The most athletic girl in Adeline’s school is Wu Chun-mei, the daughter of one of Shanghai’s wealthiest families. Although Adeline considers herself quite skilled in badminton, Chun-mei handily beats her. Over time, Adeline gradually becomes more and more impressed by Chun-mei’s athleticism. Chun-mei also shares Adeline’s passion for reading and she often brings many children’s books to school and loans them to other students.
This is the introduction of Wu Chun-mei, Adeline’s closest friend described in the memoir. Chun-mei will be critical to the memoir’s exploration of friendship and the way in which it can be a vital support to someone enduring trauma or abuse. Her entrance into the story thus initiates friendship as a major theme.
Wu Chun-mei sees Adeline walking to school one morning and asks her driver to offer Adeline a ride. Adeline refuses, fearful of Niang’s wrath. However, two weeks later in the onset of a typhoon, Chun-mei and her father again see Adeline trekking through the storm. Adeline tries to refuse a ride again, although she is soaked and freezing, but as she is speaking a strong blast of wind knocks her into a lamppost. Chun-mei’s father is nearly angry that Adeline is so exposed and puts her in his car. As they drive, Adeline tries to play it off as if she loves the storm and makes them drop her off a block away from her house so that Niang will not see that she has been given a ride home.
The anger of Wu Chun-mei’s father creates an interesting contrast to Niang’s anger. Chun-mei’s father is not angered at Adeline, per se, but that her safety and well-being are put at risk by the apparent neglect of her parents. This is a direct contradiction to Niang’s own anger, so often directed at Adeline for defying Niang’s absolute control, which often puts Adeline at considerable risk. Chun-mei’s father is angry that Adeline may be in a dangerous situation; Niang is often angered when Adeline avoids physical danger.
Wu Chun-mei and Adeline become close friends. Chun-mei gives Adeline books to read and Adeline helps Chun-mei with her math, and they partner with each other for sports. Though Chun-mei has a driver to bring her to school, whenever she sees Adeline walking, Chun-mei gets out of the car and walks the whole distance to school with her friend, her driver following slowly behind them.
Wu Chun-mei’s loyalty to Adeline, to the point that she is willing to suffer the long walks with Adeline as an act of solidarity, is something that should have come from Adeline’s siblings. This loyalty demonstrates one of the ways in which friends may offer a valuable support, even compensating for the deficiency of family to some degree.
When Adeline is nearly eight years old, the United States ends World War II by dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, thus ending the Japanese occupation of China. Shanghai becomes enamored with American culture and the U.S. marines become national heroes.
The author’s recollection of such events is childlike—while she is aware the the world around her is changing and that various forces are at play, the only effects that she recognizes are those that are immediately in front of her, such as the sudden popularity of American culture.
Wu Chun-mei loans Adeline an English book, The Little Princess, in which a seven-year-old heiress loses her father, becomes destitute, and eventually retakes control of her own future through grit and determination. Adeline falls in love with the book, seeing herself in its main character and reading it over and over again until Chun-mei starts growing impatient to have it back. Adeline copies the entire book word for word into a journal and memorizes portions of the manuscript before returning the book. Although Adeline and Chun-mei spend hours in each other’s company, Adeline never reveals how close her own life is to the Little Princess, keeping up her pretense of a normal life, afraid to “admit the truth because then the dream world would vanish forever.”
This once again demonstrates the power of stories, further developing this theme by demonstrating another value that stories may offer an individual suffering an abusive or traumatic situation. Adeline spends most of her childhood keeping her experiences a secret and believing that she is the only one who suffers in such a way. In reading the story, Adeline discovers that she is not quite so alone as she thought, that the heroine of the story has experienced much of the grief and loss that she has. Most importantly, the story has a happy ending, suggesting to Adeline that some good may someday come out of all of this pain.
In the spring of 1946, Father, Niang, Big Sister, Fourth Brother, and Little Sister all leave Shanghai for several months to take care of Father’s house in Tianjin now that the Japanese have been run out of the country. For Adeline and her three brothers, now relieved of Niang and Father’s presence, it is like “stepp[ing] back through through time into a cheerful, buoyant and lighthearted era that we had almost forgotten.” The stepchildren play with their friends, eat whenever they please, and the brothers start taking an interest in girls. Big Brother feels so emboldened that he steals sixteen eggs from the cook (which Niang has forbidden the stepchildren from eating) and makes himself a “king-size” omelet.
