Four times, Brave Orchid has shown Kingston her medical diploma. Her family airmailed the metal tube that holds it from Hong Kong. There are three scrolls inside the tube. One is a medical diploma that says that Brave Orchid graduated from a school of midwifery. Another is a class photograph. She is twenty-seven and not smiling or “humorous,” like one of the girls in the photograph, “who lifts her mocking chin to pose like Girl Graduate.” Kingston contrasts her mother’s image with early photos of her father in America, “in bathing suits at Coney Island beach” or posing “in the cockpit of a biplane.” He and his friends were “always laughing.” The third scroll is from the Department of Health, Canton.” The words are printed on a photograph of Kingston’s mother, the same photograph from her diploma. She was twenty-seven when she graduated.
The photograph of Kingston’s mother, which is serious and somber, contrasts with those of her father, which are light and reveal the fun and freedom he enjoyed during his early years in the United States—while Brave Orchid was working to earn a medical degree. She was young, but much more serious than Kingston’s father. Her seriousness echoes the notion of women being rooted to the traditions of Chinese culture while men maintained the freedom to travel and transgress. The photos reveal their differences in obligation, despite the fact that they were both married with children at the time.
Brave Orchid left her village by ship, just as Kingston’s father had, and moved into a dormitory with five other women. She left most of her things behind, in her family’s care. Medical school allowed Brave Orchid to live for two years, free from servitude. She befriended her roommates but did not tell them that she already had two children.
Brave Orchid is misleading about her family history because she does not want them to know how old she is. However, the time with the younger women allows Brave Orchid to experience their relative freedom, which she gave up as a married woman.
Brave Orchid went to a welcoming ceremony in the auditorium and listened to two hours of speeches from faculty members. Immediately after supper, she began to study. She usually stayed in her room and only dropped into the dining hall once in a while. Students fought over who could sit next to her in class, since glancing at her test papers helped them get back on track when they had forgotten something, and Brave Orchid did not mind this.
Brave Orchid’s discipline sustained her through medical school, and she maintained this discipline when she moved to California and worked long hours. Her discipline made her seem smarter than her classmates, who sought out Brave Orchid’s guidance, despite her relative social isolation.
To make up for not having the best memory—unlike Kingston’s father, who could recite entire poems—Brave Orchid did a lot of “secret studying.” She was older, so she knew that she was expected to know more. Her secret place for studying was a room that was supposedly haunted. Brave Orchid named all of the ghosts that haunted the dormitory, but did not believe that they were ancestors. Instead, they were possibly “an entirely different species of creature.”
Instead of avoiding that which made her afraid, Brave Orchid confronted it. She challenged her fear of ghosts by studying in their space. In her scientific manner, she also hypothesized that ghosts may not have traditionally been the spirits of dead relatives, but a different form of matter altogether. Though she was rooted in superstition, Brave Orchid maintained her own ideas.
When the other girls in the dormitory worried over strange sounds, Brave Orchid would dismiss them as “the wind” and rose to the challenge of checking to see if she was right. When she returned, having seen nothing, another girl insisted that the haunting began at midnight. To prove that she was not afraid but to also get to bed at a decent hour, Brave Orchid agreed to sleep “in the ghost room.” The other girls worried, but Brave Orchid promised to call out to them if anything bad happened. She refused to accept charms. She went back to her room and took her textbook as a weapon.
Brave Orchid maintained her status as a leader among the girls by showing courage where they had none. She even refused charms to indicate that she was not afraid of the ghosts that occupied the study room. These “ghosts” were perhaps the girls’ fears of failure, which Brave Orchid also shared. Thus, she takes the textbook—the only possible protection against flunking out of school—into the room with her.
Brave Orchid pretended not to be afraid. She read aloud to prove that she was calm. Eventually, she fell asleep. Then something “alive” then crawled to “the foot of the bed.” She recognized it immediately: a Sitting Ghost. She fought it, but it only absorbed her energy. She knew that everyone else in the dormitory was asleep, so no one would check on her. She tried another tactic with the ghost, which she called “Boulder.” She spoke calmly to the ghost, assuring it that it would not win and that it did not belong there. She threatened to burn it. She ignored it and “chanted her lessons for the next day’s classes.” The ghost then “scurried off.” When the students went to her the next morning, she told them to take hold of her earlobes to call her back into her body, and then she said that she would tell them a story.
