By the first day of the custody hearing, many news stories concerning Bebe’s fitness as a mother have run on the television and in the paper. While some portray her as a hardworking immigrant, others depict her as unreliable. The hearing is kept private, and any “scrap” of information that emerges is valuable.
Having already disrupted the atmosphere of Shaker Heights for weeks, the case for custody of May Ling now begins in earnest—the order of procedure is in place even in the face of such commotion.
The hearing begins, and Mr. Richardson and Ed Lim, in telling the “slow, painfully intimate story” of Bebe’s abandonment of May Ling, turn each other’s arguments on their heads over and over again. They debate and detail Bebe’s desperation, misery, and the complicated circumstances that led to her leaving May Ling at the fire station. Though May Ling was undernourished, Bebe had been unable to produce milk; though May Ling was covered in diaper rash, Bebe had been unable to afford diapers, and had done the best she could to keep her child clean and safe; though the baby cried for hours, the neighbors said, Bebe cried too. Bebe was unable to seek psychological help due to language barriers and red tape, such as the complicated welfare system.
The case for custody of May Ling is full of symbolic and thematic significance. Bebe’s abandonment of her child, and her desperate fight to reassert her “right” to motherhood, has parallels in both Mia’s story (her running away with Pearl) and Lexie’s (her difficult choice to have an abortion despite one day wanting to be a mother). The fact that Bebe left her child at a fire station ties in with the novel’s symbolic motif of fire, and “little fires everywhere”—the small disruptions of daily life that can easily burn out of control.
Ed Lim describes Bebe’s leaving May Ling as “tucking her daughter onto a safe ledge while she herself plummeted.” Mr. Richardson suggests May Ling would really be better off in the care of the McCulloughs, who are able to provide a luxurious life for her. The case, over and over, comes down to what “ma[kes] someone a mother, biology or love,” with no clear answer in sight.
Themes of identity are brought to the forefront most clearly in passages dealing with this case, as the McCulloughs’ inability to raise May Ling in her birth culture raises deep and perhaps unanswerable questions about the nature of identity, the potential pitfalls of assimilation, and the importance of heritage.
On the last day of the hearing, Mrs. McCullough is questioned, and Ed Lim establishes her insular upbringing in the largely white world of Shaker Heights, her insensitivity to the challenges of raising a Chinese daughter, and her blind acceptance of harmful stereotypes about Chinese people. Mrs. McCullough breaks down, wailing that “it’s not a requirement that we be experts in Chinese culture. The only requirement is that we love Mirabelle.” In the wake of this line of questioning Mr. Richardson, for the first time, feels doubt about the morality of the case, and whether the McCulloughs’ win is a sure thing. He confides this to his family at dinnertime, and everyone is surprised to hear that Lexie’s perspective has shifted—she feels a great deal of sympathy for Bebe now. Izzy is suspicious, and Moody describes the case as one which will tear families “all over Cleveland apart.”
The fault lines within the Richardson family, which were so clearly drawn earlier in the novel, begin to break down in a major way as Lexie, in the wake of her abortion, develops a deep sympathy for Bebe. Mr. Richardson, too, though officially on the McCulloughs’ team, realizes—after Ed Lim’s impassioned case against May Ling’s assimilation and the destruction of her heritage and cultural identity—that perhaps he has chosen the wrong moral alignment, and that his altruistic behavior on behalf of his friends, the McCulloughs, has not been in service of the right goal.
After dinner, Mr. Richardson continues to question the morality of the case out loud to his wife. Mrs. Richardson tells him that “there are resources out there” for the McCulloughs to learn more about Chinese culture, and that she’d be happy to see “Mirabelle raised in a home that truly doesn’t see race.” Mr. Richardson considers the role of order and rules in the debacle, and realizes that “most of the time” there is no real right or wrong, just different ways of going through life.
Mrs. Richardson remains staunchly on the McCulloughs’ side. She is unable to see her husband’s point of view, or even the naiveté, danger and falseness of her own views on race—“doesn’t see race” is essentially a euphemism for the erasure any non-white, non-American cultural identity. She is too attached to the significance of rules and order.