Last Updated on December 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
An-mei Hsu is upset that her daughter is doing nothing to stop her marriage from falling apart. All she does is watch and say she has no choice. An-mei knows that her daughter must speak or lose the opportunity. She herself has been taught in the Chinese way, “to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat [her] own bitterness.” She has tried to teach her daughter the opposite, but her daughter has turned out just like her. An-mei thinks back sixty years.
An-mei was only nine years old, and her mother was ready to return to Tientsin after Popo’s death. A connection had developed between them, and her mother had told her about the turtle in the pond who ate thoughts and tears and who once told her that if she cried, her “life [would] always be sad.” Her mother explained how the magpies that came from the turtle drank up all her tears, and she told her daughter that crying was useless, for it would only feed “someone else’s joy.”
Against her aunt and uncle’s will, An-mei decided to go with her mother. As the others berated them, the mother and daughter left together, but An-mei could not help seeing her brother crying because he could not come with them.
The first few days of travel were happy, and An-mei enjoyed her mother’s stories about her new life. Soon, though, her mother changed. She put on different clothing, became subdued, and looked like a stranger. But then she gave An-mei a new dress and accessories. When they arrived at Tientsin, they took a rickshaw to the largest house An-mei had ever seen. The little girl was stunned by the wealth around her.
The maid Yan Chang greeted them with plenty of news and helped An-mei become accustomed to her new home. At first the girl was struck with awe by every new thing. She thought that her aunt and uncle must have been wrong about her mother’s marriage to Wu Tsing being shameful. But later, the newness wore off, leaving An-mei longing for more surprises.
An-mei got a sharp dose of reality when Wu Tsing returned with yet another wife in tow. Fifth Wife was little more than a girl. One night, An-mei’s mother told her to go to Yan Chang’s room. Wu Tsing had come. Then Second Wife and Third Wife returned home. Second Wife gave An-mei a pearl necklace against her mother’s wishes. An-mei learned quickly that the pearls were just glass and that Second Wife was manipulative. Yan Chang told the girl about First Wife, a “ghost of a woman” who regretted her imperfect daughters and spent most of her time smoking opium.
Finally, Yan Chang related how Second Wife had tricked An-mei’s mother, who was a beautiful young widow, into staying with the family so that Wu Tsing could rape her and have the son that no one else could provide. Her mother had no choice but to become Wu Tsing’s Fourth Wife, for she gave birth to his son, Syaudi, who was being raised by Second Wife. An-mei now saw many truths around her and understood some of her mother’s pain. Her mother took her own life by taking too much opium, and An-mei found the strength to confront Second Wife.
This is why An-mei now tells her daughter that she must speak for herself. There were people in the past who could not, but now her daughter can.