How was your understanding of the cultural and contextual dimensions of the text developed through the dialogue?
In the novel, much of the dialogue and text focuses on food. In Vietnamese and other eastern cultures, food is often an expression of acceptance, benevolence, or love. Alternatively, it can also be an expression of indifference and disrespect.
Consider the significance of duckweed noodles in Aunt Tam's conversation with Que regarding her path to wealth. She describes how, during the era of the "Rectification of Errors," she had ground duckweed into flour and made pancakes of dough from them. From the dough, she had cut out strips of long, fine vermicelli, which cooked into delicate, delicious clear noodles. Aunt Tam describes how she sold those noodles and with the profits, bought more duckweed to produce more noodles. Eventually, she made enough profit to purchase machines to crank out her popular noodles. She tells her sister-in-law, Que, that her goal is to become as wealthy as possible.
The narrator tells us that Aunt Tam's goal is to live a life of vengeance; essentially, Aunt Tam's narration is a statement of contempt towards Que; on the surface, she discusses how the duckweed noodles paved the way to her hard-earned wealth, but her narrative is a flaunting of her rebellion and her non-conformity towards communist ideals, ideals still espoused by Chinh, Que's brother.
To Aunt Tam, Chinh had been culpable for her own brother's death. It was Chinh, a member of the Communist party, who had preached against wealth and privilege. He was also a direct participant in the land reforms that destroyed the livelihoods of many Vietnamese. So, through her life of wealth, Aunt Tam is signifying to Que that she will never absolve Que and Chinh for their part in Ton's death. This may be what precipitates the latent animosity between both women and acts as a catalyst for Que's eventual indifference to her own daughter, Hang.
Later, Aunt Tam also uses the proceeds from her wealth to provide for Hang, Que's daughter. In the novel, the dialogue between Aunt Tam and Hang highlights how the former uses both lavish food gifts and money to cause the latter to be beholden to her. Aunt Tam means to make Hang the beneficiary of the Tran family legacy, whether Hang desires it or not.
"I really can't. Dearest Aunt, I'm too young to spend this money. Keep it please."
"No. I told you to take it. You must obey. Don't fuss with me. What is this money compared to your life? As long as I'm alive, as long as these hands are capable of working..."
"As long as these hands can work, there will always be money...with one of my mandarin orange harvests, I made enough to buy you a gold necklace. I've already ordered it. The pendant is heart-shaped and it weighs a gram and a half, and the chain the same. When you turn sixteen, you'll wear it."
The tone of the conversation is emblematic of every conversation between Aunt Tam and Hang. The elder is to be obeyed without question. Aunt Tam's self-sacrifice proves her devotion, and so, Hang must comply with the older woman's wishes. The dialogue in much of the book guides us in understanding the cultural and the contextual dimensions of the text. Because of Aunt Tam's devotion, Hang is to exemplify all the necessary traits a submissive young woman should have, and she is to carry on the traditions of ancestor worship on behalf of the Tran family after Aunt Tam's demise.
Additionally, the dialogue between Que, Hang, and Aunt Tam often illuminates the underlying tension between the three women and their struggle for relevance in a culture which values conformity above personal agency.