When an author uses symbolism in a story, an ordinary object can carry a message. In this case, there are several messages from the fish.
Waverly has a complicated love-hate relationship with chess. The game itself means a lot to her, because she is good at the game and the game fulfills a need she is not getting through her family. At first, she plays for fun, but soon, she becomes trapped. Within her family, nothing is just for fun.
The secret to the fish at the end of the story can be found in the tank and the sign at the beginning, when Tan points out the Fish Market.
Farther down the street was Ping Yuen Fish Market. The front window displayed a tank crowded with doomed fish and turtles struggling to gain footing on the slimy green-tiled sides. A hand-written sign informed tourists, "Within this store, is all for food, not for pet."
Not “for pet.” These fish are not having any fun either. They are there for the serious purpose of sustenance either. It is symbolic, like the game of chess. Some people may buy a fish or a turtle and bring it home and put it in a tank just to look at, just like some people might place chess for fun. Things are more serious in Waverly’s world.
At first, Waverly plays chess for the love of the game. She gets a chess board as a present and her mother is not interested in letting her keep it. She is fascinated though. She teaches herself how to play, and the next thing she knows she is very good.
I loved the secrets I found within the sixty-four black and white squares. I carefully drew a handmade chessboard and pinned it to the wall next to my bed, where I would stare for hours at imaginary battles.
As she gets good, her mother gets interested. One thing her mother cares about is success. Waverly can enter in tournaments and get bragging rights. However, the more serious Waverly’s mother gets about chess, the less interested Waverly gets. The fun is out of it. She is no longer playing for her, she is playing for the glorification of others. She also no longer has a childhood. Everything is about chess.
Waverly finally gets tired of being paraded around like a show dog. She doesn’t like being shown off.
One day after we left a shop I said under my breath, "I wish you wouldn't do that, telling everybody I'm your daughter." My mother stopped walking. …
"Aii-ya. So shame be with mother?" She grasped my hand even tighter as she glared at me.
In doing this, Waverly hurts her mother. She runs off, and when she returns home, she finds that her family has eaten.
On a platter were the remains of a large fish, its fleshy head still connected to bones swimming upstream in vain escape. Standing there waiting for my punishment, I heard my mother speak in a dry voice.
Her mother says, "We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us." The real message, to Waverly at least, is the fish. The family has eaten without her.
Like the sign at the beginning of the chapter, the fish is a symbol for the reader that Waverly is caught. She feels as if her family is picking away at her, slowly, leaving nothing but bones. She is trapped in her lifestyle. There is no getting out, because this is just the way it is. Chess will never be the same again for her, and her relationship with her mother is even more strained. Her mother wants her to stand up for herself- to anyone else.