When she was around sixty-eight years old, Brave Orchid took a day off to pick up her younger sister, Moon Orchid, from the airport. Moon Orchid’s daughter accompanied her and sat with her in the airport. Brave Orchid’s American children, whom she had made come because they could drive, could not sit for very long.
Kingston contrasts her mother’s concentrated discipline to sit and be patient with the restless impatience of her children. It is yet another of the cultural and generational differences between them.
Brave Orchid looked at the people around the airport. Some were soldiers and sailors. She wondered about her son in Vietnam, then asked Moon Orchid’s daughter if he was there. The daughter replied that Brave Orchid’s children had said that he was in the Philippines. She was not sure if this was true—her children may have been playing a trick on her with the cooperation of a Filipino whom they knew. When Moon Orchid’s daughter assured Brave Orchid that her son could take care of himself, Brave Orchid was doubtful, due to his old habit of sticking pencils in his ears.
Brave Orchid doesn’t trust her own children not to mislead her, given how deeply ingrained she thinks this tendency is in Chinese culture. It is hard for her to think that her son, a young man whom she had to scold to keep pencils out of his ears, could be fighting in Vietnam. It is also possible that she maintains the silly image to hold onto the idea of him as a boy, instead of a soldier in constant danger.
Brave Orchid’s children ran to tell her that the plane had arrived. Brave Orchid pushed to the front of the waiting crowd. Brave Orchid searched for her sister and suddenly pointed out a younger woman, younger even than Moon Orchid’s daughter. She mistook this woman for her sister, due to the woman’s western clothes—she knew that Moon Orchid would wear western clothes now. When Moon Orchid’s daughter saw her mother, she called out “Mama!” Brave Orchid then saw a very tiny, very thin, nervous woman appear. Moon Orchid’s hair was in a gray knot and she wore a gray wool suit with pearls. Brave Orchid was surprised to see how old she was. The two women touched each other’s faces and looked at how much they had both changed.
Brave Orchid’s error regarding her sister Moon Orchid’s identity is an indication that Brave Orchid is not quite aware of how old she has gotten and of how much time has passed between them. Indeed, Moon Orchid does wear “western” clothes and jewels, reflecting a taste for finery that Brave Orchid rejected in favor of practicality and resourcefulness. It’s immediately clear that the two sisters are very different.
Back at Brave Orchid’s home, Moon Orchid greeted Kingston’s father, the scholar whom she had once regarded as an “ideal in masculine beauty.” Moon Orchid then presented gifts to everyone. One of the gifts was a paper cutout of Fa Mu Lan that was green and beautiful.
Moon Orchid’s remembrance of Brave Orchid’s husband and her presentation of gifts reveals a sensitive woman with an appreciation for beauty and fine things.
Brave Orchid disliked that her children played with presents in front of the giver, and was further annoyed when they acted as though they did not want to eat the rock candy that she had chopped up. Moon Orchid presented her sister with “a pale green silk dress lined in wool,” which Brave Orchid regarded as useless because it was “fancy.” Moon Orchid also brought jade bracelets for the girls, which Brave Orchid insisted they not have because they were too young and would break them while playing baseball. Brave Orchid took the “useful” things that her sister had brought “into the back bedroom, where Moon Orchid would stay until they decided what she would do permanently.”
Brave Orchid is not concerned with Moon Orchid’s gifts, for which Brave Orchid has no apparent use, but instead wants to ensure that her children mind their Chinese manners. In this way, Brave Orchid fulfills the expectation of women from her village—she maintains the past against the flood of time and cultural changes, insisting that her children follow social protocol that feels outdated and foreign to them.
Moon Orchid walked around the house. She noticed that their grandparents’ pictures were up. Brave Orchid told her that, in America, you could have pictures of anyone you wanted on the wall. Afterward, they had dinner. Brave Orchid refused to let anyone talk during dinner, but once everyone was finished, she insisted on getting down to the “business” of reuniting Moon Orchid with Moon Orchid’s husband.
Moon Orchid comments on how Brave Orchid honors their ancestors by having their grandparents’ pictures up, which would have been unusual back home, it’s suggested. Brave Orchid seeks to maintain family bonds, which is part of why she wishes to reunite Moon Orchid with her husband.
For thirty years, Moon Orchid had received money from her husband. She never told him that she wanted to move to the United States. She waited for him to suggest it, but Moon Orchid’s husband never did. So, Brave Orchid found a Chinese-American husband for Moon Orchid’s daughter who was then able to do the paperwork to bring her mother over.
Moon Orchid was cared for financially by her estranged husband, but she was never included in his new life in his new country. Brave Orchid arranged a marriage for Moon Orchid’s daughter to help her mother gain entry—taking action on behalf of her sister, whether Moon Orchid wanted it or not.
