The narrator describes how at age sixty-eight, her mother, Brave Orchid, reunited with her sister, Moon Orchid, after thirty years. Brave Orchid arrived at the airport nine hours ahead of time. She brought Moon Orchid’s daughter and two of her own children with her. She used her concentration to help keep her sister’s plane in the air, just as she did to keep her son’s ship afloat in Vietnam. Once the plane arrived, they waited four hours for Moon Orchid to appear. When the sisters finally met, each could not believe how old the other had become. This surprise was ironic because, the narrator says, they were almost identical, “with faces like mirrors.”
Moon Orchid’s arrival made Brave Orchid realize even more how unappreciative her children were of Chinese customs. They did not appreciate the gifts Moon Orchid brought or how monumental her arrival was. Brave Orchid also quickly remembered how impractical and easily distracted her sister was. She sat Moon Orchid down to discuss what to do about her husband. He did not know that she had come to America. He had been there so long that his daughter had no memory of him. Brave Orchid was the one who arranged Moon Orchid’s trip to America. She was also the one who had worked out her niece’s citizenship by finding her a “tyrant” of a Chinese-American husband. She insisted that her sister confront her husband and claim her rightful place as his First Wife. His new wife would be her slave, and she would claim this woman’s sons for her own. Moon Orchid said she had no business doing so, especially because her husband had been good to her and her daughter; he had always sent them all the money the needed.
We begin to see things from Moon Orchid’s perspective. She tried to match her nieces and nephews with the descriptions from Brave Orchid’s letters. She checked them against her sister’s descriptions of them and decided that they were much better children than she claimed; their problem was that they were not happy. Moon Orchid could not get any of the children to spend time with her or make conversation. She considered them to have been “raised … in the wilderness” because they did not possess Chinese social skills. They did not respect their elders and were not modest. Brave Orchid tried to put Moon Orchid to work at home and at the laundry, but she was too slow and distracted to be a good worker.
One day, despite Moon Orchid’s protestations, Brave Orchid dragged her to Los Angeles to reclaim her husband. They ended up at his office instead of his house; apparently, he had become a brain surgeon. Brave Orchid figured the office nurse was his new wife. The sisters did not have an appointment, so they could not get in to see Moon Orchid’s husband. Instead, Brave Orchid forced her son to run upstairs and say there was an emergency outside. Moon Orchid’s husband came out, and because he did not recognize her, he called her “grandmother.” Once he recognized her, he said: “It’s a mistake for you to be here. You can’t belong. You don’t have the hardness for this country. I have a new life.” His new wife and sons did not even know she or her daughter existed. He promised to keep sending her money, but he told her she could never come back to see him again. Moon Orchid was shamed and went to live with her daughter.
After the confrontation, Moon Orchid barely wrote to Brave Orchid. It turned out that she had become paranoid about her daughter’s neighborhood, so Brave Orchid sent for her. Even at her sister’s house, Moon Orchid was afraid to go outside. She seemed to have lost her spirit. Brave Orchid was determined to bring her sister back to her vibrant self, but Moon Orchid only got worse. She became convinced of a government conspiracy against her and the family, she shut the windows at all times, and she cried whenever someone left the house because she was convinced they would never return. Finally, Brave Orchid and her niece put Moon Orchid in a mental asylum. Brave Orchid visited her there twice. Moon Orchid never returned to her normal self, but she was happy there; she considered the other inmates her “daughters.” Eventually, Moon Orchid died in her sleep. Brave Orchid attributed her sister’s downfall to heartbreak.
The family took Moon Orchid’s decline and death very much to heart. Brave Orchid became vehement about making sure her husband would never take a second wife. Her daughters resolved never to let a man cheat on them.
"At the Western Palace" refers to two things in this chapter. First is the American dream, the myth of wealth and success on "Gold Mountain," which can as easily be called "the Western Palace." We know from Brave Orchid's experience and, later, Moon Orchid's, that the American dream is often an ideal that is not achieved in reality. "At the Western Palace" also refers to Moon Orchid's husband's office. The sisters journey there with as high hopes as Chinese settlers during the Gold Rush. They are there to claim what is rightfully theirs.
