Kingston’s brother reported to one of his sisters what had happened in Los Angeles when Moon Orchid saw her husband, and that sister reported it to Kingston. Kingston thinks that his story may have been better than hers, for it would not have been “twisted into designs.” Kingston thinks that this may have been why Brave Orchid cut the frenulum under Kingston’s tongue, though there was no obvious evidence of this. Brave Orchid insists that she cut the tongue so that Kingston would never be “tongue-tied” and so that she would be able to speak any language.
It is unclear if (and probably unlikely that) Brave Orchid actually cut Kingston’s tongue. Whether she did or not, telling her this story is an effort to avoid her daughter experiencing Moon Orchid’s fate—being abandoned by her husband due to a lack of language—and her mother’s fate, which was losing her career due to an inability to speak a new language.
In kindergarten, when she had to speak for the first time, Kingston was silent. As an adult, she still has difficulty finding her voice, even to say “hello” casually. She flunked kindergarten for not speaking to anyone, not even asking to use the restroom. Her sister also said nothing for three years. Kingston hated having to talk, but she also hated being silent. Reading aloud was easier because she did not have to make up the words. When her second-grade class put on a play, the Chinese girls were not included because their voices were too soft, and their parents did not sign the permission slips anyway. One Chinese girl, however, did win a spelling bee.
The silence Kingston expresses in English is out of fear of hearing her voice in a language that she has not yet claimed completely as her own. She and other Chinese girls feel ill at ease in English due to not hearing it at home, and have difficulty finding their voices and speaking English without fear or embarrassment. In the book, this is only a problem among the girls, who seem to struggle with pressures to be polite but also not wanting to sound foolish.
After American school, Kingston and her siblings went to Chinese school from 5:00 to 7:30 PM. There they used their voices. Boys who were very well-behaved in American school talked back, and the girls screamed during recess and sometimes had fist-fights. There was no play supervision.
When they were in Chinese school, the children could be themselves, and even gave themselves license to break rules and be ornery. Kingston here associates speech with Chinese culture, and silence with American culture.
Kingston notes that not all of the students who were silent at American school “found voice at Chinese school.” Both Kingston and her sister struggled during recitation exercises. Their voices sounded like that of “a crippled animal.” Another girl whispered.
Kingston and her sister do not feel entirely at ease in Chinese either, which does not conform to how they see their American selves. They are stuck somewhere in between.
When a delivery boy accidentally brought Crazy Mary’s pills to the laundry, Brave Orchid sent Kingston to go to the drugstore to “stop the curse” that the boy had brought. Kingston was to ask for “reparation candy,” sweetness in exchange for the threat of illness that he had brought. She still struggled to speak to the druggist in an audible voice.
Kingston is embarrassed to ask for candy based on her mother’s silly superstition; an incorrect delivery would not bring insanity into the house. However, Brave Orchid had a fear of madness due to her experiences in China and with Moon Orchid.
On the other hand, Kingston contemplates the loudness of the Chinese. Her father once wondered if he could hear Chinese people talking “from blocks away” because he understood the language or because he was so loud. To Kingston, it is not just that the language was loud; it was also ugly. Normal Chinese women’s voices were “strong and bossy.” To sound more “American-feminine,” girls had to whisper. Most of them eventually found some kind of voice, “however faltering,” except for one girl.
The typical Chinese woman’s voice was incompatible with the standard of Western feminine voices when Kingston was growing up. “Feminine” women at that time and place barely spoke audibly, fulfilling the desire for women to be seen but not heard. This voice did not suit Kingston, but neither did the strident Chinese one that her mother used.
The quiet girl was a year older than Kingston and in her class for twelve years. Her older sister was usually with her. Kingston’s younger sister was in the class below her. They were very much like the quiet girl and her sister, but their parents kept them home from school when it “sprinkled” and they did not work for a living, but they were similar in other ways, such as sports.