Sitting Ghost resembles a symptom of sleep paralysis, but is also perhaps a metaphor for the fear of failure. Instead of fighting against this fear, Brave Orchid “outsmarts” it by acknowledging its presence but then refusing to grant it power. The “ghost” then went away when she reinforced her commitment to her schooling. The fear of Sitting Ghost is more palpable in Brave Orchid, as she arguably has more to lose than the other girls if she fails—she is, after all, older, already married, and has had two children who died. It is possible that a sense of failing at motherhood is part of her fear of failing at school. To distance herself from this, she names the fear as a ghost.
Brave Orchid told her classmates about how Sitting Ghost had “pounced” on top of her. It had no “head, no eyes, no face,” but only “mounds of hair” which “hid its claws and teeth.” She recalled that it was “bigger than an ape, and growing.” She would have stabbed it, but this Sitting Ghost was a mutation that “wrested” the knife from her hand. At 3:00 AM, she died for a while and lost her way for “ten years.” She walked from the Gobi Desert back to the To Keung School. She had to outwit the Wall Ghosts and “their side-to-side games along the way,” which intended to divert her from her path. Altogether, she said, she had been gone for twelve years, but only an hour had passed in the room.
As in Kingston’s fantasies of Fa Mu Lan’s spirit journeys and the woman warrior’s fights with mythical creatures, Brave Orchid personifies her fear as a kind of beast—something inscrutable. As in Kingston’s case, her sense of time collapses during her struggle to overcome her fear and “return” her spirit to the school. Wall Ghosts, or distractions, also attempted to divert her. Brave Orchid tells this story as a moral to demonstrate that fear can be overcome through concentration.
Brave Orchid insisted that the danger was not over, for Sitting Ghost fattened itself at night and was listening as she spoke. Sitting Ghost was different because it fed on lives—not just those of babies, but also adults. It was “a serious ghost, not at all playful,” with the ability to “conjure up enough substance to sit solidly throughout a night.”
Sitting Ghost, or fear, feeds on people’s lives. Children are fearful, but do not offer enough to satisfy the ghost, which is “surfeited” on them. It listens at night, waiting to hear what makes a person afraid, then uses that to terrorize them throughout the night.
Brave Orchid decided that she and her classmates had to rid the world of the “disease” of ghosts. She told them to scorn ghosts when they came to haunt them. They returned to the ghost room with buckets, and alcohol and burners from the laboratories. They smoked the ghosts out of the room. When the smoke cleared, Brave Orchid said that “the students found a piece of wood dripping with blood.” When they burned it, “the stench was like a corpse exhumed for its bones too soon.” The women laughed at the smell.
Brave Orchid approaches the notion of ghosts as she would one of her topics of study in medical school. “Ghosts,” she knows, are a manifestation of human behavior—they have nothing to do with the ancestors, but rather with the way in which people experience life in the present.
When Brave Orchid got scared as a child, one of her three mothers would call her “frighted spirit” back by chanting her descent line. However, if the women at the dormitory had done that, they would have called Brave Orchid back to the wrong place—her village. Instead, they called out their own names, as well as “women’s pretty names, haphazard names.” In doing so, they created new directions, and Brave Orchid’s spirit followed them. It is possible that this is why she “lost her home village and did not reach her husband for fifteen years.” Brave Orchid later led her own children out of nightmares by chanting the names of family members, which brought Kingston comfort. An old-fashioned woman would have run into the streets, calling out for her child; but Brave Orchid was a modern woman who said her spells in private.
Kingston does not use the adjective “modern” ironically, though the reader could interpret it as such, given the incompatibility between modernity and the belief in spells. However, calling the spirit back is merely a process of making one feel more at home. Brave Orchid’s home at this time was with the girls in the dormitory; thus, she needed to hear their names to remember that she belonged with them in medical school. She later uses the same method to bring relatives, particularly Moon Orchid, comfort during periods when they feel lost.
Though the peasants in her village were more impressed by those who finished three- and six-week courses, Brave Orchid was welcomed home with “garlands and cymbals” after becoming a doctor. Unlike the Communists, who wore only a blue uniform dotted with a “red Mao button,” she wore “a silk robe and western shoes with big heels, and she rode home carried in a sedan chair.” Brave Orchid always dressed well when she made her calls, and some villagers, she remembered, “brought out their lion and danced ahead of [her].” She tells her daughter, "You have no idea how much I have fallen coming to America.”
