Kingston maintains a connection to “the old world” (China) primarily through her mother, Brave Orchid. Thus, Kingston develops a sense of China as both a real place and a mythical land. This tension is further highlighted by the fact that her family continue to obey the traditions and customs of the old world after immigrating to the United States, despite their lack of relevance in 1950s America. Her mother’s insistence that China is “home” persists until the last of their family’s land in China is taken over by the villagers. For Kingston, who has no personal connection to this land about which her mother speaks, the anecdote is merely another story, whereas Kingston’s mother never planned to make a permanent home in America. The mother and daughter’s differing perceptions of home reveal that the line that separates “the native” from “the foreigner” is generational and, often, merely a matter of conditioning.
Brave Orchid’s lack of understanding about her children’s behavior is one indication of her distance from her adopted country. What baffles her most is their constant movement—an effect of living in a country in which people could never stop working. The effect of this busy lifestyle produces, in Brave Orchid and Kingston, different perceptions of time as well as different values.
Brave Orchid’s perception of America is that of a place where she was too busy working to earn a living and maintain a household to remember the pleasures she had once enjoyed in China. Brave Orchid recalls moments when she could enjoy boredom, with “nothing to do but fan ourselves.” In contrast, in America, she cannot stop working and claims to “hurt” or “get dizzy” when she stops. This contrast highlights the demanding natures of life as an immigrant and the work that it takes to establish one’s place in a new country. Brave Orchid’s new life, marked by mobility, forced upon her the new habit of incessant movement to perform tasks—a habit so ingrained that, when she diverts from it, she believes that her body responds negatively to the change.
Brave Orchid passes this penchant for constant work on to her daughter, who insists that she knows how to work, works all the time, knows “how to kill food, how to skin and pluck it…how to keep warm by sweeping and mopping…how to work when things get bad.” In this regard, Kingston mirrors her mother’s resourcefulness and toughness. Despite her desire to distance herself from her mother’s expectations and “old world” tendencies, she admits that it is those tendencies which have helped her to become an independent woman.
On the other hand, Brave Orchid’s constant movement is not the result of restlessness, as she believes it is with her children, but concentration and discipline. While waiting for Moon Orchid at the airport, her own children do not sit with her for the nine hours in which she waits. They are instead “lured away by the magazine racks and the gift shops and the coffee shops” due to their “wandering feet.” She quietly “hoped they would get back from the pay t.v.’s or the pay toilets or wherever they were spending their money before the plane arrived.” The children’s “wandering feet” and attraction to things they do not need support their mother’s belief that they tend to be wasteful.
Brave Orchid’s perception of Americans parallels Kingston’s limited understanding of the Chinese, but it differs in that Brave Orchid sees all foreigners who are not Japanese (a legend says that they were sea-faring Chinese people sent on a mission from which they never returned) as otherworldly. Her method of reimagining inscrutable people and forces as ghosts parallels her daughter’s habit of re-appropriating folk tales, blending everyday life with history and myth in an effort to make sense of an overwhelming and often confusing world.
Every American Brave Orchid encounters is a “ghost,” distinguished only by the jobs or tasks that they perform, such as “Tree-Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts” and, the scariest of all to Brave Orchid, “Newsboy Ghosts” who “shouted ghost words to the empty streets” which she believed “reached children inside the houses, reached inside the children’s chests.” Brave Orchid’s creation of other Americans as “ghosts” indicates that they remain foreign to her despite her presence as the relative newcomer. They are ghosts, too, for each seems to have a special power—the ability to put out fires or drive different vehicles—which no one in her village had.
In China, Brave Orchid believed that, as a doctor, she contended with ghosts that sought to kill the babies she attempted to deliver. Unlike in America, she was not quietly suspicious of the spirits that she perceived but spoke to them directly, asserting that she was not afraid of them and would not give in. In California, her lack of English prevents her from interacting with those whom she does not understand or from asking about the machines whose functions are a mystery to her.
