Most centrally, the novel is a story of ethnic assimilation; the realization of the main character is that the transformation has already occurred. Leila learns that she is and has always been an American. The extent to which this Americanism is defined by her Chinese heritage is the real question.
Basically, the problems that confront the Leong family are not, at least in the present, caused by their ethnicity or race. For the three girls, at least, their problems are those of most young women. They are concerned with life, love, happiness, perhaps marriage if it is convenient, and careers. The social problems around them, issues such as drugs and abortion, are not unique to them, and they experience and cope with such matters as do Americans of other ethnic descent.
It is Leon, rather than Leila, who voices Ng’s themes. At the beginning of the novel he asserts that “it’s time that makes a family, not just blood.” His comment applies generally to the Leong family and specifically to his relationship to Leila. Through the years, these two characters come to love each other more than they do those to whom they are related by blood. Ng’s point is that enough time in America will assuredly make the bonds stronger to this country than the blood ties to those of China. As the novel progresses, characters accept or reject this idea, both in terms of the family and homeland, to their own benefit or detriment.
The central symbol of the novel is indicated by its title. What is the “bone” of contention here? And whose “bone” is it, anyway? Are the family’s problems rooted in Chinese ancestry, heritage, and tradition, or in their perhaps misplaced and displaced lives as Americans? Regardless, the question is rendered irrelevant in the central scene in the cemetery. Grandfather Leong’s bones are unidentifiable and will never be located. The past is lost to eternity. There is no bone, though there once was.