Brave Orchid was a source of pride in her community and asserted her individuality without fear of being punished by Communists. Both her status as a doctor and this assertion of personal style in a place that denied it, particularly to women, earned her admiration. She “fell” when coming to America because she could no longer be a doctor and was no seen as longer special, but was just one of many Chinese erased by discrimination and language barriers.
Before moving to the Bronx, where Kingston’s father was living, Brave Orchid worked in her village, yanking bones straight and delivering babies “in beds and pigsties.” She “stayed awake keeping watch nightly during air raids.” She did all of this dressed as elegantly as when she stepped out of her sedan chair. She also never changed her name, for professional women reserved the right to keep their maiden names. Even after she emigrated to America, she added no American name.
Brave Orchid’s desire to keep her name is a wish to hold on to a part of her past self and the status that she once enjoyed before immigrating to the United States to be with her husband. Taking an American name also would have been an indication that she belonged in the new country, when it had always been her intention to return home to China.
When Brave Orchid went to Canton market to shop, she was free with money. One day, she bought a female slave, but she decided to buy one from a professional whose girls were neatly arranged. She stopped at a slave girl “whose strong heart sounded like thunder within the earth.” Brave Orchid put the girl through a series of tests to judge her intelligence, and asked her what she would do with the loose ends of woven string. The girl intentionally gave an answer which indicated that she did not know how to finish weaving, so that Brave Orchid could buy her at a lower price. Brave Orchid decided that she would train the girl, who was sixteen years old, to become a nurse.
Brave Orchid’s relationship with the slave girl is one of kindred spirits—she claims to have been able to hear her heartbeat and they both instinctively knew how to play a trick on the slave girl’s seller to ensure that Brave Orchid got the girl at her asking price. The slave girl is a foil for Kingston, it seems, due to her obedience and her understanding of customs, such as how to bargain, a practice that was always embarrassing to Kingston growing up.
Kingston notes that her mother seems more grateful for having had the slave girl than for having had her own daughters. Kingston’s younger sister, sensing this favoritism, said that when she grew up, she wanted to be a slave—which amused her parents. Brave Orchid bought the girl for one hundred and eighty dollars (fifty dollars in American money), whereas it cost two hundred dollars to have Kingston. Brave Orchid later found the girl a husband.
The slave girl represented to Kingston’s mother what a girl ideally should be—cooperative, obedient, and never a burden. Kingston’s younger sister’s naïve wish to be a slave contrasts with Kingston’s wish that her mother could value her as much as the does the girl she bought at a market.
For a time, Brave Orchid’s village was “endangered by a fantastic creature, half man and half ape, that a traveler to the West had captured and brought back to China.” One day, the ape man escaped. It was known to have attacked people. The ape-man had long orange hair and a beard, and was clothed “in a brown burlap rice sack.” If Brave Orchid’s father had not brought Third Wife, a black woman, back from the West, Brave Orchid may have thought that this ape-man was a Western barbarian. Brave Orchid chased the creature away for trying to scare her. The ape was soon recaptured, lured back to its cage with “cooked pork and wine.” Sometimes, Brave Orchid visited the ape-man at the home of the rich man who had captured him. The creature seemed to recognize her. Brave Orchid thinks that it may not have been an ape-man, but maybe one of the Tigermen, “a savage northern race.”
This passage is representative of Brave Orchid’s conflation of both myth and actual circumstances. It is not clear if the “creature” in her village was an actual “ape man” as she claimed or if it was something else that she misunderstood or something that she fabricated. Perhaps she combined her sightings of Westerners with an orangutan that the rich man brought back from his travels, and used these visions to create the notion of a yeti that haunted her village. In any case, this creature, too, was an object of fear that Brave Orchid successfully defeated, though she befriended this one.
As a midwife, Brave Orchid found ways to fool the ghosts. She would refer to some infants as piglets to fool ghosts who were “on the lookout for a new birth.” She would call beautiful, welcome babies ugly, dirty pigs to fool “the gods jealous of human joy.” One infant had blue eyes, leading its mother to think that a ghost had entered him, but Brave Orchid “said the baby looked pretty.” Other defects were more serious, such as that of an infant born with no anus. Kingston imagined the baby as a child, “grunting and weeping” in its effort to defecate. Because the child had been allowed to live, Kingston assumes that it was a boy.
Though she was a woman of science, Brave Orchid knew how easily newborns slipped away into death and employed superstitious tricks to help avoid that fate. In some cases, children were born with anomalies so severe that death would have been preferable, as in the case of the infant with no anus. Kingston imagines that it was a boy because it was allowed to live, and because people listened to its grunts and sounds of suffering.