The quiet girl and her sister are treated extremely delicately compared to Kingston and her younger sister, reminding readers that there were very different ways to raise daughters in Chinese families—Brave Orchid was not the standard Chinese mother. Kingston’s parents taught her and her sister to work, while that was not expected of these other girls.
Kingston hated the quiet girl. Kingston hated that she was the last chosen for her team and that Kingston was also the last chosen for her team. One afternoon in the sixth grade, Kingston, her younger sister, the quiet girl, and the quiet girl’s older sister stayed late at school for some reason. Kingston ran back into the girls’ yard and past the quiet girl into the lavatory. The girl followed her there. Once there, Kingston demanded that the girl talk, and called her a “sissy-girl” for her refusal to speak.
Kingston picks on the girl largely because she is the embodiment of Kingston’s own fears about silence and passivity. With her delicate hands and sensitivity, the girl could be a miniature version of Kingston’s aunt, Moon Orchid, who had been driven into madness by silence, as far as anyone could tell. Kingston also finds herself in a rare position of power in her relationship with the girl, and takes pleasure in there being someone else “below” her.
Kingston examined the quiet girl’s face. She had “baby soft” skin with “pink and white cheeks.” She seemed fragile, and Kingston hated “fragility.” Kingston pinched the girl’s cheek to coax her into talking. When that didn’t work, she pulled the girl’s hair and made a honking noise. She even tried to get the girl to say, “Ow!” to indicate that she was hurt. When the girl began to cry, Kingston did not stop tormenting her, but told the girl how much she did not like her for what Kingston perceived as weakness. She was bigger even, and refused to defend herself.
Kingston’s abuse of the girl for her weakness is a form of mockery similar to Brave Orchid’s mockery of Sitting Ghost. Kingston pinches and pulls at the girl as though she is not real, for in this way, Kingston can convince herself that her fears, which the girl embodies, are also not real, or can simply be slapped around and defeated.
Kingston became so frustrated with the quiet girl’s refusal to speak that she began to cry and plead with her to speak. She told the girl that no one would ever marry her if she didn’t speak, and that no one would ever notice her or employ her. Suddenly, the quiet girl’s sister appeared, and they found Kingston’s sister and all walked home together. On the way, Kingston advised the quiet girl’s older sister not to “pamper” the girl, but to make her speak.
Kingston mimics her mother’s bossiness by dictating how the quiet girl ought to be treated by her relatives. Like her mother, she has no patience for the “delicate, useless” type who tends to be pampered. The word “pamper” recalls Kingston’s sense of the girl as “baby soft” and the inability of babies to speak.
Kingston fell ill for eighteen months and could not go to school. When she did return, she saw the quiet girl again; she had not changed. She wore the same clothes and had the same haircut. During a time when other Asian girls were starting to tape their eyelids, she wore no makeup. She continued to read aloud in class, but there was less of that when they got older. Kingston was wrong about the girl not having anyone to take care of her. Her older sister became a typist and did not marry, but lived with their parents. The quiet girl did not go out, except to the movies.
Unlike Kingston’s family, which scattered apart despite Brave Orchid’s wish for them all to remain close, the quiet girl and her family remain close-knit in a more traditionally Chinese way, and all live together. The quiet girl could remain silent and, like Kingston, take refuge in movies.
Kingston began to hate the secrecy of the Chinese. In her culture, she surmised, even the good things became unspeakable. Talking and not talking, Kingston thought, “made the difference between sanity and insanity.” She thought about the insane women she knew, such as the woman next door who “was chatty one moment […] and shut up the next.” There was also Crazy Mary, who “wore pajamas” and “[lurched] out of dark corners.” She was eventually “locked up in the crazyhouse” and never released. Finally, there was the woman Kingston’s brother had named Pee-Ah-Nah, who picked for orange berries in the “slough” (swamp) along with Kingston, her mother, and her siblings. Pee-Ah-Nah chased the children around and rode with a broom between her legs, leading them to refer to her as a “witchwoman.”