Brave Orchid’s American experience is one of striving. Like her daughter, she uses her imagination to cope with both forces that are hard for her to understand and those which are beyond her control. Instead of communicating with other Americans (she cannot due to her lack of English), she creates stories to explain their behavior, just as Kingston creates stories to understand what life in China may have been like. The reliance on stories—to understand the new country and to remember the one that was left behind—is what seems to link generations in Kingston’s family, just as Ts’ai Yen’s poems linked future generations of Chinese to their Han ancestors.
The Immigrant Experience ThemeTracker
The Immigrant Experience Quotes in The Woman Warrior
They expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning. But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space.
The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are “report a crime” and “report to five families.” The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words— “chink” words and “gook” words too—that they do not fit on my skin.
But the Communists wear a blue plainness dotted with one red Mao button. My mother wore a silk robe and western shoes with big heels, and she rode home carried in a sedan chair. She had gone away ordinary and come back miraculous, like the ancient magicians who came down from the mountains. “When I stepped out of my sedan chair, the villagers said, ‘Ahhh,’ at my good shoes and my long gown. I always dressed well when I made calls. Some villages brought out their lion and danced ahead of me. You have no idea how much I have fallen coming to America.”
Nor did she change her name: Brave Orchid. Professional women have the right to use their maiden names if they like. Even when she emigrated, my mother kept Brave Orchid, adding no American name nor holding one in reserve for American emergencies.
But America has been full of machines and ghosts—Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts.
Whenever my parents said “home,” they suspended America. They suspended enjoyment, but I did not want to go to China. In China my parents would sell my sisters and me. My father would marry two or three more wives, who would spatter cooking oil on our bare toes and lie that we were crying for naughtiness. They would give food to their own children and rocks to us. I did not want to go where the ghosts took shapes nothing like our own.
“This is a terrible ghost country, where a human being works her life away,” she said. “Even the ghosts work, no time for acrobatics. I have not stopped working since the day the ship landed. I was on my feet the moment the babies were out. In China I never even had to hang up my own clothes. I shouldn’t have left, but your father couldn’t have supported you without me. I’m the one with the big muscles.”
“A long time ago,” began Brave Orchid, “the emperors had four wives, one at each point of the compass, and they lived in four palaces. The Empress of the West would connive for power, but the Empress of the East was good and kind and full of light. You are the Empress of the East, and the Empress of the West has imprisoned the Earth’s Emperor in the Western Palace. And you, the good Empress of the East, come out of the dawn to invade her land and free the Emperor. You must break the strong spell she has cast on him that has lost him the East.”
“Oh, Sister, I am so happy here. No one ever leaves. Isn’t that wonderful? We are all women here. Come. I want you to meet my daughters.” She introduced Brave Orchid to each inmate in the ward—her daughters. She was especially proud of the pregnant ones. “My dear pregnant daughters.” She touched the women on the head, straightened collars, tucked blankets. “How are you today, dear daughter?” “And, you know,” she said to Brave Orchid, “we understand one another here. We speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them.” Sure enough, the women smiled back at her and reached out to touch her as she went by. She had a new story, and yet she slipped entirely away, not waking up one morning.
Normal Chinese women’s voices are strong and bossy. We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine.
Lie to the Americans. Tell them you were born during the San Francisco earthquake. Tell them your birth certificate and your parents were burned up in the fire. Don’t report crimes; tell them we have no crimes and no poverty. Give a new name every time you get arrested; the ghosts won’t recognize you. Pay the new immigrants twenty-five cents an hour and say we have no unemployment. And, of course, tell them we’re against Communism. Ghosts have no memory anyway and poor eyesight.
What I’ll inherit someday is a green address book full of names. I’ll send the relatives money, and they’ll write me stories about their hunger […] I’ve been making money; I guess it’s my turn. I’d like to go to China and see those people and find out what’s a cheat story and what’s not. Did my grandmother really live to be ninety-nine? Or did they string us along all those years to get our money? Do the babies wear a Mao button like a drop of blood on their jumpsuits? When we overseas Chinese send money, do the relatives divide it evenly among the commune? Or do they really pay 2 percent tax and keep the rest? It would be good if the Communists were taking care of themselves; then I could buy a color t.v.