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Critical Essay by Sheryl A. Mylan
SOURCE: "The Mother as Other: Orientalism in M. Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 132-52.
In the following essay, Mylan examines what she terms as elements of Orientalism in Kingston's portrayal of her mother in The Woman Warrior.
In the time since Edward Said's Orientalism was first published in 1978, the investigation of Western society's attempts to contain and represent non-Western cultures has become even more important. Postcolonialist studies have increased attention to the imperialist and ethnocentric spirit which underlies the discourse of so-called advanced societies. Since such discourses mask their ideological intentions to dominate, it is essential that they be interrogated to see the ways in which non-Western societies are cast into the role of Other. Denigrating non-Western belief systems, the West sets up its own values and standards as right and natural, which justifies its will to power. Long before Said, anthropologist Francis Hsu speculated about why Western society was governed by its need to dominate: "Can Americans afford to allow any other people, especially a non-Western people, to better them in any way? My conclusion is that they probably cannot because active superiority over others is essential to a people with the individual-centered way of life" [Americans and Chinese, 1970]. The Western sense of individuality is bound up with the need to vanquish. It is odd to think that someone who has suffered the misrepresentations of monoculturalism might regard her own heritage from such an interpretive position. In a sense, however, that is what happens between the Westernized daughter, Maxine, and her Chinese mother in The Woman Warrior.
Just as Britain, France, and the United States represented non-Western cultures in ways to assert their cultural hegemony, Maxine portrays her mother in a way to gain strength over her. Although Edward Said's Orientalism focuses on the Anglo-Franco experience with Arabs and Islam, it discusses characteristics of Orientalism which work well to describe Maxine's view of her mother, who represents all that is baffling and repugnant about Chinese culture to her daughter. Said states that "Orientalism was the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient—its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness." He is interested in Orientalism as a school of interpretation in which the culture, its history, and textuality intersect and by which non-Western cultures are studied and judged. As such, these large cultural issues may seem to bear little relation to the personal struggles of a daughter and her mother. However, if the personal and public are inseparable and if all acts are political and public expressions, then Orientalism can be seen in everyday struggles as well as in global contexts. Then it no longer will seem so odd to accuse the heroine, Maxine, of such a Western monocultural perspective. Out of ignorance and misunderstanding of her mother's life in China, Maxine constructs a framework by which to judge her; her standards for judging her mother are, if not manifest Orientalism, at least latent or unconscious demonstrations of Orientalism.
To admit the possibility that Maxine sees her mother and the Chinese culture she represents as the Other helps to explain the negative responses The Woman Warrior received from Asian American critics like Katheryn Fong, Benjamin Tong, and Frank Chin. It also reflects the continuing concern in the Asian American community about who has the right to represent their experiences. Complaining about the fakery of the text and its complicity in a racist, imperialist enterprise in "This Is Not an Autobiography," Chin argues for the authentic representation of Chinese culture [Genre, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1985]. Tong agrees with Chin that Hong Kingston sold out with her exotic stereotypes, created to please a white audience ["Critic of Admirer Sees Dumb Racist," San Francisco Journal, May 11, 1977]. Certainly such critics are right in decrying the misrepresentations and caricatures of the Chinese as a superstitious, enigmatic, and devious people; these stereotypes have a lengthy history in American writing, not only in the popular press, but even among respected writers such as Bret Harte, Jack London, and John Steinbeck [Elaine Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Contexts, 1982]. However, Hong Kingston never intended The Woman Warrior to be a documentary portrayal of Chinese culture and insists that it is "an American book"; she also states that her own "American-ness" has often been ignored and misinterpreted ["Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers," Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, edited by Guy Amirthanayagam, 1982]. While some Western writers have represented Asian cultures as Other to dominate and appropriate, it is a mistake to view Hong Kingston primarily as a Chinese writer who willfully misrepresents and betrays her cultural legacy.
