Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

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In Shanghai Girls, do Mama's beliefs influence Pearl and how do they evolve?

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Lisa See's novel Shanghai Girls follows the story of two sisters and their struggles as sisters and as Chinese immigrants to the United States. The sisters, Pearl and May, have a close and complicated relationship. The story's central theme revolves around the nature of the relationship between sisters. The sisters have very different relationships with their parents: May, though younger and less accomplished, is favored by her parents for her beauty and charm, while Pearl always feels slighted and lesser. Each sister's relationship with their parents is a reflection of the complicated nature of their relationship with each other.

In the first part of the book, "Fate," Pearl reflects on her mother and father's opinion of her and May. Pearl, unlike her sister, actually listens and cares about what her parents think and say. By her own assessment, Pearl is less important to her parents than May. Early in the novel, Pearl reflects on her mother's opinion of her and shares what her mother believes about her.

"There's nowhere you can't go with your big flapping feet," Mama frequently tells me. However, a Dragon, the most powerful of the signs, also has its drawbacks. "A Dragon is loyal, demanding, responsible, a tamer of the fates," Mama has told me, "but you, my Pearl, will always be hampered by the vapors that come from your mouth."
In this passage, Mama shares that Pearl, though extremely capable, will always be inhibited by jealousy. It's not immediately clear to the reader where Pearl's ideas of jealousy originate. Were they shaped by Mama's beliefs about her, or did Mama simply put a name to traits that were already there? In fact, it is Pearl who first mentions her jealousy in the first scene of the book while the family sits at the dinner table. 
We have a square teakwood table, and we always sit in the exact same places: my father next to May on one side of the table, with my mother directly across from her so that my parents can share my sister equally. Every meal — day after day, year after year — is a reminder that I'm not the favorite and never will be.
Pearl's jealous yet close relationship with her sister continues and deepens throughout the novel. The sisters endure numerous hardships together, such as war, loss of their parents, immigration to the United States, pregnancy, suicide, and the loss of a child. Throughout these events, the sisters' close relationship becomes increasingly complicated, and the seeds of jealousy remain, making their relationship more and more difficult over time.  
The sisters are extremely close, but their relationship is fraught with betrayals and deceit. See develops the theme that the nature of sisterhood is both complex and close. Though sisterhood is one of the closest relationships in the human catalog, it is also one from which hurt springs readily. While this theme was spoken early in the novel by Mama, See seems to indicate that this is the essence of sisterhood, not just the permanence of the sisters' dead mother's beliefs.

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