As Wang Lung begins to feel secure in his family’s survival, he starts getting to know the city and the routines of the people in it. He often brings people to either the Western school or the Chinese school, but he doesn’t know anything about them. He brings men to houses of pleasure, but he experiences no pleasures himself.
Wang Lung exists in the city, but he doesn’t understand it or really become part of it. According to historical context, great upheaval is going on regarding Western influence in China, but Wang Lung takes part in this debate only on the extreme periphery.
Even though Wang Lung’s family looks like the city people, they are like foreigners there. Life is slower in the country than in the city, and at home people eat simply, whereas here they want delicacies. The smell of the garlic they eat marks out country people from the city people. One day Wang Lung hears a man giving a speech about China’s need to revolt against foreigners, and he feels that the man is talking about rising against him. When he hears another man saying that Chinese people need to unite and educate themselves, he doesn’t imagine himself as part of this group.
Though Wang Lung’s family is Chinese and the city is also Chinese, it becomes clear that Chinese culture is not uniform across all regions, nor between the city and the country. Wang Lung feels completely like an outsider, and senses hostility against him as a result. Buck exposes a weakness of the political movements of this time, suggesting that they catered only to a certain urban population and failed to understand the perspective of more rural people.
Finally, Wang Lung learns that he is not a true foreigner. One day when he’s looking for passengers, someone hails him who looks entirely strange, and Wang Lung can’t even figure out whether they’re male or female. As he gives the person a ride, he asks another ricksha puller what the person is, and learns that she is an American woman. Wang Lung is frightened of her, but she gives him twice the usual fare. When Wang Lung tells O-lan, she says that the foreigners always give her more money when she begs, but they don’t think this is because the foreigners are good people. This experience teaches him that people with light hair and eyes are more foreign than those with black hair and eyes, and Wang Lung truly belongs to his race.
This scene shows how isolated life in rural China could be at this time. Considering that Buck herself was an American woman, she demonstrates an ability to see herself from a point of view in which she hardly even exists. Furthermore, she expresses no sympathy for foreigners in this book, instead criticizing her own kind for their inability or refusal to assimilate to Chinese culture and their false goodwill towards Chinese people. Wang Lung only truly realizes he’s Chinese when he meets someone totally foreign to whom he can compare himself.
It seems like there is food everywhere in the city. The markets are filled to bursting with all varieties of fish, grains, meats, vegetables, and sweets. It doesn’t seem possible that anyone could starve here, but Wang Lung and his family still join the large group of people who buy cheap rice from the public kitchens. They never manage to make enough money to buy their own rice to cook, though sometimes they get cabbage. In this case, the boys have to steal fuel from farmers carrying it into the city, and sometimes the farmers hit them.
The irony caused by Wang Lung’s poverty in a land of plenty highlights the inequality in his society. While the wealthy can have everything they want, the poor suffer just to survive. No matter how hard Wang Lung works, it seems that his family will never be able to escape from poverty, as they never have enough money to set anything aside.
The second son begins to get good at stealing. Though this doesn’t bother O-lan, Wang Lung hates seeing his sons steal. One night when there’s pork in the stew they’re cooking, the younger son admits to having stolen it. Wang Lung refuses to eat it and throws it on the ground. O-lan, however, washes it and puts it back in the pot. Wang Lung watches silently as the family eats the pork, but later he beats his son for stealing. This incident strengthens his conviction that they need to return to their land.
Just as Wang Lung couldn’t stand to beg, his honor won’t let him put up with thievery in his family. He sees the land as a place of salvation, where he can teach his sons the value of work and even of basic morality. O-lan, on the other hand, cares more about her family’s survival than about any sense of righteousness, perhaps because of her childhood struggle to survive a famine and because she has been ill-treated all her life.