In part, this problem of the Asian-Americanness of The Woman Warrior stems from reading the text as Western autobiography, with its demands for factual accuracy. It is not merely that the West, unlike more communally based cultures, has different concepts of individuation, the self, and the individual's relation to the community, as Margaret Miller has demonstrated in "Threads of Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior" [Biography, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1983]. Miller's points about autobiography are important, but it is also important not to overlook the fact that Hong Kingston planned to publish the work as a novel—which, in itself, counters classical Chinese literary tradition and its devaluation of fiction. However, she was convinced by her publishers to market the text as an autobiography, which has obviously led some readers to confuse the main character with the writer. The result of this confusion is that instead of seeing that Maxine behaves like a Eurocentric American who exoticizes Asian culture as a means of containing the threat of its power, some critics equate Hong Kingston with Maxine the daughter. Such an equation easily leads to the charges of inauthenticity and cultural betrayal against which Hong Kingston has protested. She is trying to capture the truth of her own psyche, to the extent that this is ever possible, not the documentary truth of Chinese culture. If Hong Kingston is allowed her rights as an author, though, and Maxine is read as a fictional construct, then the monoculturalism she exhibits is less a willful rejection of Chinese heritage than an unconscious way of subduing her mother's power over her.
Besides the charge of cultural distortion, another problem results from equating Maxine's monoculturalism with Hong Kingston's presentation of it. This is the complication of the mother-daughter relationship which arises because Maxine, the fictional character, is the autobiographer in Hong Kingston's "autobiography." Lynn Z. Bloom analyzes the dynamics of such relationships in women's autobiographies, noting that the autobiographer/daughter figuratively becomes her own mother as well as the "recreator of her maternal parent and the controlling adult in their literary relationship…. This may be an unfamiliar position for the daughter; it is certainly a reversal of the power and dominance" that has plagued her during the formation of her identity as a young woman. Maxine as autobiographer has a vested interest in presenting her mother in such a way that her power is diminished. No undistorted presentation is ever truly possible, despite the desires for cultural accuracy; writers are always re-presenting. It must be noted that Maxine is a writer, representing her mother and her stories. Orientalizing her mother and Chinese culture is one such way for Maxine to create her own self. Although it is certainly true that all people struggle to create a separate identity from their parents, as Nancy Chodorow has demonstrated, it is more difficult for girls since they identify with their mothers longer than boys do.
Making the break is even more complicated for young women whose cultural legacies are in sharp conflict. Amy Ling notes that "a minority individual's sense of alienation results not only from rejection by the dominant culture but also rejection of parental strictures" [Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, 1990]. Because of Maxine's need for personal autonomy, she aligns herself with Western culture, even though the West will always stigmatize her on the basis of race. It certainly seems strange that Maxine, in effect, takes up with the enemy and rebels against her mother, the one who tries to provide examples of strong Chinese women. It would seem more reasonable for Maxine to rebel against the patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal Chinese culture—still alive in her Asian American community—which devalues women. After all, the important kinship relations, liu ch'in, all involve men—relationships between fathers and sons, between brothers, and between the brothers' children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren [C. K. Yang, The Chinese Family in the Community Revolution, 1958]. She should also take aim at the Confucian doctrines which oppress women, such as the three obediences—a woman's obedience to her father, then to her husband, and finally to her sons when she is widowed—and the four virtues—woman's ethics, teaching a woman her place, woman's speech, telling her to speak little, woman's appearance, telling her to please her husband, and woman's chores, teaching her to do her housework [Henry Staid Shih-Shan, The Chinese Experience in America, 1986]. But instead, Maxine makes her mother the target. She sees her as Other to carve out some psychic space for herself, both as a young Chinese American woman and as an artist.
To distance herself from her mother and her Chinese ways, Maxine must come to terms with sexuality, an excess of which, as Said demonstrates, has long been ascribed to non-Western cultures. In the first story, "No Name Woman." Maxine is a young woman on the verge of her own sexual awakening. She may be inexperienced and unknowledgeable about sex, but she is very curious and imaginative. Her mother tries to give her some advice by telling Maxine her aunt's story. Maxine, however, rejects the lesson—or, rather, she recasts it into her own version of Chinese sensuality. It is important to remember that this is an orientalized version of uncontrolled passion since romantic love is a Western concept, which even required the "linguistic creation of the term lien ai" (Hsu).