Brave Orchid instructed her sister on what to do when she confronted her husband. Moon Orchid was reluctant to “bother him,” given how well-supported she had been for so many years and because he had sent their daughter to college. Brave Orchid insisted that she make Moon Orchid’s husband feel bad for marrying someone else and for leaving his parents behind in China. She insisted that Moon Orchid go to her husband’s home and install herself as First Wife.
Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid’s respective uses of language around Moon Orchid’s husband reveal the pair’s personality differences: Brave Orchid is forceful, while Moon Orchid is passive; Brave Orchid insists on what she wants, while Moon Orchid tolerates what is given to her.
Brave Orchid told Moon Orchid that, when she arrived at the house, she should throw out the new wife’s things and declare their sons her own. Brave Orchid also suggested that Moon Orchid get a job to show how helpful she could be, such as being a maid at a hotel. However, Brave Orchid regarded her “delicate sister” and decided that she would need “to toughen up” to find work. If Brave Orchid were in her position, she thought, she would be on the phone demanding a job in Chinatown.
With her characteristic resourcefulness, Brave Orchid suggests that her sister could take any job to prove herself useful to her husband, without accounting for the fact that Moon Orchid has never worked and does not know how to look for work in the United States. She imposes her own ideas of what ought to be done on a sister who cannot function as she does.
Moon Orchid wondered what to do if her husband did not remember her. Brave Orchid instructed her to give details of their life together. She also told Moon Orchid to dye her hair black so as not to look so old. Moon Orchid’s daughter held her mother’s hand throughout this lecture. She, too, was unhappy after marrying a rich, tyrannical man whom her aunt had arranged for her. Brave Orchid thought her niece was like her mother, “the lovely, useless type.”
To Brave Orchid, these women were incapable of work, so at the very least, they could use their beauty and other charms to secure husbands who would care for them. Brave Orchid does not think it matters if the husband is cruel or distant; the tradition of marriage must hold.
The next day, right after breakfast, Brave Orchid talked about taking the direct route into Los Angeles. She insisted that Moon Orchid make life unbearable for the second wife, if necessary. Moon Orchid countered that she would not mind if the woman stayed, for she could comb Moon Orchid’s hair, take care of the boys, and do most of the chores. This response made Brave Orchid think that her sister was not very bright. She insisted that Moon Orchid’s job as a wife was to make her expectations clear and to scold her husband into becoming a better man.
Moon Orchid takes an unconventional view in thinking that she and the second wife could live together, with Moon Orchid as a grandmotherly type for whom the second wife would care. Again, Brave Orchid insists that Moon Orchid assert a forcefulness that she does not have in her instruction to dominate her husband, despite not seeing the man for decades (and his clear resistance to seeing Moon Orchid again).
Moon Orchid hoped that “the summer would wear away while her sister talked” and that Brave Orchid would find the sudden autumn too cold for travel. In the meantime, she studied Brave Orchid’s children, recalling all of their idiosyncrasies based on what Brave Orchid had detailed about them in her letters. She followed them around, watching them while they were studying or cooking with appliances. Moon Orchid noticed that they were not happy “like the two real Chinese babies” who died. When Brave Orchid scolded them about their manners or told them to dress better, Moon Orchid defended them, thinking that they enjoyed “looking like wild animals.”
Moon Orchid is fascinated by the manners and habits of her nieces and nephews who have had access to the conveniences of life that did not exist in the part of China where Moon Orchid lived. To her, the children seem sullen, not as happy as Brave Orchid’s first two children, despite the fact that those were two babies and not typically moping teenagers.
Brave Orchid and her husband woke at 6:00 AM and prepared for a day’s work at the family laundry. Brave Orchid walked Moon Orchid and her niece to the laundry via Chinatown, pointing out things along the way. Moon Orchid called the Chinese that she saw “Americans,” which Brave Orchid found stupid—they were “overseas Chinese.”
Though Moon Orchid is visiting the United States for the first time, she is more open-minded than Brave Orchid about notions of who can be American. She sees the Chinese in Chinatown as other Americans, whereas for her sister, they can only be Chinese.
When they got to the laundry, Brave Orchid assigned Moon Orchid a task to perform, though all of the jobs seemed too difficult and Brave Orchid worried that her sister might burn herself. Moon Orchid tried ironing but burned a shirt, causing her sister to send her out for a walk because she complained of it being too hot to breathe. Moon Orchid asked her sister to accompany her back to Chinatown, but Brave Orchid insisted on working. To appease Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid set a crate out front for her sister to sit.
Moon Orchid is not capable of working in the laundry or of spending any time on her own, even among people who look like her and speak her language. This co-dependency suggests not only that Moon Orchid has never worked, but she has never experienced any real independence.
