Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
Wu Tsing: An-mei’s mother’s second husband, a wealthy merchant in Tientsin
Yan Chang: An-mei’s mother’s personal servant
First Wife: Wu Tsing’s official wife, mother of two daughters. She is addicted to opium
Second Wife: Wu Tsing’s concubine. She dominates the other women in the household
Third Wife: Wu Tsing’s concubine. She has three daughters
Fifth Wife: Wu Tsing’s most recent concubine. She is very young
Syaudi: son of Wu Tsing and An-mei’s mother. Second Wife claims him as her own
An-mei, the narrator, talks about Rose’s divorce. Rose complains that she has no choice in the matter, but An-mei says refusing to make an effort is a choice. An-mei’s Chinese upbringing trained her to want nothing for herself. She tried to raise Rose differently, but “she came out the same way!” An-mei wonders if it’s just because they’re all women.
The story flashes back to when An-mei is nine, and her mother returns to the family home in Ningpo. She is not welcome. She mourns the death of her mother, Popo, even though Popo had disowned her years earlier. After Popo’s funeral, she prepares to leave. An-mei leaves with her.
During the long trip to Wu Tsing’s, An-mei’s mother points out that An-mei will have a new home, new family, and many new things. Every night An-mei falls asleep snuggled next to her mother. She feels very comfortable.
When Wu Tsing and the other wives return, everything changes. Yan Chang tells An-mei the circumstances allowing Second Wife to manipulate Wu Tsing easily. She also relates why An-mei’s mother married him. These revelations cause An-mei to view the household dynamic from an adult perspective. When her mother later commits suicide, An-mei understands both the causes and the intended effect. She gains the life her mother wanted for her and Syaudi, her son.
The story returns to the present. An-mei understands confusion and powerlessness, but she refuses to submit. A village that fought off birds that had destroyed their crops for generations represents that courage to her.
An-mei’s story concludes with her observation that women have more choices in America today than they had in China in her childhood. An-mei herself participates in the transition between the two. She stops submitting, swallowing her tears, and begins asserting herself, shouting.
Amy Tan uses both swallowing tears and shouting as motifs to underscore this progression. Early in the story An-mei’s mother tells her daughter how disappointed she was when Popo told her it was time to grow up, to stop shouting, playing, and crying. She learned that women should swallow their tears so they don’t let their sorrow cause others to be happy. Thus, women were denied the expression of even basic emotions. Men could shout, as An-mei’s uncle does; but women were not permitted to respond in kind. An-mei’s mother kneels before him instead, “crying with her mouth closed,” completely powerless. An-mei’s decision to leave with her mother is a silent defiance of his wishes.
When Wu Tsing acknowledges his debt to her mother, An-mei sees another opportunity to assert herself. She begins to shout, noisily claiming power. Years later the story of the villagers shouting to defeat the predatory birds causes her to shout for joy. The transition from vulnerability to strength is complete.
In addition to these two motifs, three symbols in this story deserve mention. An-mei describes the elaborate European clock in her mother’s room. The figures go through their routines when the clock chimes the hour. At first An-mei is fascinated by its intricacy. Later it becomes a nuisance, keeping her awake at night. Eventually she learns to ignore it and discovers that she has developed the ability to disregard “something meaningless calling to me.” Recognizing and resisting the meaningless things is a measure of An-mei’s developing ability to recognize what is true.
An-mei learns the lesson a second time when Second Wife gives her the necklace. Once her mother demonstrates that it is glass, she sees it as “something meaningless.” Once we learn of Second Wife’s earlier treachery, the purpose of the necklace becomes evident: to buy An-mei’s loyalty. The ring of watery blue sapphire that An-mei’s mother gives her at the end of this lesson is the same ring An-mei throws into the cove to bring back Bing in “Half and Half.”
The final symbol serves as a foreshadowing. When An-mei’s mother gives her a Western outfit to wear from the steamer to Wu Tsing’s home, nothing fits. Tan points especially to the white shoes, which have to be stuffed with paper before An-mei can wear them. She mentions twice that she has trouble walking in these shoes, a suggestion that she will have difficulty following in her mother’s footsteps in the household of Wu Tsing. Her efforts to assert herself are the result of her mother’s actions, but the opposite of them as well. She does not swallow her tears; she shouts.
Tan frames the story of An-mei’s childhood with reference to Rose and her divorce, an ongoing plot from “Half and Half” and “Without Wood.” Rose believes she has no choices, but Rose does not know what it means to have no choices. An-mei does, and she shouts for joy that the change has come.
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