Adeline’s life has several periods without the oppressive presence of Father and Niang where life is able to be simpler and happier, something near a normal life. These periods are vital, reminding her, in the same way that her friends often do, that the environment created by Niang and Father and the way that they treat her are not normal. The end of the oppression of Japanese occupation forms a notable parallel to the brief end of the oppressive occupation of Niang. For a short time, both China and the stepchildren are able to live free.
Aunt Baba returns to work and spends her evenings with friends. Ye Ye grows much closer to Third Brother and Adeline, taking them on picnics and teaching Third Brother Tai Chi. Adeline and Third Brother also spend much time together, and Adeline remarks that he is much kinder when he is not with the other brothers; he does not bully Adeline.
Third Brother’s character continues to develop as a person who is kind when not in the presence of his other, meaner siblings. This demonstrates his potential to grow into a good man if properly fostered, as well as indicating the way that such a toxic family can suffocate a child’s goodness.
Third Brother and Adeline talk about their dead mama, with Third Brother telling her how much safer everything felt before she died. Adeline tells Third Brother that he can visit their mother in his mind if he just closes his eyes and imagines where she might live. When Adeline remarks that she once told Big Sister about these thoughts, Third Brother is angry at her for trusting Big Sister, saying, “Don’t trust anyone! Be a cold fish, just like me. Never get involved.” Later that evening, Adeline asks Aunt Baba for a photograph of her mother, but Aunt Baba tells her that once he remarried, Father demanded that all pictures of her be destroyed and forbade Aunt Baba from speaking about her again.
Third Brother’s admonishment to “be a cold fish” is incredibly revealing of his character. Rather than insist on maintaining his integrity, Third Brother is primarily motivated by his desire to minimize his suffering in the midst of a cruel family. This contrasts with Adeline’s own resolution not succumb to the meanness of the others, and it further demonstrates the way in which a toxic family environment can subvert the goodness of someone like Third Brother, who wants to be kind but is also weak-willed to the point that he allows himself to stoop to cruel behavior.
A week later, Shanghai is in the midst of a heat wave. Home from school, Adeline lies on her bed, happily reflecting on the fact that she has just won a city-wide writing competition and Wu Chun-mei has won an award for athletics and been commended for her improvement in arithmetic. The maid announces that that Adeline’s brothers want her to join them in the living room and she is overjoyed, since her brothers never request her presence. The three brothers present her with a glass of orange juice, supposedly as a reward for winning the writing competition. Adeline is suspicious, but when Third Brother assures there is nothing wrong with it, she takes a drink, tasting urine.
Despite his kindness and affection towards Adeline, Third Brother capitulates to the power of his older brothers—much like Big Sister capitulates to Niang—even at the cost of betraying Adeline’s trust. This clearly demonstrates the tragedy of toxic families in the way they push even those members who are gentle-hearted to be malicious and cruel. It should be pointed out that Third Brother’s betrayal of Adeline is an act of self-protection, a way to avoid the ire and hatred of his older brothers. Though not malicious himself, his capitulation to them leads him to commit a malicious act.
Adeline races to the bathroom, washes her mouth, and cries. She is not crying because of her brothers’ meanness—she is used to that by now. Rather, she is crying because Third Brother’s constant bending to his other brothers’ cruelty “chip[s] away at his integrity,” destroying his kindness.
In such a toxic family, it seems that Third Brother’s hope to “be a cold fish” may be impossible. By trying to cause as little disruption as possible, he is coaxed into being cruel. However, were he to be as morally consistent as Adeline or stand up for her, he would almost certainly face the wrath of his older brothers. This yet again reinforces the manner in which a toxic family can wreak havoc on a child’s moral development, placing them in no-win situations.
The next morning, as Wu Chun-mei and Adeline are walking to school together, American sailors ask them for directions. Wu Chun-mei helps them, and in return they give both girls a large basket of persimmons. At school, the girls distribute the fruit to their friends and Adeline is thrilled at the the rare chance to give gifts to others. That day at school is filled with laughter and jokes, with Wu Chun-mei playing a jest to convince her friends to bite into the tart, unripe fruits.
Wu Chun-mei’s jest parallels Adeline’s brothers’, except that it is done in good fun rather than malice, and is a prank on the whole group rather than singling out one person (and it involves no bodily fluids). The similarity and contrast between the two jests suggests that the cruel behavior adopted by Adeline’s brothers distorts their innocent, childish impulses towards pranks and jokes into something malicious and hurtful.