Dai-li Ting, Kai’s “Mah-mee,” appears only in the beginning of the book. Yet her presence is an important one, for it is primarily through her that Kai has a sense of who he is, who his ancestors are. She speaks her native Songhai with Kai and his sisters and instills in them the value of family togetherness, of a cultural past that is now remote but that can nevertheless be reenacted in some semblance in their now-American lives. Dai-li Ting is vivacious, unpredictable, idiosyncratic, passionate, and she loves her only son fiercely. She is the anchor in Kai’s world, and her brief appearance in the novel only serves to underscore his loss when she dies of cancer. With her death, Kai is stripped not only of love and protection but also of the most palpable reminder of his ancestral roots.
Colonel Ting is Kai’s military-hero father, now a bank officer in civilian America. He abhors the degeneration in his homeland that led finally to civil war, and he is concerned primarily with becoming and being American. He is taciturn, rigid, and an iconoclast among the Chinese community in San Francisco because of his disavowal of most things Chinese. To his son, he is distant and unapproachable, and his presence does nothing to soften the blow of Mah-mee’s death. Colonel Ting is the typically uncommunicative father, and it seems that the best he can do for his son is to enroll him at the YMCA, thus giving Kai over to a group of surrogate fathers....
(The entire section is 559 words.)