The chapter is stylistically distinct from the other chapters. Elsewhere, the narrator uses the personal first-person voice even though she is distinguished from the author. In marked contrast, she tells “At the Western Palace” in the third person. One reason for this distancing is that the narrator is not a central character in “At the Western Palace.” She did experience life with Moon Orchid, but she was not present for the story’s climax, the confrontation with her aunt’s husband. That part of the story she learned secondhand from her brother. “At the Western Palace” is essentially a story about culture clash and its varying effects on people.
Moon Orchid is a foil for Brave Orchid. The two women are physically almost identical, as symmetrical as orchid flowers, but otherwise they are as unalike as the adjectives in their names. Brave Orchid is strong and intrepid enough: to have gotten a medical degree at middle age, to stand up to those she feels have wronged her, and to give up everything to build a new life in a foreign country. Moon Orchid is passive; she depends on other people to guide her, just as the moon passively depends on the sun for light. Moon Orchid’s name also hints at her instability. To the human eye, the moon changes its shape and size from month to month, and the word “lunacy” is derived from folklore about the moon’s influence on insanity. Moon Orchid is just as changeable as the moon. Even when she is mentally stable, she acts flighty and out of touch. She does not realize, for example, that it bothers her nieces and nephews when she wonders aloud about everything they are doing.
What the sisters have in common is their adherence to “old Chinese” traditions. When Moon Orchid first arrives, the sisters are able to bond over cooking a meal together. Brave Orchid sees her sister as her partner in maintaining tradition. Moon Orchid gives her commonality against her shamefully “untraditional” children. Because she enjoys the solidarity, Brave Orchid ignores her sister’s protestations and forces her to travel to Los Angeles and confront her husband. She tries to make her sister into Fa Mu Lan, reclaiming her husband just as Fa Mu Lan unseated the emperor and reclaimed the baron’s mansion. To Brave Orchid, reclaiming Moon Orchid’s husband is tantamount to reclaiming “old Chinese” tradition once and for all. She forgets that her sister does not have her strong constitution. As a result, Moon Orchid faces the ultimate culture clash that causes her decline.
Brave Orchid has been facing culture shock ever since she arrived in the United States. In China, she was a renowned doctor and defeater of evil spirits. There she had “real Chinese children” who understood her and did not shame her like her ungrateful American children. She does not explain rituals or traditions to her children because she knows they, like “White Ghosts,” will consider them backwards. Brave Orchid’s strength and confidence allow her to tolerate the injustices of living in America: losing her career, feeling disconnected from her children, and working tirelessly in blue-collar jobs to send money to countless needy relatives. Brave Orchid considers China, not California, her home. We find out later in the book just how desperately she clings to China for her sense of self; only decades after her emigration, after her family takes over her property in China, does she finally realize she will not be returning there to live out her days.
In contrast to her sister, Moon Orchid cannot handle culture shock. Ironically, she faces the ultimate culture shock when she finds out that her husband is remarried and their marriage is essentially null and void. The narrator’s writing is impartial concerning the husband. We can see him through Brave Orchid’s accusing eyes, or sympathize with him because the confrontation threatens to unseat his life. The husband himself points out that Moon Orchid is not strong enough to handle life in America, away from everything she knows. In this sense, he knows her better than Brave Orchid. As frail as Moon Orchid might be, it is unquestionable that her heartbreak leads to her decline. Only after her husband rejects her does she become paranoid and lose her sense of self. For Moon Orchid, culture shock is inseparable from the shock of being cast aside. Though the narrator does not give her express opinion about Moon Orchid, it is clear that this aunt’s story haunts her as much as her “no-name” aunt’s. In different ways, both aunts are victims of tradition. The “no-name” aunt breaks tradition by having a child out of wedlock. From then on, she is censured. Moon Orchid (pushed by Brave Orchid) tries to cling to tradition and get her husband back, only to be humiliated and sent away. Neither aunt can stand being humiliated and unwanted; shame and fear claim both their lives.