Lena believes that her mother Ying-ying has a mysterious ability to see things before they happen; however, her premonitions only predict bad things that will affect the family, not any way to stop them from happening. For example, Ying-ying predicted her husband Clifford’s fatal heart attack based on a dying house plant’s inability to get water up its roots. Now, as Lena picks up her mother for a weeklong visit with Lena and her husband, she wonders what Ying-ying will see in them.
Unlike the other characters, Ying-ying is actually able to see fate’s actions before they happen, even though she doesn’t have the autonomy to change anything.
Driving back to their new house, Lena’s husband Harold gets annoyed by Ying-ying’s constant criticism of his driving. Lena is secretly glad that her mother reprimands his aggressive style, as Lena has always been too passive to complain.
Lena does not have open communication with her husband, similar to Rose’s marriage. The theme of female passivity compared to male dominance continues to develop among the young generation as it did with the old generation.
Lena shows Ying-ying around the new house, pointing out the architectural highlights, but her mother can “only see the bad parts.” Lena remembers when she was eight years old, and Ying-ying looked into her rice bowl and predicted that Lena would marry a bad man, with one pock mark on his face for every kernel of uneaten rice she left.
The mother-daughter relationship is strained because Ying-ying can only see negative forces in their life, and Lena inherits the anxiety. Even though mothers just want to protect their children from harm, they often pass on their fears.
At the time, Lena knew of a bully named Arnold, who was covered in acne marks. Every meal, Lena leaves rice behind, and her eight-year old mind becomes terrified that she’s fated to marry Arnold. She decides the solution is to not eat at all, in the hopes that it would cause Arnold so many health problems that he’d die before becoming her husband.
Lena believes in fate as much as Ying-ying, but tries to trick fate by sacrificing her health.
By the time she’s thirteen, Lena has developed anorexia and has mostly forgotten about Arnold and her marital fate. One morning, her father reads in the newspaper that Arnold had died from an unusually severe measles. Lena is terrified, and thinks that Ying-ying can see through her and tell that she caused Arnold’s death. That night, Lena steals a gallon of strawberry ice cream and eats the entire container until she vomits.
Lena is unable to separate coincidence from fate, and believes so strongly in her role of Arnold’s death that she can’t bear the guilt.
As an adult, Lena wonders if she really was fated to marry Arnold, and received her husband Harold in his place as punishment for defying fate. She and Harold meet while working in the same division of an architectural firm, focused on restaurant design and development. As they start dating, Lena insists on splitting the bill evenly in half whenever they go out, even though she orders very little food and he makes more money.
In Lena’s case, the result of tricking fate is receiving a worse fate than initially expected. Harold seems like a great man, but small signs of his lack of consideration foreshadow marital troubles.
Lena believes that she’s not good enough for Harold, who seems like the perfect man. Rose, however, tells her that such thoughts are commonplace among Chinese-American women, who are raised with Chinese humility and don’t expect to be treated like they deserve.
This is the first point in the novel where sexism against Chinese-American women is explicitly correlated with mismatched cultural ideals. Though raised to be obedient in a Chinese sense, they are not prepared for potential exploitation by non-Chinese partners, who don’t understand the foundation of their humility.
Later in their relationship, Lena encourages Harold to start his own architectural business. She leaves her job at her initial firm to become an associate at his firm, at her own financial sacrifice. The initial years are difficult, and Lena gives Harold pep talks to keep him positive. During one such talk, Lena gives Harold the idea that turns his business into a huge success; Harold, however, does not give Lena any credit. When she asks for a raise, he says it would look bad to promote his wife. They also continue to split all expenses evenly, even though Harold makes seven times more money.
Harold undervalues Lena in a more overt way while at work. Though she offers innovative ideas and works harder than other employees, he cannot see her beyond her role of submissive, self-sacrificing wife. She is held back from achieving success in an American sense of status, because Harold has a narrow concept of her.
Back in the present day, Ying-ying finds a running total of domestic expenses that Lena and Harold will evenly split at the end of the month. Ying-ying sees ice cream as a shared expense, and asks why Lena pays for something that makes her ill (Lena has hated ice cream ever since her vomiting experience). Lena is unable to come up with a good reason. Harold finds out about her hatred of ice cream later that night and awkwardly offers to take it off the list, but the offer only angers Lena, who has started questioning the entire basis of their “equal marriage.”
Lena can no longer see how problematic her marriage’s power dynamic is, and it takes Ying-ying’s prompting to get Lena to face Harold’s unfair treatment. Rather than have support for each other unconditionally, their marriage has become centered on money, with Lena always sacrificing more to make the sides seems fair. Put another way, Harold and Lena have focused on bearing costs equally while not actually ensuring that they also share benefits.
As they fight that night about whether their marriage exists around a balance sheet, Lena and Harold hear a crash from Ying-ying’s guest room. Lena goes to find her mother standing by a broken end-table. The end-table had been one of Harold’s first architectural creations, and Harold proudly displayed it, despite the table being poorly built. Ying-ying doesn’t apologize, but Lena still says she knew it would break eventually so it didn’t matter. Ying-ying then asks Lena why she didn’t try to stop it from happening, and Lena doesn’t know how to answer “such a simple question.”
The end-table represents the fragility of Lena’s marriage, which was based entirely on validating Harold’s ego. Lena knew from the start that equality meant more than just paying half of all expenses, but she was afraid to challenge expectations due to her cultural values. Ying-ying acts as the voice of reason and strength, just as the other mothers do in their daughters’ times of crisis.