During summer afternoons when it was especially hot, Kingston’s parents would tell the children ghost stories “so that [they] could get some good chills up [their] backs.” Brave Orchid told a story of a ghost that tried to knock her off of a swaying walking bridge. She did not encounter the ghost again. Kingston surmises that her mother won in ghost battle due to her ability to eat anything. Kingston compares her to other big eaters in Chinese legendary history. Big eaters always win.
Once again, the ghost that Brave Orchid meets on the swaying bridge is a kind of fear—in this case, a fear of death. She did not encounter the ghost again, probably because she was never again in a similarly life-threatening situation. Kingston thinks that her mother’s ability to consume (eating is a life-affirming practice) also protects her from ghosts.
Kingston’s mother cooked all kinds of things that were not normally eaten in the United States, including raccoons, skunks, snakes, turtles that crawled around on the pantry floor, and catfish that swam in the bathtub. She also boiled the weeds they pulled up in the yard. She kept a big brown hand “stewing in alcohol and herbs” in a glass jar on a shelf and used it to “rub [their] sprains and bruises.” Brave Orchid said it was a bear’s claw. She told Kingston that when Chinese people had the money, they bought monkeys’ brains. She insisted that the children eat all leftovers and told them that if something tasted good, it was bad for them, whereas if it tasted bad, it was good for them.
Kingston relates a childhood of cuisine far removed from what her American peers would have eaten. Brave Orchid was resourceful, but her eating and remedy habits did not fit well into her new home. Worse, she was cheap and forced her children to eat leftover food on their plates that was sometimes nights old. Duty was important in regard to eating as well. Perhaps to trick her children into maintaining healthy diets and discipline, or perhaps to scold them, she told them to avoid foods that brought instant pleasure.
Kingston writes that her mother was content with hairy beasts, both ghosts and those made of flesh, because she could eat them. She also did not eat them on fasting days. Brave Orchid differed from the village crazy lady because she was a capable exorcist. The crazy lady was not, so she was stoned shortly before Brave Orchid left China.
Kingston could “swallow” what made her fearful, thereby eliminating its power. The village crazy lady only knew how to respond to the things that frightened her, as though they were real. This in turn, frightened the villagers, who killed her.
Brave Orchid was living in the mountains with other refugees when Kingston’s father had finally saved enough money to send Brave Orchid travel fare to New York. It was 1939, and “the Japanese had taken much of the land along the Kwoo River.” The Japanese were the only foreigners whom the Chinese did not regard as foreigners. Some believed that they were descended from Chinese explorers sent across the Eastern Ocean to discover a mythical island from which they never returned, out of fear of having their heads sawed off by the emperor for not finding “the herbs of immortality.” Another story said that they were descended from an ape who raped a Chinese princess.
These stories suggest that the Chinese felt a sense of kinship—but an antagonistic one—with the Japanese, which stemmed possibly from myth or from a similar physical appearance or both. The second story about the ancestry of the Japanese suggests an inherent barbarism. The Chinese may have encouraged this version of events to explain some of the Japanese military’s abuses during the war.
When she moved to the United States, Brave Orchid experienced the same war she had left behind in China. She warned the children to watch out for planes that came in threes, because in China, that had been a sign of an air raid. The bombings drove some people mad with fear. During the raids, the village crazy lady put on a headdress with small mirrors. She moved her arms in flailing circles and one villager thought that she was signaling the planes. They began to think that she was a spy for the Japanese, which Brave Orchid refuted, but to no avail. Though Brave Orchid tried to take away the headdress, the woman refused, and the villagers stoned her to death.
Brave Orchid maintains some trauma, it seems, from having witnessed the war and the village crazy lady’s stoning. Ironically, fear drives the villagers as mad as the village crazy lady, if they are not indeed madder, for their fears lead them to kill while her delusions cause harm to no one (unless she does indeed alert the Japanese planes, however unwillingly). In a period of war, when everyone is afraid of harm, the villagers could not tolerate the crazy lady’s aberrations from the norm.
Brave Orchid arrived in New York in January 1940. Kingston was born in the middle of World War II. As a child, she dreamed both about “shrinking babies” and “rows of airplanes” and other aerial vessels flying overhead. Her mother had taught Kingston to see every person and machine in America as a ghost. Newsboy Ghost, with his ability to call people out of their homes with his voice, frightened Kingston the most. Once Garbage Ghost, a man with “yellow and brown hair” who collected the trash, referred to himself as “Garbage Ghost” in Chinese. Brave Orchid warned her children not to speak in front of the White Ghosts again, for they had learned Chinese. She told them that they would go home again to China one day and “buy furniture, real tables and chairs” and that they would “smell flowers for the first time.”
