In the chapter "At the Western Palace” of Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir Woman Warrior, the Chinese sisters Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid have sharply contrasting personalities. Brave Orchid is assertive, practical, and tough. On the other hand, Moon Orchid is more shy, playful, and delicate. Therefore, the two sisters approach Moon Orchid’s problems—confronting and winning back her husband—very differently.
Moon Orchid immigrates to the US because Brave Orchid brings her over, after arranging Moon Orchid’s daughter’s immigration to America and the daughter’s marriage to a domineering Chinese-American man. Shortly after Moon Orchid’s arrival, Brave Orchid wastes no time to dive right into her mission of reuniting Moon Orchid with her husband. Brave Orchid bluntly asks her sleepy, jet-lagged sister,
“What are we going to do about your husband?” That ought to wake her up.
“I don’t know. Do we have to do something?”
Unlike Brave Orchid who wants to take immediate action, Moon Orchid is more retiring and reluctant to accost the husband who deserted her 30 years earlier. After all, she happily lived in Hong Kong on money he sent her from America. Moon Orchid
had never told him that she wanted to come to the United States. She waited for him to suggest it, but he never did. Nor did she tell him that her sister had been working for years to transport her here.
Passively waiting for male approval or her sister’s actions, she keeps her wishes to herself and simply lets someone else determine her fate.
Even before her sister’s arrival, Brave Orchid finds the husband’s address in another city, Los Angeles. When she declares that they must tell him that Moon Orchid has arrived,
Moon Orchid’s eyes got big like a child’s. “I shouldn’t be here," she said.
Moon Orchid is child-like, coddled, and immature compared to the more capable and practical Brave Orchid. Also, Moon Orchid feels unwanted and lacks her sister’s confidence.
Brave Orchid insists that the husband see and recognize Moon Orchid (“Ha. Won’t it be fun to see his face? You’ll go to his house”) and directs her to push the second wife aside like a servant and “yell at him.” Confessing that she is frightened and wishes to retreat back to Hong Kong, Moon Orchid meekly asks,
“Do you think he’ll get angry at me because I came without telling him?
“He deserves your getting angry with him. For abandoning you and your daughter.”
Instead of being spurred on by Brave Orchid’s indignation, Moon Orchid merely defends her husband, noting that he provided her and their daughter with money, food, clothes, and servants. He also paid for their daughter’s college education. Bravo Orchid explodes,
How can you let him get away with this? Bother him. He deserves to be bothered. How dare he marry someone else when he has you? How can you sit there so calmly? He would’ve let you stay in China forever. I had to send for your daughter and I had to send for you.
Unlike the “wishy-washy” Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid wants justice and action. Even more importantly, she is a director and schemer. Brave Orchid’s approach to solving problems is to strategize. For example, Brave Orchid’s plan to get rid of the second wife is to make her miserable enough to leave, thus allowing Moon Orchid to reclaim her rightful place. Moon Orchid, on the other hand, mitigates this drastic measure and reveals her delicacy and desire to be waited on with
I wouldn’t mind if she stays … she can comb my hair and keep house. She can wash dishes and serve our meals.
Brave Orchid she tells Moon Orchid exactly what she should say; her sister simply follows her directions without much resistance. In fact, “sometimes Moon Orchid seemed to listen too readily” to Brave Orchid.
Each day, Brave Orchid asks Moon Orchid, “Are you ready to go see your husband and claim what is yours?” to which Moon Orchid replies “Not today, but soon.” After a few weeks, however, Moon Orchid’s daughter needs to return to her family in Los Angeles; Brave Orchid pounces on this opportunity to make Moon Orchid confront her husband.
On the way and when they reach Los Angeles, Brave Orchid institutes her aggressive and strategic method of approaching the problem of their reunion. She imagines and then plans for scenarios at the husband’s home (e.g. accusing him of murder, surprising him with Moon Orchid’s sudden appearance, or sneaking in if he and his second wife are not home). Moon Orchid briefly gets caught up in the vengeful game but then loses courage and wants to turn around to retreat. She asks,
“What if he hits me?”
“I’ll hit him. I’ll protect you. I’ll hit him back. The two of us will knock him down and make him listen.” Brave Orchid chuckled as if she were looking forward to a fight. But when she saw how terrified Moon Orchid was, she backs down and decides to approach husband calmly.
When Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid end up at the husband’s workplace, Brave Orchid quickly changes plans: she first pretends to be a patient and then coaches Moon Orchid to put on makeup (“Be as pretty as you can. Otherwise you won’t be able to compete”) to face him. Finally, she settles on having her son lure the doctor husband outside with the false claim of an accident. Brave Orchid is ready for a fight but Moon Orchid is too scared to move,
her voice was fading into a whisper. She was shivering and small in the corner of the seat.
She becomes like a ghost, groaning, crying, and becoming “stiff and frozen.” When Moon Orchid finally sees her husband, she can only whimper, causing him to recognize her in horror and demand what she is doing.
But all she did was open and shut her mouth without any words coming out.
“Why are you here?” he asked, eyes wide. Moon Orchid covered her face with one hand and motioned no with the other.
Aside from whispering “What about me?” she remains silent. Only Brave Orchid speaks up for her. The husband rejects Moon Orchid, telling her that she would not fit into American life and is not respectable enough for his “important American guests.”
"You can’t talk to them. You can barely talk to me."
Moon Orchid was so ashamed, she held her hands over her face. She wished she could hide her dappled hands. Her husband looked like one of the ghosts passing the car windows, and she must look like a ghost from China. They had indeed entered the land of ghosts, and they had become ghosts.
From that point on, Moon Orchid shrinks, loses her sanity and connection to reality, and ends up placed by her daughter in a mental asylum.
The situation with her cruel husband and passive daughter leaves Moon Orchid like a ghost. By the end, she is thin (“shrunken to the bone”) but happy because she lives among other mental patients with whom she can communicate—“we understand one another here. We speak the same language, the very same one.”