Waverly Place Jong is a chess prodigy living in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her Chinese immigrant parents. She is named after “Waverly Place,” her family’s address and, therefore, their claim to the United States. Waverly is diminutively nicknamed as “Meimei” (Chinese for “little sister”), whereas her two brothers have resonant, victorious names—Winston and Vincent.
Waverly and her mother, Lindo Jong, have an ongoing psychological battle, each surreptitiously trying to gain the upper hand. Although Waverly was born in the United States, her mother has instilled in her many Chinese rules of conduct. One important rule is that one must remain silent to win. The story’s opening focuses on silence and on how controlling one’s emotions endows one with a secret strength like the wind.
Once when shopping with her mother, the six-year-old Waverly longs for some salted plums. Because she fusses for them, her mother refuses to buy them. The next time, Waverly keeps her wants silent, and her mother rewards her with plums.
Later, Waverly sets a psychological ambush for her mother. As her hair is being combed painfully by Lindo, Waverly slyly asks her what Chinese torture is. Lindo knows that Waverly is challenging her pride in Chinese culture. Initially, Lindo deflects her daughter’s question about the possibility of Chinese inhumanity, pointing out that Chinese people are good at business, medicine, and painting. Then Lindo’s chauvinism overcomes her, and she adds, “We do torture. Best torture.”
At a church Christmas party, the Jong children receive gifts, among which is a used chess set. At church, Lindo thanks the ladies, but at home, she sniffs proudly that they do not want it. Thus she socializes her children to exercise silence and power over their true feelings; even unwanted gifts must be acknowledged as exceeding what one deserves.
Watching her brothers play chess, Waverly becomes intrigued by the rules of the game. She does not understand these American rules, but she researches them in the library, learning the moves and the powers of each piece, and then easily defeats her brothers. When she stumbles on some old Chinese men playing chess in the park, she invites one, Lau Po, to play. He teaches her more rules and tactics. Waverly soon wins neighborhood exhibition games, and her mother begins to take pride in her, although she still modestly disclaims that it is luck.
When someone suggests that Waverly play at local chess tournaments, she is eager to participate but overpowers her desires and demurs, remembering the plums. Lindo lets Waverly play and win repeatedly. Now it is Lindo who wears a triumphant grin.
With Waverly’s victories, Lindo changes the rules in the household. Contrary to Chinese gender roles, Waverly no longer does dishes. Proclaiming “Is new American rules,” Lindo relegates such chores to her sons so that Waverly can expend her energies on chess. At nine years of age, Waverly becomes a national chess champion. Lindo is thrilled as the cover of Life magazine features her daughter, both challenging traditional male hegemony over chess and testifying that Chinese people can do anything better.
Sauntering through Chinatown, Lindo announces to everyone that her daughter is “Wave-ly Jong,” the chess prodigy. To Lindo’s Chinese thinking, Waverly’s success is their family’s success. To Waverly’s more American view, her success is her individual accomplishment, and she resents Lindo’s appropriating it. Miscommunication between mother and daughter ensues, with Lindo concluding from Waverly’s reticence that she is ashamed of her mother, her family, and her race.
When Waverly requests less ostentation and more silence from Lindo, Lindo calls her stupid. Waverly angrily runs away from home for half a day but returns when she realizes that she cannot survive independent of her family. Lindo exercises her power and gives her daughter the silent treatment, pretending to ignore Waverly’s existence.
Waverly retreats to her room and imagines her mother’s eyes as two angry, black slits directing the black pieces of a chessboard and routing Waverly’s white pieces. In this waking dream, Waverly feels herself wafted aloft by a wind, detached from her family, and she remembers Lindo’s words, “Strongest wind cannot be seen.” In her terrifying yet exhilarating impasse, Waverly understands that to be herself she must assert her individuality but that she cannot do so without isolating herself from her family. Her dilemma is her next move.