Rose notices a white leather bible propping up a coffee table leg in her parents’ living room, and remembers a time when her mother An-mei was very religious and treasured that bible. Though now An-mei pretends to care little for it, Rose sees that it’s always carefully dusted. Rose’s real reason for visiting her mother is to tell her that she’s getting a divorce, but she can’t find the courage to say it. Rose knows An-mei will tell her to try harder to save the marriage even though Rose knows it’s “hopeless.”
The mothers and daughters have very different values due to their cultural upbringings. To the mothers, something as significant as marriage cannot be abandoned lightly. Even though Rose is suffering in her marriage, An-mei believes some sacrifice is necessary, and there’s still a solution to the problem that doesn’t involve giving up.
When she first started dating her now estranged husband, Ted, Rose didn’t think the relationship would become serious. But after spending time with his parents, who say racist remarks about Asians in the Vietnam War and disapprove of their relationship, Rose and Ted get closer out of defiance. Ted enjoys how helpless Rose seems, and in turn, Rose lets him make the decisions in their relationship. They eventually get married.
The main reason that Ted appreciates Rose is that she acts like a ‘damsel in distress,’ needing his masculine attention to support the relationship. Her passivity follows a traditional pattern in sexist relationships (as well as fulfills a typical Western stereotype of “passive Asian women”), where the male partner is emotionally dominant.
At first, Ted (a doctor) is confident being the sole decision-maker in their marriage, but later he loses a large malpractice suit and becomes uncertain in his abilities. He pushes Rose to take responsibility in the relationship and own up to the consequences of decision-making. However, after years of passivity, Rose can’t bring herself to make even the simplest decision.
Rose’s inability to react to Ted’s prodding reveals the problem with extended power imbalance. Anyone forced into passivity cannot immediately switch into a role of action, and as a woman, Rose is placed in an unwinnable situation.
Ted grows increasingly angry with Rose, blaming her for not caring about the outcome of their marriage. She is shocked when he calls one day and requests a divorce. The trauma of being asked for a divorce transitions to her greatest childhood trauma, which also served as the reason behind An-mei’s loss of religious faith.
Just as other women in the novel have sacrificed to maintain relationships, Rose thought she was helping her marriage by giving Ted all the power. However, Ted realizes he wanted an equal all along, and now has the unfair power to change his mind on Rose.
When she is fourteen, Rose goes with her mother, father, two older sisters, and three younger brothers to the Pacific ocean for a family trip. She thinks how out of place they all look, uncomfortably pretending to be a leisurely white family at the beach. As the middle child, Rose was instructed by An-mei to watch her little brothers as they played on the beach; in particular, her four-year-old youngest brother Bing needed the most attention.
Trying to fit into American culture, the Hsu family goes out of their comfort zone and travels to the beach for vacation. Still, they cannot fully understand and inhabit the idyllic scene, and just go through the motions of what richer, white families do.
Late in the afternoon, Bing asks Rose if he can go out to the reef line and see where their father is fishing. Rose agrees, but warily watches him climb the precarious cliff side. Her attention is diverted when her other brothers start fighting, and An-mei calls to Rose to stop the two boys. Rose turns her gaze back to Bing just as he falls into the ocean without a splash. Rose is completely frozen in shock, but her sisters immediately notice Bing’s absence, asking Rose where he is. When the family realizes he’s fallen into the ocean and can’t swim, An-mei dives in without hesitation even though she can’t swim either. They call the police for help, but after hours of searching, Bing’s body isn’t found.
An-mei’s maternal love is so great that she risks her own life without hesitation to save her young son. Meanwhile, Rose’s moment of passivity in the face of the tragedy seems to implant itself within her, and she takes as a lesson that passivity and indecision is a part of her.
Rose blames herself for her negligence and expects her whole family to blame her too, but each member has self-guilt for not being attentive. Only An-mei refuses to accept Bing’s fate, and takes Rose back to the ocean to look for him. An-mei uses the white leather bible and calls out to God, asking for mercy. She also sacrifices a valuable sapphire ring to the ancient ocean gods—throwing the ring into the water—asking in return for Bing’s body. In a final attempt, An-mei throws a life preserver out into the waves, thinking Bing will latch onto it from the ocean depths and she’ll be able to pull him to shore. However, the rubber tube catches on the sharp rocks and becomes shredded. An-mei realizes that Bing couldn’t have survived, and feels “so foolish as to think she could use faith to change fate.”
Again, An-mei values her children over any material possession, and willingly sacrifices her valuables for the small chance of seeing her son again. Even though fate seems to tell her that Bing is doomed, An-mei fights to alter the course of events. In the end though, fate is stronger than maternal love.
Back in the present-day, Rose tells An-mei about her divorce, and as predicted, An-mei tells her to try and save the marriage, because “you must… this is your fate. This is your life, what you must do.” An-mei leaves Rose in the living room to think, and Rose muses that fate “is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.” She then reaches down to the bible under the coffee table and opens it to a section called “Deaths;” in erasable pencil, An-mei has lightly included Bing’s name.
This chapter defines what fate looks like for most of the characters in the novel. Fate is not completely preordained, but as soon as a person stops paying attention and stops actively resisting bad omens, the power of destiny is ruthless. It is Rose’s fate to try and save the marriage, but it’s up to her to actively alter the final results, not passively allow fate to run a bad course.