Chinese New Year is one of the most anticipated times of the year, enjoyed by both children and adults. The most important tradition of the holiday is the gifting of a new set of clothes, which symbolizes “a new beginning.” Although Niang’s own children received fancy, Western-style clothing in the latest fashion, the stepchildren are all given traditional, outdated robes. Adeline simply receives a brown smock.
The quality of clothing Niang and Father give the children directly correlates with their valuation of each child. Niang’s own children are highly-valued and receive beautiful, fashionable clothing; the stepchildren are given clothing that is fine, but seems intended to humiliate them with its antiquated style; Adeline, the most hated child, is given the plainest thing Father and Niang can think of while still technically fulfilling their parental responsibility.
The stepchildren are enraged at the inequality, complaining amongst each other that they are only allowed a couple meals a day of cheap food, while Niang’s children are given all sorts of snacks whenever they want and constantly are seen throwing their leftovers to Father’s German Shepherd. Niang has also hired a nanny, Miss Chien, who seems to be spying on the stepchildren and blaming them for things they have not done. As a result, Father whips his children, even though they are innocent.
Beyond its general unfairness, Niang’s favoritism naturally creates an “us versus them” environment within the household, clearly demonstrating the way in which a toxic family dynamic sets the children against each other. Niang’s use of a hired spy and Father’s abuse further makes the home a threatening, dangerous place rather than one of safety.
In one of the third-floor rooms, Big Sister insists that they should organize a resistance. The stepchildren fight over how to go about this, finally settling on the idea that Big Sister will write Father an anonymous letter in Chinese—which Niang cannot read—to explain their grievances.
This once again demonstrates the effect of abusive parents and a toxic family dynamic. Rather than loving or trusting their mother figure, the stepchildren are conspiring to overthrow her, illustrating just how distorted their family environment has become.
As they are doing this, Third Brother opens the door and steps outside, finding Niang with her ear pressed against the door, listening to the conspiracy. Third Brother is too terrified to make a sound, and Niang threatens him to keep quiet. Third Brother continues to the bathroom, so terrified that he vomits multiple times. When he returns, Niang is no longer at the door, listening. He tells his siblings what happened, and they all expect retribution. However, Niang seems even more polite that evening at dinner, seemingly enjoying the “cat-and-mouse game” and the dread her stepchildren feel.
The idea that Niang enjoys the “cat-and-mouse game” of her abuse of her stepchildren is chilling. This furthers her characterization as an utterly evil, and in this case even predatory, figure. More than simply demanding total control—which is despicable enough—Niang seems to sadistically enjoy psychologically oppressing the stepchildren, as well. Her depiction seems almost unrealistically evil, a figure absolutely beyond redemption.
Rather than strike back, Niang breaks up the resistance by bribing Big Sister into aligning with her, offering her a luxurious room on the second floor. Big Sister distances herself from the other stepchildren and begins spying on her siblings like Miss Chien, with whom she becomes friends. Soon, she is acting much like Niang, condescending and cruel. The other stepchildren despise Big Sister for this and immediately distrust her. However, with their leader having defected to Niang’s side of the struggle, their resistance falls apart.
This is one of the most poignant examples of a toxic family dynamic in the entire memoir. Big Sister once again capitulates to Niang as a way to find relief from her own suffering. Where once the stepchildren at least had each other to depend on—even if those relationships were somewhat fraught—now even the stepchildren are set against each other, meaning that each of them is more alone than ever, unable to trust even each other. This suggests that the behavior of toxic parents can disrupt every aspect of a family and any support the members might have offered to each other.
Adeline grows closer to Aunt Baba and their shared room becomes a place of safety for her. She knows that Niang hates both of them and that Aunt Baba is in a strange and terrible position, having to always be weary and submissive, despite being much older than Niang. Though this pains Adeline, she is unable to speak about it—it is too painful and she lacks the words.
Although Adeline can recognize the pain she sees, much of it is too complex for her to truly understand at such a young age. These inexpressible emotions will contribute to the repression she will struggle with throughout her childhood, the inability to share the truth of the pain that she feels, even with her friends whom she dearly loves.
Adeline strives to please Aunt Baba through excelling in her academics. By the time she is seven and in second grade, her classmates nickname her “Genius.” After Adeline’s teacher praises an essay she writes about her friendship with Aunt Baba, Adeline becomes enamored with story-writing. She discovers that she can rewrite herself as a courageous warrior, rather than a “lonely little girl bullied by her siblings.”
This introduces the power of storytelling to cope with abuse and trauma as a major theme of the memoir. Although Adeline’s use of stories will develop as she grows older, in this instance, storytelling becomes an important way for her to reimagine herself and practice countering all of the negative ideas she has been given by her family about her self-worth.
Adeline suspects that, despite her academic prowess and skill as a storyteller, her classmates think she is “pathetic” in some way. Her clothing is old and never fits, her haircut is archaic, and no family members ever visit to support her when she wins awards. Adeline is “desperate” to appear normal and convince everyone else that she has a loving family rather than reveal the truth: her family resents her and Niang makes her feel worthless and ugly. This becomes a great burden for Adeline, filling her with self-loathing and anxiety. She can see no way out, except for the dim hope that if she studies as hard as possible and tries to act right, her parents might someday love her.
Although Adeline’s wish to appear normal in front of her peers is certainly understandable, especially for a young child, this ultimately leads her to further repress the pain she experiences at home. Even when she is surrounded by loyal friends, Adeline’s inability to be honest about her abuse and ask for help means that the support that they are able to give her is limited. Though it is impossible to say, it seems feasible that had Adeline learned to share her pain, she may have found help and relief from the abuse much earlier.