Kingston believes that not speaking could lead to madness. Though she mentions madwomen in her neighborhood, the relationship between madness and silence is most palpably expressed through the example of Moon Orchid. Silence, Kingston surmises, is a form of repression. She simplifies the madness of each woman, thinking that the cure to lunacy is to talk, especially when what one wants to say is a source of shame or fear.
Kingston thought that every neighborhood or house had “its crazy woman or crazy girl,” or its “village idiot.” Kingston wondered if she would fill that role at her house. She continued to think about how girls were referred to as maggots, and her mother’s reasons for cutting her tongue. One day, a woman who was “the giver of American names” walked into the laundry and said that Kingston had “a pressed-duck voice” and that her mother ought to do something about it or they would not be able to marry her off. Kingston refuted the woman’s claim, and Brave Orchid admonished her for talking back.
Kingston’s wish to speak is not diverted by the “namer,” who insists that Kingston’s voice is not attractive enough to be heard. Just as she had bickered with her mother about not being a “bad girl,” Kingston bickers with the woman about the sound of her voice. The woman’s criticism reinforces the message that girls were unwanted, like “maggots.”
Kingston learned that young men—FOBS, or Fresh-off-the-Boat’s—were placing ads in the Gold Mountain News for wives, and Kingston’s parents started answering them. Brave Orchid took one home from the laundry and showed him her daughters’ pictures, focusing on Kingston, the eldest. Kingston intentionally made herself seem incapable domestically so that the young men would lose interest. She dropped dishes and spilled soup on them.
Kingston’s suspects that her parents are trying to marry off her and her sisters. To make herself appear unsuitable for marriage, she reverts to her former habit of breaking dishes and performing other acts that make her seem domestically-handicapped—assuming that young men only want a wife to do chores for them.
At Chinese school, a “mentally retarded boy” who liked to hand out toys, supposedly from his parents’ stores, began to follow Kingston around school. He was large and had a tendency to bark. When “the hulk,” as Kingston sometimes called him, found out where Kingston worked, he began to sit at the laundry. His parents allowed him to sit on the cartons he set up for himself. Kingston was outraged that, despite her straight-A’s, no one could see that she had nothing in common with “this monster, this birth defect.” One day, he left his boxes for a long time and Brave Orchid opened up the boxes. They were stuffed with pornography. Brave Orchid concluded that he was not too stupid to want to know about women. The old women talked about him being stupid “but very rich.”
Kingston’s shunning of the boy is rather cruel, and her suspicion that her parents seek to marry her to him is likely a projection of her own feelings of inadequacy and mistrust toward her parents. Kingston uses her scholastic achievement to position herself as superior to the boy, whom she refers to as a “monster” for his awkwardness and a “birth defect” for his disabilities. As with the quiet girl she abused, Kingston’s own experience with disability in regard to speech does not make her more sensitive to those worse off than herself.
Kingston decided to mimic the habit of confession that she had learned from her Mexican and Filipino Catholic friends, and tell her mother all the true things she had ever done or thought. Kingston picked a time of day when Brave Orchid was alone, and decided to tell her one thing per day. One day, her mother asked her to stop all of her “whispering” and “senseless gabbings every night.” Kingston thought that maybe her mother asked her to leave her alone during her quiet time when there were few customers.
The hulk returned with another crate. This time, Kingston looked at her mother and screamed for them to send the boy away. She then went on a tirade, in which she told her mother that she could take care of herself and that she would not allow her to turn her into “a slave or a wife.” Finally, she accused Brave Orchid of trying to cut out her tongue so that she would not talk. Brave Orchid, “a champion talker,” was shouting, too, saying that she cut her daughter’s tongue to make her “say charming things,” but Kingston did not even say “hello.” Kingston demanded to know why her mother called her ugly. Her mother insisted that it was merely Chinese habit to say the opposite of the truth.
When confession does not work, Kingston confronts her parents with anger, figuring that they will understand her this way. The confrontation only results in more misunderstanding about the difference between Kingston’s American upbringing and the standards of Chinese culture. Brave Orchid’s story of cutting her daughter’s tongue was supposedly not committed to make her talk freely, but to encourage her to say things that would please others, thus reinforcing the repression of Kingston’s true self.
