Best Quality Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Summary
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.

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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.

Analysis
“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 except Jing-mei, who offers the better one to her mother. Suyuan, like Waverly, insists that her daughter have the best, even though she knows Jing-mei doesn’t care for crab and even though she believes the crab she gives herself is not fit to eat. Both Jing-mei and Suyuan offer the best to others and are willing to take second-best for themselves.

Suyuan says of the pendant she gives Jing-mei, “Not so good, this jade.” She offers hope for its future, though, saying it will become greener if Jing-mei wears it every day. Jade symbolizes purity, in this case purity of intention: Mother and daughter share a willingness to offer their best to others, which is more important than having the best quality possessions.

Some critics have suggested that Suyuan’s words to Jing-mei in the kitchen are in the nature of a gentle scolding, that Jing-mei has never wanted the best for herself, a pattern introduced in “Two Kinds” when she refused to develop her musical talent. The necklace suggests that Suyuan wants her daughter to remember that she is “still worth something.” The gift follows Jing-mei’s vision of herself as a success only at small things. No doubt her mother’s vote of confidence is welcome.

Several critics have commented on the final scene in this story, in which Jing-mei takes her mother’s place in the kitchen, symbolically becoming her mother. Throughout literature daughters have identified with their mothers hesitantly or uncertainly. Jing-mei, however, is quite comfortable in assuming some of her mother’s role, suggesting that she has found strength in her mother’s confidence and love. She will need that strength when she travels to China to tell her sisters about Suyuan.

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