A few months later, Grandmother Nai Nai orders her rickshaw puller to start taking Big Sister and Adeline to and from school so they do not have to walk. Adeline is always excited when they approach her school and loves everything about it. Most importantly, her classmates treat her as an equal.
The contrast introduced here between Adeline’s life at home and at school is a consistent subtheme that persists throughout the memoir. In school, without the blame of her mother’s death hanging over her, Adeline is able to be a normal child and be valued for the merits of her own achievements.
On the way home from school, Big Sister “imperiously” begins quizzing Adeline on what she learned at school that day. Adeline replies that she learned that God made her, but did not yet know why God had done so, since the nuns hadn’t taught that yet. Big Sister begins screaming that Adeline does not know the answer because she was stupid and did not deserve her school medal. Big Sister strikes Adeline hard. The rickshaw puller looks back, but does not intervene, and takes them both home.
Big Sister here reflects a quality that Father will later display, as well: having completely unrealistic expectations for Adeline. This scene once again demonstrates the way in which the leader of a toxic family can pass on those despicable characteristics to their own children, as well as the manner in which children are pitted against each other.
Adeline continues to win the school medal every single week, which angers her siblings but is the only way to make Father pay attention to her. At the end of the school term, Adeline wins an award at a large assembly for being the top student. The audience applauds, but Adeline notices that she is the only award-winner there without any family present to celebrate her, not even Aunt Baba.
Once again, the toxic family dynamic is on full display. Since the children are all starved of Father’s attention, rather than celebrating each others’ achievements, they are so competitive for recognition that they despise each other when Father shows any one of them affection, especially Adeline.
Japan has conquered much of China and now the Japanese want to force themselves on Father as business partners. Father is terribly stressed—Japanese businessmen often arrive suddenly at the house. One day, Father simply disappears. Although Ye Ye tells the police, no one knows anything of what happened to him. A few months later, Niang takes Fourth Brother and also disappears very suddenly and mysteriously. Although it is strange, the next few months are very pleasant. Ye Ye and Nai Nai treat the children well, they get to see movies and have friends over to play and eat at fancy restaurants on the weekends.
This episode furthers the characterization of Father as utterly self-absorbed and neglectful of his children. Father has gone into hiding to save himself from the Japanese, but for all his children know, he has been kidnapped or murdered. Though Niang goes to join him, she does not reveal anything either. There seems to be no consideration of the emotional impact this could have on the children, who may have initially thought they had lost their second parent. Father seems far more concerned with his own wellbeing than his children’s, a quality which he will consistently exhibit.
One evening, Adeline sits with Aunt Baba and watches Nai Nai soak her unwrapped feet in hot water. Aunt Baba explains to Adeline how fortunate she is, not having bound feet and even being allowed to attend school with her brothers. Adeline falls asleep and wakes to find Aunt Baba crying—Nai Nai has just died of a stroke. The family gives Nai Nai a proper Buddhist burial, sleeping in the same room as the body to keep Nai Nai company, having a funeral procession, and burning sacrifices so that Nai Nai would have everything she needs in heaven.
The suddenness of Nai Nai’s death seems to reflect Adeline’s own limited perception and understanding of death as such a young child, being only five or six years old. The scene also nods to the clash of cultures in China as it became more Westernized—although the children attend Catholic schools, suggesting that they are at least associated with Christianity, they participate in the Buddhist funerary procession, even burning sacrifices for her.