To learn who she really was and what she liked, Kingston says, she had to leave home. It turned out that she preferred conventional aspects of American life: plastics, periodic tables, and TV dinners with peas and carrots. She looked up “Ho Chi Kuei,” which is what Brave Orchid called her at dinner. “Kuei” meant “ghost.” When directed at boys, it could mean “dog ghost,” which was almost affectionate. When directed at girls, it was more akin to “stink pig ghost.”
Ironically, being referred to as a “ghost” gives Kingston freedom. She is banished from her household in a way that is similar to how No Name Woman was banished from her grandparents’ home. The reference to “stink pig ghost” also recalls the “pigsty” in which Kingston’s aunt gave birth.
Kingston remembered that the day after she “talked out the retarded man, the huncher,” she never saw him again. She wondered if she made him up. One day, she says, she wants to go to China and find out who is lying—the Communists who claim to have jobs for everyone or the relatives who cannot buy salt. Brave Orchid sends the money she earns from working in the fields to Hong Kong, and the relatives there send it on to the remaining aunts and to the children and grandchildren of Kingston’s grandfather’s “two minor wives.” Kingston wonders if her grandmother really lived to be ninety-nine, and if all the babies really wore a Mao button “like a drop of blood on their jumpsuits.” She thought that it would be good if the Communists took better care of themselves so that she would not have to send them money and could buy a “color t.v.” instead.
Kingston wants to visit and learn about the country she has only heard about in stories. She questions what she has heard, even the stories about her own family, wondering what was invented to mislead her. She is skeptical, based on the tone of this passage, that life in China is as dire as they describe. However, her mother believes the stories, continuing to send money home, perhaps out of guilt for leaving the others behind to suffer under Mao. For Kingston, the experience of Communism is unknown, merely stories she sees on the TV that she hopes to buy with the money her relatives demand.
Kingston recalls a talk-story that her mother told her recently. Her grandmother loved the theater. One evening, a bandit raided the theater and nearly kidnapped Kingston’s youngest aunt, Lovely Orchid, but they let her go for a prettier girl. Kingston’s grandmother and Brave Orchid got home safely, proving to Kingston’s grandmother that the family would be “immune to harm as long as they went to plays.”
Kingston’s grandmother established the family’s tradition of seeking refuge through stories, believing that fiction could secure them from the harsh realities of the real world. It is a superstition, but no less of a superstition than Kingston’s belief that No Name Woman disapproves of her niece “telling on her.”
Kingston likes to think that her grandmother and aunts heard the songs of the poetess Ts’ai Yen at some of these plays. Ts’ai Yen, the daughter of a scholar, was kidnapped by a southern barbarian. During her twelve years with the barbarians, she had two children who did not speak Chinese. She tried to speak to them in Chinese, but they mocked her “sing-song” voice. The barbarians liked to sit on the sand and play flutes. When they reached a high pitch, the music disturbed Ts’ai Yen, and she returned to her tent and began to sing. The barbarians heard a sound that matched the flutes in pitch. Ts’ai Yen sang about China and her family there. Her words were in Chinese, but the barbarians understood her “sadness and anger.” Later, her children began to sing the songs with her when she sat “by the winter campfires.” After twelve years, she “was ransomed and married to Tung Ssu so that her father could have Han descendants.” She brought her songs back from the savage lands, including “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” which translates well.
Kingston identifies with the wish of Ts’ai Yen to find her voice among the barbarian tribe, who mock her manner of speech in a language that they do not understand. The communion between the poetess and the barbarians, different not only in language but also in background, occurs when they share music. Ts’ai Yen singing about her longing for China attracted their attention because her voice matched the high pitch of their flutes. Suddenly, her “sing-song” voice mattered less than the emotion she conveyed through song. Kingston suggests that voices, when listening to with feeling and not fear of difference, can convey a human experience that is relatable and timeless.