Best Quality Summary and Analysis
Jing-mei, the narrator, describes a pendant necklace Suyuan gave her a few weeks before her death. Called a “life’s importance,” the pendant is an elaborately carved piece of white and green jade about the size of her little finger. She believes the carvings symbolize her mother’s wishes for her, but she doesn’t know what they are, and no one else can tell her.
The story flashes back to the night her mother gave her the pendant. Suyuan had invited the Jongs over to celebrate Chinese New Year, so earlier in the day she and Jing-mei went shopping for crabs. As Jing-mei selects the tenth crab, she accidentally causes another crab to lose a leg. The manager sees them and forces them to buy the extra crab.
At dinner each person takes the best of the crabs left, until the platter reaches Jing-mei. She starts to take the one with the missing leg, offering the better one to her mother. Suyuan insists that Jing-mei take the good one. As the others eat, Suyuan quietly takes her crab into the kitchen.
The dinner conversation is friendly and lively until Waverly asks Jing-mei if she isn’t afraid to have her
hair cut by a gay beautician. After more insults, Jing-mei decides to embarrass Waverly. She asks when Waverly’s firm will pay for some free-lance copywriting she had done more than a month ago. Everyone grows quiet. Waverly tells June that her writing was not good enough. Jing-mei stammers that of course revision is at no cost. Waverly says that Jing-mei’s work is unsophisticated and has no style. She mocks it, repeating it as a television announcer would, and everyone laughs. Jing-mei picks up a couple of plates, trying not to cry.
After everyone has left, Suyuan comes into the kitchen and starts to make tea as Jing-mei puts away the dishes. When Jing-mei asks why Suyuan didn’t eat her crab, Suyuan answers that it was a bad crab. What if someone else had chosen it? she wonders. Suyuan smiles. “Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already know this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different.” It sounds like a compliment.
Jing-mei asks Suyuan why she didn’t use the new dishes, her gift five years ago. Suyuan replies she forgot she had them. Then, as if she had just remembered, she gives Jing-mei the necklace she is wearing. When Jing-mei protests, Suyuan insists, saying she had meant to give it to her long ago. Jing-mei accuses Suyuan of giving her the necklace because of the scene with Waverly. Suyuan dismisses the idea, saying Waverly is like a crab that always walks sideways or crooked. Jing-mei, she says, goes a different way.
“Best Quality” moves easily between discussion of best quality things and best quality people, emphasizing that life’s importance lies in showing respect to others and to oneself.
Suyuan buys crab, a delicacy, to celebrate the Chinese New Year. She wants to offer her guests the best, so when she is forced to purchase the one with the missing leg, she considers it an extra, not one of the ten she needs. She is not expecting Shoshana, a child, to eat crab. Waverly, however, gives the biggest and best crab to her daughter, even though she knows Shoshana doesn’t like it. Like every other mother, Waverly wants her daughter to have the best.
As the platter goes around, the guests each choose the best for themselves...
(The entire section is 877 words.)