Leila's parents, by not learning the language of their adopted country, are excluded from life outside their Chinese immigrant community. Mah sticks to Salmon Alley in Chinatown and maintains her cultural focus on China. Her husband is more itinerate but never successfully adjusts linguistically or culturally.
The second generation rejects this self-imposed exclusion by learning English and translating for the parents. The oldest daughter chooses to leave Chinatown and assimilate to more mainstream life in New York. The younger daughter experiences the anomie of being caught between these two worlds; she ends up losing her sense of identity and commits suicide.
While they must contend with larger forces—like racism and xenophobia—beyond their control, the choice between exclusion and inclusion is in some ways up to the Leong family members themselves. Leila makes the leap swiftly and is looking back at how the various choices of other family members have affected them.