After lunch, Brave Orchid and her sister walked back to Chinatown for some fun. She introduced Moon Orchid to her friends and told them that her sister had come back to reclaim her husband. The women had a wide range of advice to give, including blackmailing and beating him. Moon Orchid took all of this for a joke. They then played a game of Mahjong.
Moon Orchid takes the women’s words as a joke due to the seriousness of what they are saying, and because of her inability to cause harm to the man she married—however neglectful he has been of her.
Moon Orchid later started visiting the laundry late in the afternoons when the towels were dry, and she could fold them. She spent most of the summer evenings continuing to observe Brave Orchid’s children. Each day, Brave Orchid asked Moon Orchid if she was ready to go reclaim her husband. Moon Orchid said that she was not. When Moon Orchid’s daughter announced that she had to return to her family in Los Angeles, Brave Orchid saw this as an opportunity to go.
Brave Orchid ignores her sister’s wishes not to go back to her husband. Though she has finally found a task for Moon Orchid to perform, and despite Moon Orchid taking great interest in her nieces and nephews, Brave Orchid does not see the benefit of her sister remaining close, but chooses instead to place her with her husband.
Brave Orchid assigned the task of driving to her eldest son. The two old ladies and Moon Orchid’s daughter sat in the backseat. During the drive, Brave Orchid began to tell the story of the emperor’s four wives. She told Moon Orchid that she was the good Empress of the East who would free the Earth’s Emperor from the Western Palace. The second wife, like the Western Empress, had connived to win Moon Orchid’s husband; Moon Orchid had to win him back.
Moon Orchid was the true wife, according to Brave Orchid, because Moon Orchid and her husband had married in China where everything was more “real” to Brave Orchid. Again, Brave Orchid sees the West as false but alluring. Moon Orchid, like the Empress of the East, has to win her husband by reminding him of his roots.
Moon Orchid worried over what would happen if she showed up to her husband’s house. Perhaps he would throw her out. Brave Orchid insisted that they be “routine,” though they might have to climb through the window to get into the house. Moon Orchid should behave, her sister encouraged, as though she belonged in his home and had never really left. Moon Orchid sometimes played along, saying that maybe she could be folding towels when he arrived. Then, she thought better of it and said that she could not go through with the confrontation. She tapped her nephew on the shoulder and asked him to turn back.
Brave Orchid encourages her sister to break into the house and behave as though she belongs there—a strange action that surely would not have been met with a positive response. Brave Orchid is so fixated on getting Moon Orchid reunited with her husband that she ignores not only her sister’s feelings but also the feasibility and legality of her suggestions.
Moon Orchid’s daughter insisted on being dropped off at home first. Brave Orchid had tried to get her to confront her father five years earlier, but all she had done was write him a letter. He could visit her, or she could visit him, but he had not wanted to see her. When they arrived at Moon Orchid’s daughter’s home, Moon Orchid asked to see her grandchildren, but Brave Orchid insisted that they go see to Moon Orchid’s husband first. Brave Orchid’s son drove to a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles.
Brave Orchid learned nothing from Moon Orchid’s daughter’s failed attempt to connect with her father. Unlike Kingston, who would see the value in seeking acknowledgement through a letter, Brave Orchid is a talker who thrives on confrontation and has little patience with those who do not share her boldness.
Moon Orchid was too nervous to go in. Brave Orchid decided to scout the building and come back out when she had a plan. She entered a doctor’s office. A woman in a pink and white uniform emerged when Brave Orchid proved unable to speak to the receptionist. She told Brave Orchid that her husband was a brain surgeon and did not take drop-in patients. It occurred to Brave Orchid that Moon Orchid’s husband had simply left her for a younger woman.
It becomes evident to Brave Orchid that Moon Orchid’s husband did what many men do when they become as rich and successful as he—they seek younger wives as status symbols. Moon Orchid’s husband chose a younger, Western wife to show how far he has come from his village.
When Moon Orchid claimed to be too scared to go into his office and announce herself, Brave Orchid instructed her son to go up and claim that his “uncle” was in an accident on the street. Brave Orchid’s son found the plan ridiculous, but obeyed. Moon Orchid burst into tears at the prospect of seeing her husband. Brave Orchid insisted that she was just tired, and began to slap and pinch her sister to get blood back into her cheeks.
What Brave Orchid insists on seeing as tiredness is the fear and pain of seeing the man who abandoned Moon Orchid years ago. Worse, Brave Orchid’s insensitivity is made worse when she tries to make Moon Orchid look younger and rosier by slapping her cheeks, physically abusing her sister at the very height of her emotional crisis.
