The third section of the novel is named American Translation.
A mother complains that her daughter has placed a mirrored armoire at the foot of her and her husband's bed. The mother says the mirror will make all their happiness bounce back. To fix it, she puts another mirror at the headboard. She says it will multiply their peach-blossom luck. When the daughter asks what peach-blossom luck is, her mother tells her it is in the mirror. She says she can see her future grandchild in the mirror, and she tells her daughter to look. When the daughter looks into the mirror, she sees her own reflection.
Chapter 9: Lena St. Clair--Rice Husband
Lena prepares for her mother (Ying-ying) to visit the new house that she and her husband bought. Her mother has always had Chungwan chihan, the ability to predict bad things by paying attention to signs, especially in architecture and the placement of things. Lena wonders what bad signs her mother will find in her new home. As they tour the house, her mother points out all its flaws accurately. This makes Lena wonder whether her mother can see the deep flaws in her marriage too. She also remembers that when she was eight years old, her mother looked at the rice grains left in the bottom of her bowl and told her she would "marry a bad man."
At first, her mother was simply trying to get Lena to finish her rice at meals. She told Lena that her future husband would have a pockmark on his face for every unfinished grain of rice. Soon the superstition grew into a mission for Lena. She was afraid that if she left rice in her bowl, she would marry a neighborhood boy named Arnold, who had a pockmarked face and was cruel to her. An educational film about leprosy (to Lena, people with very pockmarked faces) scared Lena into trying to kill Arnold through superstition. At meals, she left increasingly larger quantities on her plate of not only rice, but all kinds of food. When Lena was thirteen, she had become anorexic and ate barely any food at all. That year, her father read in the newspaper that Arnold died from complications from measles. Lena was terrified because she thought her mother could sense that she caused Arnold's death. That night, Lena binged on strawberry ice cream and then made herself vomit it. She says, "I remember wondering why it was that eating something good could make me feel so terrible, while vomiting something terrible could make me feel so good."
Lena's husband is named Harold Livotny. They work at Livotny & Associates, the restaurant design firm he started. They met when they both worked at Harned Kelley & Davis, before Lena encouraged Harold to start his own firm. Now that their marriage is falling apart, Lena finds it hard to remember why she fell in love with Harold. She feels better after talking with Rose Hsu Jordan, who is already divorced from Ted Jordan. Rose tells Lena that she does not need to worry that the breakup of her marriage is her fault. Both women have worried in the past that their headstrong ways, of which their mothers disapprove, may have contributed. Rose assures Lena that fears of inadequacy are common in her generation, and the breakup is her not fault.
Throughout their marriage, Harold has insisted that he and Lena split money equally; they even have separate bank accounts. They keep a list on their refrigerator detailing how much each of them spent in a week, and on what. Lena is embarrassed to tell her mother this, so she tells her the list is of things they share. Lena's mother is shocked to find ice cream on the list, and she reminds Lena that she has not been able to stomach ice cream since the night she learned of Arnold's death, when she binged and purged. Lena shows her mother to the guest room, where there is an unstable table Harold made when he was a student. Lena's mother uses her Chunwang chihan and says that keeping the table is foolish. Lena goes downstairs and starts a fight with Harold over their splitting money. Soon they hear glass shattering upstairs; the table has fallen and broken. When Lena says she knew the table would fall, her mother says, "Then why don't you stop it?"
Chapter 10: Waverly Jong--Four Directions
Waverly is afraid to tell her mother (Lindo Jong) that she is marrying Rich Shields. Instead of telling her, Waverly brings her mother to see how she is living. She has a wonderfully busy life with Rich and her four-year-old daughter, Shoshana. Despite Waverly's best efforts to get her mother's approval, she does not even acknowledge that Waverly and Rich have moved in together. This makes Waverly feel terrible in a familiar way. She recalls the first time her mother made her feel so.
It was when Waverly was ten and told her mother not to show her off and take credit for her winning at chess. After that, her mother had refused to pay her any attention. To win back her mother, Waverly decided to quit playing chess, but she became stunned and hurt when her mother did not care. Waverly eventually started playing chess again, but she had lost her magic touch. Suddenly she was vulnerable to her own weaknesses instead of skillfully taking advantage of her opponent's. She was convinced that much of the change had to do with the fact that her mother had stopped believing in her. She stopped playing altogether at fourteen.
When Waverly and her first husband Marvin Chen eloped, Waverly's mother picked him apart until Waverly too saw his flaws and lost interest. She almost aborted Shoshana because she resented being pregnant. But when Shoshana was born, she knew her "feelings for her were inviolable." Rich loves Waverly just as deeply as Waverly loves Shoshana. But Waverly is afraid her mother will show her everything wrong with Rich as she did with Marvin. Waverly devised a plan to get her mother to meet Rich. She took Rich to Auntie Su's (Suyuan Woo's) house for dinner, and then told Auntie Su that Rich said hers was the best Chinese food he had ever had. To show up Auntie Su, Waverly's mother invited Waverly and Rich over for a family dinner. Rich did not understand the Chinese customs of politeness, and he unknowingly made a bad impression. The worst was when he insulted Waverly's mother's cooking. Waverly's mother was disparaging her own favorite dish, expecting someone to compliment her in return. Instead, Rich poured soy sauce all over the platter.
