This chapter tells the story of how Brave Orchid became a doctor in China. The narrator explains that, very occasionally, her mother would take out her diploma and class pictures from her midwifery medical school. She posed very seriously in the pictures and had reason to; at the time they were taken, her husband was already in New York City. He sent silly pictures and letters to her, but that did not change the fact that she was stranded in China with only memories of her two dead children for company.
Brave Orchid sailed to the capital of her province to attend medical school, bringing with her only a few belongings. It was not a glamorous life, but it was unusually pleasant. She and the other women in her class were living out “the daydream of women,” the fantasy of having personal space and time. She quickly became one of the brightest students in her class, memorizing and repeating information with ease. Brave Orchid was twenty years older than many of her classmates. Her age, to which she did not fully admit, partially explained why she was fearless and calm when they were anxious. She had the most scientific mind of all the students. She was not afraid of ghosts and even volunteered to sleep in “the ghost room,” a dormitory that was supposedly haunted. When Brave Orchid slept in the ghost room, a “Sitting Ghost” climbed on top of her and pinned her to the bed. Keeping a level head, she berated it and then ignored it until it went away. The next night, the other students helped her vanquish the ghost with buckets of flaming oil.
Brave Orchid returned to her village and was lauded for being a doctor. With her newfound fortune, she went to the market to buy herself a slave. As she walked home with her chosen girl, she explained that she was a doctor and would train the girl to be her nurse. She became a renowned and exceptionally skilled doctor, delivering babies and vanquishing ghosts as she traveled. The narrator says that the ghosts from her mother’s stories have always haunted her, especially those of the babies she delivered who died.
On very hot summer days, the narrator’s family would tell ghost stories to “get some good chills up (their) backs.” Stories of “big eaters” stuck with the narrator in particular. “Big eaters” were heroes who vanquished ghosts by cooking and eating them. Brave Orchid could eat practically anything, which the narrator took as a sign of her bravery. She cooked her family skunk, turtle, and other types of meat that others would not touch. The narrator remembers being horrified by her mother's story about "monkey feasts," where diners ate the brains of a live monkey. So determined was Brave Orchid to make her children brave eaters, she would keep serving them the same piece of food meal after meal until they ate it.
The narrative turns to how Brave Orchid left China. During the Second World War, she used her skills to ease the villagers’ nerves when Japanese planes flew overhead. One day, the village’s crazy woman put on festive clothing and began waving her arms out in the open. Convinced that she was signaling the Japanese planes, the villagers stoned her to death. Brave Orchid emigrated six months later. The narrator was born in America during the War. She grew up knowing different ghosts than those her mother had known. In America, “ghost” referred to almost any non-Chinese person.
Back in the present, the narrator is an adult visiting her mother. Brave Orchid reveals to her daughter that their relatives have finally taken over their property in China. Now there is no chance of returning there to live out old age. She also expresses her greatest wish, that her children and their families will move in with her and her husband. Even though Brave Orchid is being tender, the thought of spending so much time with her mother gives the narrator a blinding headache. She feels as though her mother is physically torturing her. Being home, she explains, actually makes her sick to the point of hospitalization. To her relief, her mother calls her the endearing name “Little Dog” and tells her to leave if California makes her ill. The narrator ends the chapter by revealing that both she and her mother were born in the year of the Dragon. Even though her mother drives her crazy, she feels special because of that connection. Because she is her mother’s oldest surviving child, she says she is “practically a first daughter of a first daughter.”
The narrator’s feelings toward her mother vary throughout the book and are often negative. In this chapter, she makes her reverence for her mother clear. From the title, “Shaman,” we know that the narrator sees Brave Orchid as a powerful and wise person. She understands that her mother was not simply a medical doctor in China, but also a “shaman,” someone able to mediate between the physical and spiritual realms and destroy evil spirits. In this chapter alone, the narrator associates her mother with great heroines. She describes her mother’s becoming a doctor with as much reverence as she does the legends of Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen. In one part of the chapter, she even says of Brave Orchid, “She had gone away ordinary and come back miraculous, like the ancient magicians who came down from the mountains.” Her mother is a woman warrior, one who transforms from a powerless servant into a powerful enabler, healing the world’s wrongs. Brave Orchid’s name even encompasses the idea of the woman warrior. She is “brave” like men are expected to be but retains the mysterious feminine qualities and refinement of an “orchid.” Like Ts’ai Yen and Fa Mu Lan, she is a mother and a soldier, sacrificing neither identity for the other.
As a rule, Brave Orchid does not explain customs and rituals to the narrator; this makes her feel alienated. As much as she might scorn her mother’s traditions, especially the ones that she feels silence her, the narrator never derides her mother’s spiritual abilities. She knows ghosts are real because those from her mother’s stories haunt her. As a child, the narrator tries to break free of her mother’s influence. As an adult, she is able to consider their bond as relatives, as “Dragons,” and as women, a source of pride. In a rare moment of cherishing “old Chinese” tradition, she says she is glad to hold the rank of “practically a first daughter of a first daughter.”
In most of the book, Brave Orchid is overwhelmingly a family woman. She spends her time caring for her husband and children and works a second job picking tomatoes just to send money to her Chinese relatives. No amount of time or money is wasted when it is in the interest of her family’s wellbeing. Brave Orchid is a woman who tries to find husbands for her daughters by answering classified ads and arrives at the airport nine hours in advance for her sister’s arrival from China. In “Shaman,” she even tells the narrator that her sole wish is to be surrounded by all the members of her family. “Shaman” explains that Brave Orchid has been a “wife-slave” only since she emigrated. In China, she lived the life of an independent, educated, respected, and wealthy woman. In those days, she lived
the daydream of women—to have a room, even a section of a room, that only gets messed up when she messes it up herself. The book would stay open at the very page she had pressed flat with her hand … To shut the door at the end of the workday, which does not spill over into evening.
Here Hong Kingston invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf states that in order to be a good writer, a woman must have space, time, and money of her own. Though Brave Orchid is a doctor and not a writer, Woolf’s statement applies to her. When Brave Orchid has privacy and opportunity, she is a classic “go-getter.” She studies tirelessly and gets excellent grades while pulling off the illusion that her success is effortless. Only in America, where her privacy is gone and her opportunity severely dampened, is she forced to put aside her passion for medicine and spend all her time worrying about family.
One particularly touching moment in “Shaman” and the entire book is when Brave Orchid tells her daughter that the Chinese relatives have taken over their land, dashing her hopes of going back there once and for all. Brave Orchid’s husband has been in America even longer than she has. They own a business, have a home, and have six children. Despite the obvious permanence of her life in America, and the fact that China has changed dramatically since she left, Brave Orchid still maintains the hope of returning to her homeland. When Brave Orchid tells the narrator her hope is gone, she reveals her longing for a more empowered life.
At the chapter’s end, the narrator says, “She sends me on my way, working always and now old, dreaming the dreams about shrinking babies and the sky covered with airplanes and a Chinatown bigger than the ones here.” The way the sentence is written after the first phrase makes it unclear whether the narrator is describing herself or her mother. With this stylistic choice, the narrator gives us a deeper understanding of the bond between the two women. We already know that Brave Orchid’s talk-stories about China have infiltrated the narrator’s experience of life. She fears ghosts and bombing raids, even though she knows them only secondhand. In the above sentence, the narrator reminds us that both mother and daughter work hard, grow old, have nightmares, and dream of China. They are more connected than she liked to think when she was growing up.