Jing-Mei is Chinese American, but having never experienced China firsthand, she has been effectively cut off from her cultural heritage. That all changes when she travels to China for the first time. Although she can understand Mandarin, she can't speak it all that well, which further separates Jing-Mei from the land of her ancestors.
Nevertheless, Jing-Mei experiences a considerable change over the course of her journey. At an obvious level, this journey is both literal and metaphorical. At the outset, Jing-Mei doesn't really know what it means to be Chinese, and she is worried that she won't be able to connect with her Chinese relatives. Yet thanks to her father—who takes up the narration at various key points in the story—Jing-Mei is able to establish a bond with her wider family, gaining an understanding of her mother's many struggles and their wider historical context.
Tan's skillful shift of narrative voice allows the reader, as well as Jing-Mei herself, to develop an appropriately broad perspective of her family's history. By the time she finally meets up with her long-lost sisters, Jing-Mei is a woman transformed; she is completely at home with her cultural heritage:
Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish.