The narrator explains that when she was born, her mother supposedly cut the dividing tissue under her tongue so that she would be able to “pronounce anything.” There was no memory or physical evidence, but the narrator believed the story. Her mother had not cut any of her siblings’ tongues. Despite her “loosened” tongue, the narrator was very shy about speaking, especially in English. She was so reticent that she flunked kindergarten. “Chinese school,” which the Chinese children attended each day after “American school,” was a relief. There, the narrator did not have to speak in English and was more comfortable.
One day, a delivery boy brought a prescription to the laundry that was meant for the mentally ill woman who lived nearby. Brave Orchid was enraged because she considered the visit a curse. She made the narrator go to the pharmacy with her and demand that they remove the curse of “sick medicine.” At the pharmacy, the narrator pretended to translate, but she really told the pharmacist that her mother was demanding free candy. From then on, he and the other pharmacists gave her family candy with their prescriptions and whenever they visited. Brave Orchid never found out what her daughter had done.
Next, the narrator tells the story of a girl who could not speak up at all, not even in Chinese school. The narrator despised her for being shy and antisocial, but also for being clean and meticulous while she was messy and clumsy. One day, the narrator and her sister stayed late with the girl and her sister. Alone with the girl, she tried to bully her into talking. She taunted her, pinched her cheeks, and pulled her hair until she sobbed, but to no avail. The narrator herself cried out of desperation. Finally, the girl’s sister came in and rescued her. The narrator was sick in bed for the next year and a half, as if the world was punishing her for bullying the girl.
As she grew older, the narrator became increasingly frustrated with the ways the Chinese immigrant community silenced itself. She was not to answer any questions about her parents’ histories due to fear of deportation. People in the community were afraid to interact with government or public agencies on any level; they would not even report crimes to the police. Her parents did not bother to explain to their children the many rituals they performed and traditions they kept. The only way she and her siblings found out they were breaking tradition was when their parents hit and scolded them.
Several "crazy women" lived in the neighborhood and frightened the narrator. The two most notable were Crazy Mary and Pee-A-Nah. Crazy Mary's parents emigrated without her when she was a toddler. When they finally brought her over, she had lost her mind. Pee-A-Nah was a woman who dressed like a witch and carried a broom. She used to chase the children when Brave Orchid wasn't around. The narrator blamed the neighborhood's prevalence of crazy women on their village code of silence. According to her, not talking “made the difference between sanity and insanity.” She was sure that she would become the madwoman of her household.
The narrator took her vivid imagination, clumsiness, lack of cleanliness, and mysterious illness to be signs of her insanity. As much as they frightened her, she was glad for them because they made her undesirable as a slave; she thought as long as she was crazy, her parents would not sell her. Of course, there was never any real threat of being sold. Still, the narrator felt as though her parents were plotting to get rid of her and her sister. She had been taught early on that boys were prizes and girls were useless embarrassments. The narrator became more convinced of her parents’ plot when they began bringing suitors to the laundry.
The narrator found some consolation in knowing that, as the oldest, she had to be married off first. Since she would refuse, her sister would be safe as well. When the narrator’s mother brought suitors by, the narrator chased them off by being as clumsy and messy as possible. She cut off her friendship with a mentally challenged boy because she was afraid her parents would consider him a good husband for her. Even though he came and sat on crates at the laundry each day while she worked, she forced herself to ignore him. One day when the boy had wandered away, the narrator’s mother opened up his crates. When she found them full of pornography, she still let him stay.
The narrator began compiling a mental list of all the forbidden things she had done or seen that she wanted to tell her mother. There were so many trapped inside that they made her throat hurt. When she mustered the courage, she began to tell her mother one thing each night. To her surprise, her mother did not seem to care about any of her tales. Finally, the mother told her daughter to leave her alone. In retrospect, the narrator realized that she had been interrupting her mother’s precious time alone. One night, the narrator could not take the mentally challenged boy’s presence anymore. She screamed at her parents, telling them to make him go away. She told them she was a straight-A student and no match for a “retarded” boy. She declared that she would get out of their community, not being made into “a slave or a wife.” The narrator’s mother shouted back at her, called her “Ho Chi Kuei,” and told her to get out. After that, she never saw the boy again.
The narrator explains that she is now far removed from that Chinese community. She does not even consider herself bilingual because she cannot understand any Chinese except the village dialect in her parents’ neighborhood. She has to look up the meaning of“Ho Chi Kuei” in books, but she cannot find it. She has a different view of Chinese life now that she is removed from it. For instance, she now knows that her relatives do not sell girls and are not barbarians. The narrator realizes that in addition to her cultural knowledge, she has inherited great responsibility. Her mother works picking tomatoes in order to send money to their relatives in China. The narrator knows that one day, she will inherit that responsibility. She does not trust her Chinese relatives; she wants to see for herself whether they are as unfortunate as they claim to be.
The book ends with a story that the narrator’s mother told her recently, after the narrator revealed that she could also “talk story.” Most of the story is her mother’s, but the narrator made up the ending. In China, the narrator’s grandmother loved the theater so much that she demanded that her whole family attend all the performances with her. Her relatives knew that bandits would ransack their house while they were gone, because bandits followed the acting troupes from town to town. Still, they went with the grandmother. That night, the bandits bypassed the villagers’ houses and attacked the theater itself. The family narrowly escaped. Ever after, the grandmother insisted that continuing to go to the theater would ensure their safety. The narrator hopes that her family got to hear, among other things, the poetry of the scholar’s daughter Ts’ai Yen. She was captured by barbarians as a young woman and was forced to fight and have children among them.
The barbarians’ traditions disgusted Ts’ai Yen, for she was a foreigner among them. Even her own children could not speak Chinese properly, though she tried to teach them in secret. She hated their primitive ways. One night, Ts’ai Yen heard the barbarians playing strange, shrill-sounding music. The sound alarmed her, but she could not hide from it even in her tent. Finally, she began to sing in Chinese about her family. Somehow, the barbarians understood her meaning and were fascinated. When Ts’ai Yen was finally returned to her family for a ransom, she brought her songs back with her. One of the songs is “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” She says, “It translated well.”
The book’s final chapter focuses on the concepts of silence and speech. The girl who would not talk is like a magnified version of how the narrator sees herself. She is pathetic because she will not raise her voice, much less a fist, to defend herself. The narrator feels as powerless as this girl acts, so she projects her frustration onto her blameless schoolmate. The silent girl also represents a paradox that the narrator sees within the Chinese immigrant community. The “villagers” may be very loud in their daily lives, but they keep a code of silence about important issues. The narrator explains the first part of the paradox thus:
You can see the disgust on American faces looking at women [like the emigrant villagers]. It isn’t just the loudness. It is the way Chinese sounds, chingchong ugly, to American ears, not beautiful like Japanese sayonara words with the consonants and vowels as regular as Italian. We make guttural peasant noise and have Ton Duc Thang names you can’t remember. And the Chinese can’t hear Americans at all; the language is too soft and western music unhearable. I’ve watched a Chinese audience laugh, visit, talk-story, and holler during a piano recital, as if the musician could not hear them.
The narrator has said in earlier chapters that her mother frequently embarrassed her by being so loud in public. The second part of the paradox is that the emigrant community forbids its members to discuss certain things. The narrator’s prime example of this is that in her youth, she and the other children did not know their own parents’ names. Their parents did not explain customs and rituals to them, instead opting to hit them when they did the wrong thing. Part of the community’s silence comes from fear of deportation. Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the villagers are afraid to speak to the police or government, even to report crimes. The larger part of the community’s silence, however, comes from tradition. To the villagers, the spoken word is very powerful. Names are kept secret because uttering them is tantamount to casting a spell. Rituals are not explained, presumably, because of their power.
Other things are kept secret out of shame. The narrator explains wryly, “If we had to depend on being told, we’d have no religion, no babies, no menstruation (sex, of course, unspeakable), no death.” The community holds a collective belief that keeping things silent means not having to deal with them. Because the narrator does not share their sensibility, she feels constantly as though she is being silenced, denied her right to live openly and honestly. She recalls, “I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity.” Her parents and the other “villagers” may make her crazy, but she feels as though they are the crazy ones for keeping the silence. She screams at her mother, “Ha! You can’t stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue but it didn’t work.” Brave Orchid told her daughter that she cut her tongue to make speech easy for her. The narrator does not believe this because she feels as though her mother has been trying to silence her—her opinions and her hopes—for as long as she can remember.
Even though silence pervades the whole immigrant community, the women are silenced the most. Equally if not more than how much the men silence them, they silence one another. We have already seen how the narrator’s mother tries to silence her by demanding she behave a certain way. In the same way, Brave Orchid tries to silence Moon Orchid’s desires because they do not mesh with cultural ideas of propriety. Moon Orchid does not want to confront her husband; she is satisfied with their very limited relationship. Brave Orchid, true as ever to her name, takes her sister’s silence for fear and weakness. She thinks she is doing her a favor by forcing her to confront her husband. Because Moon Orchid cannot speak up for herself or defend herself against Brave Orchid, she faces heartbreak, loss of self, and eventually madness. For Moon Orchid, silence was indeed “the difference between sanity and insanity.” If she had been able to argue for herself, her life might have ended more happily.
Even though the story of Ts’ai Yen does not come until the end of the chapter, the name for the chapter as a whole is “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” The story of Ts’ai Yen is connected with everything else in the chapter because it is an allegory of the narrator’s struggle with identity and empowerment. The narrator sees herself as Ts’ai Yen. The main difference is that the “barbarians” in the narrator’s life are people in her own community and family. Even though the Chinese immigrant community is familiar to the narrator, she does not feel at home there. Try as she might, she cannot overcome the cultural disconnect between generations; she cannot get people of her parents’ generation to see life the way she does or share her values. For example, when the narrator reveals that she has applied to college, her mother tells her to be a typist and work on her charm instead of her intelligence. She is expected to fit into the Chinese paradigm of success, to be a wife and a mother—an obedient “slave.” When she balks at a sexist song, her father replies, “A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that.”
Even though she is generally reticent, the narrator finally manages to stand up to her mother in the last chapter. In this part of the book, we see the narrator’s warrior-self emerging. She uses words to defend not only her life choices but also her very right to exist. Beneath her accusations is the feeling that, in Brave Orchid’s eyes, she has never been able to measure up to her deceased Chinese siblings. She feels that she has always come second in her mother’s heart and been denied her true life and true identity as first daughter.
Eventually, the narrator realizes that she does not need her mother to validate her worth. She is truly fighting with herself for a sense of validation. She realizes, “[There is] no listener but myself.” The angry outburst at Brave Orchid teaches the narrator that she is a person with great inner strength, not so far removed from Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen as she thought. As an adult writing her memoirs, the narrator becomes even more like her heroes. By venting her confusion, frustration, and anger, she follows in Ts’ai Yen’s footsteps and sings her own defiant song. She exposes, and in doing so, avenges the wrongs done to and within the Chinese immigrant community. At the same time, she fights to defend her culture and its past. In her own way, the narrator is the book’s central “woman warrior,” and the memoirs themselves document her battle.