In “Scar,” An-mei recalls her childhood in China, when she lived with her grandmother rather than her mother. Popo, Chinese for ‘grandma,’ would regularly frighten her by saying An-mei’s mother was a ghost; in those days, a ghost meant anything they “were forbidden to talk about,” not that her mother was dead. Over time, An-mei forgets about her mother entirely.
An-mei’s mother committed such a heinous act in the past that her own mother (An-mei’s grandmother) refuses to acknowledge her existence. In a novel about mothers and daughters, Popo strips An-mei’s mother of any maternal or filial identity by re-naming her a “ghost.”
Popo becomes ill and bedridden in 1923, when An-mei is nine years old. Popo continues to scare her by telling bedside stories about disobedient girls who receive horrible bodily punishments. Right before she loses the ability to speak, she warns An-mei to never say her mother’s name out loud, or she’d be spitting on An-mei’s deceased father’s grave.
Popo knows that stories are more influential than outright advice, because stories can be interpreted and internalized in many ways. Though An-mei doesn’t fully understand the bedside stories as a child, she develops a vague fear of disobedience.
Later that summer, An-mei’s aunt loses her temper and reveals to An-mei that An-mei’s mother had run off with a man named Wu Tsing to be his lowly fourth wife, when An-mei was four. Her re-marriage was so shameful that the family exiled her, calling her a traitor to their ancestors. An-mei realizes Popo’s stories were meant as warnings against her mother’s bad behavior, and disappointedly imagines her mother as a flighty woman with no care for honor or familial responsibility.
The family condemns An-mei’s mother for becoming a concubine rather than remaining a widow and honoring her dead husband’s memory for the rest of her life, as tradition dictates. Popo scares An-mei into obedience as a pre-warning to not be like her mother.
Soon after that revelation, a pretty woman arrives at Popo’s house to nurse Popo back to health, and An-mei immediately knows it’s her mother even though she has no memory of her mother’s face. While other relatives ridicule her or ignore her like a ghost, An-mei watches her mother urge Popo out of her near-death slumber, telling her “your daughter is back.”
An-mei’s mother returns to take care of her dying mother despite the humiliation of showing her face among relatives again; her will to save her mother is stronger than any shame. Even though An-mei has forgotten what her mother looks like, the bond between mother and daughter is innate and immediately felt.
Later that afternoon, An-mei’s mother calls An-mei over to brush her hair, scolding her shyness by saying “An-mei, you know who I am.” While brushing, An-mei’s mother touches an old scar under An-mei’s chin. The touch revives the memory of the night her mother left five years ago.
Despite their fundamental connection, An-mei has been taught by others to be cautious about her mother because of her mother’s supposedly deviant behavior.
An-mei’s mother had begged An-mei to leave with her that night, but Popo refused to let her go, arguing that An-mei’s mother was a disgrace, and that the shame would infect An-mei’s life too. Four-year-old An-mei reached out for her mother and accidentally tipped a boiling hot pot of soup onto herself, burning her so badly that Popo thought she’d die that night. The family threw An-mei’s mother out, and Popo took care of An-mei as the burn became a scar.
Unlike what An-mei had been told, her mother did not abandon her, but was driven away by angry relatives. Most mothers and daughters in the novel cannot emotionally connect because some external force drives them apart, leaving the daughter without a full understanding of her mother’s plight or actions.
Right before Popo dies, An-mei discovers her mother cutting off a piece of her arm and cooking it in a soup made with “magic in the ancient tradition”—a soup which is supposed to heal anything. An-mei’s mother then attempts in vain to feed the broth to Popo, desperate to cure her. From this act, An-mei recognizes and admires “the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain,” and the lengths that a daughter would go to honor her mother.
An-mei’s mother’s physical sacrifice is an act of true daughterly love, which transcends personal pain. An-mei respects her mother again for proving her bone-deep devotion to Popo, regardless of Popo’s harsh banishment of her. From this, An-mei recognizes that mothers and daughters are connected forever by blood, that this connection entails pain, but that it is a worthwhile pain, a pain that communicates love.