Brave Orchid’s son returned, accompanied by a man in a dark western suit. He saw no accident, but looked the old women’s “awful faces” and asked the “grandmothers” what was wrong. Brave Orchid was outraged that he did not recognize his wife. Moon Orchid’s husband then asked Moon Orchid what she was doing there. Brave Orchid made up a story about getting her on a Red Cross list to have her sent to California.
Brave Orchid’s lie is an attempt to make Moon Orchid look too pitiful to turn away, especially after it becomes obvious that Moon Orchid has aged more than her husband and that he is angry to see her. The narrative describes him through Brave Orchid’s eyes as a man “in a dark western suit,” symbolic of his transgression.
Moon Orchid’s husband insisted that she did not belong because she did not “have the hardness” for America. He did not wish for Moon Orchid to return to China, but he said that she could not live in his house, for he was living like an American and could get arrested if anyone knew he had another wife. He told Brave Orchid that he did not write because he had become a different person, and his family in China were like people he had read about in a book long ago. He bought them lunch, and then Brave Orchid’s son drove his aunt back to her daughter’s house, where she wanted to live. Moon Orchid never saw her husband again.
Her silence in the car parallels her husband’s silence during all of Moon Orchid’s years in Hong Kong. That silence, however, was a welcome one, accompanied by blissful ignorance. That silence was then broken by Brave Orchid’s interference, which forced her sister to acknowledge the truth of having been abandoned and rejected. Even now, though, Brave Orchid doesn’t sympathize with her sister in her time of pain.
Several months went by with no letters from Moon Orchid. When she lived in Hong Kong and China, she had written “every other week.” One day Brave Orchid called, and her sister answered the phone, but she whispered about people listening to her phone calls and hung up. Moon Orchid’s daughter said that her mother had talked about Mexican ghosts plotting on her life.
The loss of her illusion about her marriage causes a paranoid break in Moon Orchid. The difference in her behavior is indicated by her lack of writing, which had previously been her preferred mode of communication. Silence is again a marker of losing one’s sanity.
Brave Orchid decided that her sister should return north to live with her. When she arrived, Moon Orchid talked about being “in disguise.” Brave Orchid tried chanting Moon Orchid’s name, her new address, and all of the names of her family members to call her spirit back. Brave Orchid concluded that her sister had “misplaced herself” and “her spirit [was] scattered all over the world.”
Brave Orchid (somewhat rightly) blames herself for bringing her sister across the Pacific, then sending her up and down the coast to retrieve her husband without knowing or asking what Moon Orchid wanted. By the time Brave Orchid acknowledges her sister’s place with the family, it is too late.
Despite Brave Orchid’s efforts, her sister slipped further into insanity. She said that the Mexicans had followed her to Brave Orchid’s house. She went around the house turning out the lights, as though there had been an air raid. She also became afraid for the children. To appease her sister, Brave Orchid told the children to come home straight away so as not to legitimize Moon Orchid’s worry that they would be taken away. Finally, Brave Orchid realized that the situation was hopeless, for Moon Orchid had lost all “variety” and only had one talk-story. Sane people, she told her children, had variety when they did talk-story, whereas insane people only had one story that they told over and over again.
Moon Orchid’s paranoia traps her both in the past, with her memories of air raids, and in a present that she does not understand or recognize, which explains her paranoia about Mexican ghosts. Moon Orchid’s absence of a new “talk-story”—an experience that was not rooted in fear—means that she has gone completely mad. Brave Orchid could control her ghosts by refusing to give them power, but like the village crazy lady, Moon Orchid did not know how to exorcise her fears.
Brave Orchid gave up when Moon Orchid started badmouthing her children. She wondered if Moon Orchid had already left her body and a mean-spirited ghost now inhabited the shell of the woman who cursed Brave Orchid’s children. Nevertheless, Moon Orchid’s daughter had her mother committed to a state asylum. Moon Orchid was happy there, because no one ever left, and they spoke “the same language.” Alas, Moon Orchid “had a new story,” but died soon thereafter.
Moon Orchid finds comfort in the asylum, for she no longer worries about people she loved abandoning her or leaving her alone for too long. Moreover, they all speak the language of madness, which makes them a kind of family. Thus, Moon Orchid finds a new village in the asylum. She experiences a second “homecoming” of sorts before her death.
Brave Orchid told her children that they must never allow their father to marry another woman. She did not believe that she could handle it any better than Moon Orchid did. Brave Orchid’s husband insisted that he was too old for a second wife, and Brave Orchid’s daughters decided that they would never tolerate unfaithful men—they and the rest of her children would major in science or mathematics.
Moon Orchid’s experience is a tale, based on real events, that Brave Orchid uses to caution herself and her children against the disrespect of infidelity. To protect themselves against the chaos it could wreak, the girls take refuge in the rationalism of math and science.