Last Updated on December 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301
On their first afternoon together, the narrator tells the man, whom she often describes as “my lover” or “the lover,” that she will soon leave her mother. She and the lover weep together at the prospect, as both know their love is tied up with loss. The narrator and the lover leave his flat in the evening and go to a Chinese restaurant, where the narrator asks her lover to tell her about how he made his money. Reluctantly, he informs the narrator that his father builds and rents out tenement housing—known as “compartments”—for the locals. The narrator has seen the tiny, claustrophobic compartments. Perhaps sensing her discomfort around the nature of his father’s business, the lover says the compartments are very useful because they afford the poor a sense of tight-knit community. When the narrator tells the lover she will introduce him to her family, she feels he panics at the prospect.
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After that afternoon, the narrator and the lover often go out with her family for “big meals in Cholon.” Each time the family visits Saigon, the lover pays for dinners at expensive Chinese restaurants. However, neither her brothers nor her mother speaks a word to the lover at these meals. The narrator must mediate between the two parties. The narrator knows this is because he is Chinese, not white.
In the lover’s flat, the narrator later tells him her older brother begins to insult others at the slightest hint of opposition. It is only her that the older brother fears. Her siblings are united in their shame of having failed their mother. Privately, the narrator thinks witnessing their mother’s sorrow has deeply affected her brothers, driving them to despair and, in the case of her older brother, violence. Her mother’s depression began when the narrator was ten and lasted till she was seventeen. Paulo died in 1942, fighting for the allies during the Japanese occupation of Saigon during World War II. The narrator had left Saigon eleven years before his death.
During the “Cholon time,” the narrator’s mother suspects her daughter is having an affair and takes to spying on her. The mother inspects her underwear, strips her, physically beats her, and calls the narrator a prostitute for sleeping with a Chinese man. Her older brother encourages the mother’s violence against the narrator, while Paolo begs her to stop. The narrator is aware that her older brother would also like to beat her up. There is a suggestion of sexual violence about the older brother. Such terrifying scenes occur often in their family, but the younger siblings pretend to outsiders that their family life is normal. It is only to their lovers that the siblings will confide the truth about their childhood.
The narrator and the lover continue their affair. For the narrator, the lover’s care and adoration become a shield against the violence of her family. However, the narrator is also aware that the lover knows he is doing something wrong in pursuing a child. The lover is terrified he will go to prison if the narrator’s mother reports him to the police. He asks her to keep lying to her mother and brother that he is only interested in the narrator platonically.
The narrator now recalls a couple of extraordinary women she met in Paris in the 1940s. Marie Claude Carpenter was an American from Boston, mysterious and sophisticated. The narrator often dined with her, though Marie-Claude was in the habit of leaving the dinners abruptly. The other woman was beautiful Betty Fernandez, also “a foreigner.” Betty and her husband, Ramon, often hosted artistic salons at their home, which the narrator attended. The conversation at such parties did not involve politics but literature. In time, the narrator and the Fernadezes became great friends, joining the French Communist Party together after World War II ended. Both Marie-Claude and Betty never judged the narrator and offered her hope in humanity.
Once, after the lover drops the narrator at the gate of her boarding school, her friend Helene Lagonelle tells her someone has reported her to the vice-principal. Helene and the narrator are the only two white girls in the school, the others being mixed-race children, often abandoned by their fathers. The teacher on duty tells the narrator they will have to inform her mother of her frequent absences from school. When her mother does visit the school, she tells the principal to allow the narrator her excursions, since she is a willful child and will run away if stopped. Soon, the lover gives the narrator a diamond ring. Assuming it is an engagement ring, the teachers stop gossiping about the narrator. Meanwhile, Helene is worried that the narrator will be expelled. The narrator comforts her. She feels attracted to Helene’s voluptuous beauty, wishing she could share it with her lover.
Turning her attention to her older brother, the narrator confides to the reader that her older brother habitually stole from their mother and gambled away the family money. He would even try to sell the narrator to customers at the Coupole, the prominent hotel in Saigon. Yet the narrator’s mother loved him inordinately. When their mother dies, the elder brother calls for a lawyer immediately, wasting no time to take advantage of the will that favors him greatly. The narrator accepts the will without a fight. At the time, the narrator’s husband has been deported to the Dachau concentration camp as a political prisoner.
After their mother’s death, the older brother slowly falls apart. Never having held a steady job in his life, he becomes what the narrator terms “the family layabout.” He sells away their mother’s belongings for sustenance. Finally, being left with nothing, he seeks his first job at fifty as a messenger for a marine insurance company and dies alone fifteen years later. The narrator’s mother always denied the truth about her eldest son when she was alive, terming him the most artistic and clever of her children. She turned a blind eye to his theft and violence. Though the older brother expressed his sorrow to the narrator at Paulo’s death, the narrator can never forget the cruelty to which he routinely subjected Paulo.
One day, the lover does not come for the narrator, sending only his driver to ferry her between the boarding school and her high school. The lover has gone to Sadec, where his father has taken ill. When the lover returns, he tells the narrator he had hoped his father would die so he could be free, but the older man is recovering. In Sadec, the lover told his father about the narrator. Though he begged his father to let him keep her close, the father told him he would rather see him dead than be with anyone other than a Chinese girl. The narrator comforts the lover and tells him she would not have stayed with him anyway.
The narrator recalls being deathly afraid of a beggar woman in Saigon who had mental health issues. In her memory, this woman is sometimes conflated with the narrator's mother and sometimes with herself. Perhaps the narrator fears to sink into a depression like her mother. Whenever she dreams of the woman now, the woman always ends up in the rubbish dumps of the Indian city of Calcutta. Meanwhile, in 1929, word of the narrator’s affair with the Chinese millionaire spreads all over Saigon.
Addressing herself in the third person, viewed from the eyes of others, the narrator says the girl goes to Cholon every morning to have her body caressed by an older Chinese man. Soon, the girls at school will be asked not to speak to her. The girl becomes an outcast at her school.