The next day, Waverly cannot take the tension and tells her mother she and Rich are getting married. Her mother is not surprised, and she acts as though she had never tried to criticize Rich. Then she tells Waverly about her heritage from her mother's side, the Sun clan from Taiyuan. She says that like herself, Waverly comes from a line of strong and clever women. Finally, Waverly realized that her mother was not a tricky chessboard queen, planning secret attacks on her. She was an old, traditional woman who wanted to be loved just as much as she loved her daughter. Waverly fantasizes about bringing her mother on her honeymoon so that she, her mother, and Rich could all put aside their differences and fly from San Francisco to China, "moving West to reach the East."
The third section of the novel examines how things start to come full circle for the mothers. They have begun to reach their daughters after all these years, and the daughters begin to realize how much they are like their mothers. When the daughter in the prologue looks in the mirror, she sees not only her own reflection but also those of all the women in her family's past and future, and all the faces are her own. While she is an individual, she is the incarnation of a spirit that runs through all the women in her family throughout time. This realization puts pressure on her, because she is the keeper of a powerful spirit, and infinite generations depend on her. At the same time, it is comforting to know that her life is fortified by a seemingly infinite number of lives.
In Chapter 9, Ying-ying comes to visit Lena, and we witness a daughter's struggle to feel adult and independent in her mother's presence. Even though she is in control of her household and has her own way of living, Lena feels invaded by Ying-ying. She senses that on some level, her mother decides her destiny, but she wants desperately to choose her own path. Just as when Lena was a teenager and resisted her mother's advice to disastrous effect, she resists admitting that her marriage is as unstable and makes as little sense to keep as the table. When the table smashes to pieces under its own weight, Lena can no longer deny these things, which brings her closer to Ying-ying. Still, their opinions on the situation separate them. Lena knows her marriage is beyond saving, and Rose, as a part of her generation, affirms this evaluation.
Nevertheless, Ying-ying asks of the table's fall and by extension, the marriage's--"why you not stop it?" There are two ways to evaluate this question. The first is that Ying-ying places blame on Lena for allowing things to get so bad and wants her to fix things instead of getting a divorce. Therefore, she wants Lena to answer that she will try to save her marriage. The second is that Ying-ying sees Lena suffering the same fate she did, losing her own identity in her marriage, and that she wants Lena to walk away from it and save herself. Therefore she wants Lena to answer that there is no use trying to deny Chunwang chihan and try to save a marriage that is doomed to collapse.
Chapters 9 and 10 deal with just how American the daughters really are, as well as what is lost in translation between the generations. What can the mothers never make their daughters understand, and vice versa? Lena and Waverly live very American lives, complete with unhappy marriages to men who do not understand their Chinese heritage. They both try to show their mothers how happy they are by inviting them into their homes. But they forget that their mothers can read signs. The mothers see their daughters' marriages crumbling and lives losing meaning, and for once, they want them to be disobedient. They want them to harness their Chinese spirit, the spirit of all the women who came before them and will come after them, to prevent themselves from dissolving away.
In the mothers' eyes, strength and the ability to make change have been lost between the generations. While they might not understand or approve of the way their daughters live, the very fact that they can live this way (which Jing-mei called the "right to fall short of expectations") is something gained from being American. Therefore the daughters are "American translations" of their mothers. Here Tan plays on the power of language to simultaneously separate and unite people; without symbols, there is scarce communication, yet translation can complicate and limit communication.
The mothers and daughters are like Chinese and American versions of the same story. They are essentially the same, but it impossible to make them exactly alike, like the reflections that the daughter in the prologue sees. As in literary translation, some things are lost, but new things are found through reinterpretation.
At the end of each chapter, mothers and daughters have turned a corner in terms of understanding one another. Each daughter is made to realize that her mother is not the enemy, but a courageously loving spirit to guide her through life. At the same time, the mothers accept their daughters' American lives while reminding them of their heritage, whether through Chunwang chihan or a description of the Sun clan. Waverly's coming to terms with Lindo is particularly meaningful, since Waverly is the most headstrong of all the daughters. She no longer wants to compartmentalize her mother, making her the Chinese element in an otherwise American life, but she wants Lindo to help her bridge the Chinese and American parts of herself and, furthermore, to help Rich understand her dual identity.
The end of Chapter 10 is particularly important in terms of the idea of translation. Putting an original next to its translation demonstrates that many things have been lost, while many other things may be found. Each mother's or daughter's life is clearer in contrast with the other's, different yet complementary like the white and black squares on a chessboard. Even so, things are not always black and white between the generations. When Waverly talks of moving West to reach East, we realize that the labels "Chinese" and "American," "East" and "West," are not dichotomous but relative. It is as difficult for the daughters to distinguish the Chinese and American parts of themselves as it is for them to determine in any definitive way whether China is East or West.