By referring to Americans as “ghosts,” Brave Orchid made them less real, but also placed them within a system she was familiar with, as she had defeated ghosts in the past. One day, she told her children, they would return to China and experience real things—America was the unreal. Its nickname—Gold Mountain—also suggested the fantastical. Thus, all of the people whom they encountered were not real people, but merely apparitions or ideas. Brave Orchid designated the “ghosts” by their race or function, which actually gave them a bit more distinction and humanity.
Kingston’s parents never considered America “home.” She feared that once they were back in China, her parents would sell her, or her father would marry two or three more women who would spatter cooking oil on the children’s toes and blame their crying on naughtiness. Furthermore, Kingston feared the size of the world, and how China was so far away.
Kingston recalls her last visit to her parents. She had trouble falling asleep. Brave Orchid sat, watching over her, wearing “shawls and granny glasses, American fashions.” Brave Orchid told Kingston about how much she worried after her and the other children, particularly because they never told her what they were up to. It had been a year since Kingston’s last visit.
Brave Orchid’s wearing of “shawls and granny glasses” contrasts with her wearing a silk robe and western shoes. She has embraced age and the “American fashion” of showing it, though she could never embrace the fashion of Maoist China.
While they are talking, Brave Orchid notices that she never calls Kingston “Oldest Daughter,” but instead, “Biggest Daughter.” Kingston asks about the two older children who supposedly died in China, but Brave Orchid denies that they ever existed.
In creating a new talk-story for her new life in America, Brave Orchid erases her first two children, just as her husband’s family erased No Name Woman.
Brave Orchid had continued to work, though she was in her seventies. She dyed her hair black to appear younger, then stood in line on Skid Row to get chosen to do farm work. Brave Orchid said that the Urban Renewal Ghosts had given them money for tearing down the laundry, but they could not start over. Neither wanted to stop working, though Kingston’s father is now retired. Brave Orchid calls the United States “a terrible ghost country” where one can never stop working. She did not want to leave China, where she had more leisure time and was treated with more respect, but she insists that Kingston’s father would not have survived without her, for she was “the one with the big muscles.”
Brave Orchid’s notion of femininity is similar to her daughter’s for being unconventional. What is ironic is that neither realizes that they have this in common with each other. By describing herself as “the one with big muscles,” Brave Orchid means she has the ability to endure the constant work in this new country, and has the energy to continue to work and send money to the relatives, though her husband no longer does.
Brave Orchid tells Kingston that the family can never return to China—a dream Kingston’s parents had been holding onto for forty years. The last of Kingston’s uncles was killed. The villagers wrote to ask Kingston’s father if they could take over the family’s land, and he agreed. Brave Orchid insists that she does not want to go back to China anyway, because the Communists “are much too mischievous.” She suspects the Chinese immigrants who work in the fields of being Communists too, though Kingston insists that they came to America to escape Communism.
Brave Orchid resents the Communists for taking away her dream of returning home, for seizing her husband’s land, and for making their country uninhabitable. Furthermore, she has never been able to distinguish the Chinese she meets in the United States from those who live in China. To Brave Orchid, they can never be American, but merely “overseas Chinese,” which would make them Communists.
Brave Orchid wants Kingston around more often, saying that she wants to live in a house where she “can’t turn around without touching somebody.” Kingston insists that she moved away because she feels better away from home. She does not get sick as often, and does not worry about ghost sounds. Her mother concludes that the weather in California must not be good for her, and accepts that Kingston should, therefore, live away. Brave Orchid calls her daughter “Little Dog,” a term of endearment she has not used in years. Kingston suddenly feels much lighter, but still has the same dreams about “shrinking babies and the sky covered with airplanes and a Chinatown bigger than the ones here.”
Kingston cannot live at home for two reasons: firstly, Americans do not typically live at home with their parents when they are middle-aged; secondly, her mother puts pressures on her that make her ill—but Kingston doesn’t tell Brave Orchid this. By revisiting her trauma on to her daughter, Brave Orchid causes Kingston, too, to worry about air raids and babies with painful birth defects. She worries less about “ghosts,” or fears, when she is away, though.