Adeline returns home after the first week of kindergarten glowing with happiness; she has been chosen to lead the class and has received a medal for her work. Aunt Baba is full of pride and files the certificate of achievement accompanying the medal in her safe deposit box as if it was “some precious jewel impossible to replace” (2). While rummaging through the box, Adeline finds a photograph of her grandparents’ wedding then asks to see a photo of her deceased mother. Aunt Baba nervously changes the subject.
Mah recounts the history of her family and the background of her home in Tianjin. A year after her mother’s death, her father remarried a “seventeen year old Eurasian beauty fourteen years his junior” (4) of French and Chinese ancestry. Soon after, they had two children, resulting in a family of twelve at the Tianjin mansion. Their stepmother, Niang, cares nothing for her stepchildren. That, coupled with the fact that Adeline’s siblings “blamed [her] for causing Mama’s death and never forgave [her],” (4) makes it difficult for Adeline to advance her place within the family.
The difficulties that Adeline faced in the other aspects of her life show how easy it was for her to latch on and form a deep bond with Aunt Baba: Aunt Baba was tasked with taking care of Adeline, given that role due to her financial dependence upon her brother. The city they reside in, Tianjin, was one of China’s costal cities occupied by foreign troops after the Opium War and was heavily influenced by the French concession, “a little piece of Paris transported into the center of a big Chinese city” (5). Even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese occupation of Tianjin, the French Concession was still governed by French officials.
The third chapter provides a snapshot of a normal family dinner in the Yen household. Dinner immediately follows the events in chapter one, so Adeline is proudly wearing her medal as she goes down to the table. Adeline and Aunty Baba are the first to arrive, joined shortly after by Ye Ye and Nai Nai. While Adeline helps Nai Nai to her seat, Adeline curiously asks about Nai Nai’s diminutive bound feet. Soon after, the brothers file in, with Second and Third Brother taking their seats on either side of Adeline.
Adeline recollects a story of Big Brother’s mischief until Third Brother congratulates her for the medal. Prompted by the praise, Second Brother punishes Adeline, the “ugly little squirt” (9), for her excellence. Soon after, Father, Niang and Big Sister arrive, forcing Second Brother to stop punishing Adeline. The meal commences and family as a whole ignores Adeline, when Father surprised everyone by commenting on her medal. This was “the first time anyone could remember Father… saying anything to [Adeline]”(11). After the meal in their jealousy, the siblings steal Adeline’s dessert.
This first chapter sets the stage for Adeline’s story. Mah uses plain language and simple sentences to invoke the feeling of childhood nostalgia, giving the story a candid air. Mah characterizes her younger self as an innocent and curious girl, eager to please and learn. Aunt Baba’s pride and patience with Adeline creates the illusion that they come from a loving house.
The way that Aunt Baba treats Adeline’s certificate like “some precious jewel” (4) shows how Aunt Baba vies Adeline as a treasure “impossible to replace” (4). In the final paragraph of Chapter 1, this illusion is shattered. Big Sister’s treatment of Adeline is representative of the rest of the family’s opinion; Adeline is the sole cause of her mother’s death and is “bad luck.” By speaking so candidly and straightforwardly, Big Sister shows how little regard the family has towards Adeline’s feelings and delicate kindergartener psyche. When compared to Aunt Baba’s delicate handling of Adeline’s questions, one can see the huge divide between Aunt Baba and the rest of the family.
The revelation that Niang is a mere seventeen years old, only eleven years Big Sister’s senior, explains much of her vindictive, self-centered and often outright vicious behavior. The background into Adeline’s childhood life continues to paint a picture of unwanted-ness within her own family and the general disdain of the native Chinese population in this section of China.
Mah shows how the plight of young Adeline within her own family is a microcosm for the plight of all Chinese natives in cities such as this. The final paragraph demonstrates how traditional Chinese culture, as seen in the street signs, were replaced with French culture, effectively alienating the native population, represented by Ye Ye and Nai Nai. This alienation also helped establish supremacy of the European population.
The structure of Adeline’s family reflects societal standards and values, with Ye Ye and Nai Nai representing traditional Chinese people, the older siblings representing the younger, but just as looked down upon, Chinese population and Niang and the youngest siblings representing the Eurasian population and their deferential treatment.