak about the virtues of women who are not beautiful. The young man listens, his "small eyes twinkling with laughter." When she finishes, he asks Mrs. Pan if Lili Yang is not beautiful. Mrs. Pan will not be taken in by this question and suggests that he meet Lili. Then, she departs as she does not wish to say too much on her first visit.
When she returns home, her daughter-in-law is worried that she has crossed the busy street, but Mrs. Pan tells her she was assisted by her grandson and Mr. Lim. When Mr. Pan returns home, his wife relates what has happened. He laughs and tells his wife to let his mother enjoy herself.
On Lili's next visit, Mrs. Pan suggests that they go to the shop where she can buy some bowls for her kind daughter-in-law. Once there, Mr. Lim greets them and tells Lili, "She has told me more about you than she knows." As they talk, Lili asks Mr. Lim about his studies as a doctor. But, he apologizes, saying that he has customers to whom he must attend. However, they can take a ride on one of the riverboats next Sunday, he suggests.
"We do not know each other," she said, reluctant and yet eager.
He laughed. "You see my respectable father, and I know Mrs. Pan very well. Let them guarantee us."
Once they are out of the way, Mrs. Pan leans over and speaks to Mr. Lim, telling him she would like to arrange a match. He replies, "If you recommend her, Honorable Old Lady, why not?"
Complacent, they sit silently, waiting on the young ones.
Mr. Pan brings his mother to live with him and his wife and children in America. Mrs. Pan is not very happy. She longs to return to her home, but knows she can not do this. She worries that her grandchildren can't speak Chinese, and she thinks that they are not being taught manners. She longs for the days of when she was younger. He son begins to worry about his mother. He asks his wife to get her friend, Lili Yang, to come and spend time with his mother. Lili is a social worker and speaks Chinese, so his mother will enjoy the company.
On Lili's visit, the two women have a wonderful time. Mrs. Pan loves being able to communicate in her language and worries about Lili. Lili's parents had died and she is an only child. Mrs. Pan comes from the place where the parents arranged marriages for their children, but knowing that Lili's parents are dead, Mrs. Pan decides to do this for her.
"Old Mrs. Pan was dignified about this. "I can not be responsible for what other persons do, but I must be responsible for my own kind," she declared. "Allow me to know the names of the suitable persons who can arrange your marriage. We are all in a foreign country now and we must keep together and the old must help the young in these important matters."
Mrs. Pan takes it upon herself to find a suitable match for Lili. She arranges a meeting between Lili and Mr. Lim. The two hit it off and Mrs. Pan is pleased with herself.
This is a beautiful short story. On act of kindness turns into many more. Lili going and spending time with Mrs. Pan, and showing her kindness, opens the door for love to come in. Mrs. Pan is brought back to her former self and enjoys helping Lili. This story teaches us that good deeds are always important and we need to do more of them.
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