Brave Orchid's version for Maxine is the simple account of her aunt's adultery and the murder of her newborn baby, whom she held when she leapt into the well to her death. She tells her daughter this story of suicide and murder as a cautionary tale to prevent Maxine from disgracing the family. Although widows' suicide among the gentry brought honor, especially for a childless woman who would no longer be of any value to her husband's family and whose only other option would be a second marriage to a man of lower status, such was not the case here. No-name aunt was from the country, and, as Margery Wolf notes, "among peasant women the act is not exotic" ["Women and Suicide in China," Women in Chinese Society, 1975]. It brought only horror, disgrace, and a warning that redounds on her niece fifty years later and in a different culture. The fact that Brave Orchid's warnings are so dire is some indication of the power of sexuality, once unleashed. Brave Orchid, whom Maxine sees as motivated by necessity, rather than as driven by passion, constantly presents a culture in which sexuality is a danger to be guarded against.
Maxine says she has difficulty imagining her aunt being sexually uninhibited, yet she immediately imagines her aunt at her dressing table, trying to arrange her hair in "heart-catching tangles" to attract her lover's gaze. Maxine embellishes her mother's simple tale, perhaps imagining her aunt as more wild and sexually unrestrained than she was. Whether or not the picture is accurate is irrelevant. Accuracy and knowledge of a culture count for nothing in Orientalism, which makes it particularly pernicious. The Other culture is appropriated—restructured and re-presented to fit the so-called advanced culture's need for superiority and domination. So, even though Maxine views her aunt as a kindred spirit—passionate and rebellious—when she recasts her story, sexualizing it more than her mother does, she is commenting pejoratively both on Chinese culture and on her mother.
In "White Tigers," Maxine sexualizes the ancient story of Fa Mu Lan as another effort to distance herself from her mother. The story of Fa Mu Lan or Lady Mulan has constantly been retold in genres as different as the ballad and the opera; it appears during the seventh to ninth centuries of the Tang dynasty with its great flowering of literature and art, during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries of the last such ruling family, the Ming dynasty, and during the modern period. Various versions exist, with different characters and events. One of the biggest changes in this version—the lengthy apprentice-training in martial arts, deriving from wuxia xiaoshuo, the martial arts novel—emphasizes woman's power; the most important change, though, is the new combination of mother and soldier here, because it bespeaks Maxine's fascination with power and motherhood. Attitudes toward menstruation and childbirth, in particular, are a crucial part of the story for Maxine. When Fa Mu Lan begins to menstruate, the advice she receives from her surrogate mother is quite different from the warning Maxine received from her own mother when she learned the story of her no-name aunt. Instead of using the occasion to tell Fa Mu Lan not to disgrace her family by getting pregnant, her surrogate mother merely asks her to delay having children so that she can fulfill her role as warrior. She tells her not to worry about the blood, but to let it flow.
In many of the traditional versions of the story, Fa Mu Lan reveals to her fellow warriors only in the final moments that she is a woman. In the version Maxine relates, soldiers agree to fight alongside Fa Mu Lan, even after they learn that she is a woman. Though she is dressed as a man and wearing armor, the crowds cheer her on as a beautiful woman. The detail devoted to her pregnancy and the first month of her son's life further sexualizes the story. Note, for instance, how Fa Mu Lan regards her pregnant shape: "Now when I was naked, I was a strange human being indeed—words carved on my back and the baby large in front." When the baby is born, Fa Mu Lan and her husband discuss what they should do with the umbilical cord, deciding to tie it to a flagpole to dry so they can save it in a box, just as their parents had done with their children's.
Fa Mu Lan's story is not only so fantastic that Maxine cannot use it as a model for her own development, but also so eroticized that she can dismiss her mother and her Chinese culture along with the story. She dismisses it so thoroughly, in fact, that it remains forgotten until long into her adulthood, although mother and daughter had chanted it together as they worked around the house. Brave Orchid had told Maxine the story of Fa Mu Lan—a name which is translated Sylvan or Wood Orchid, emphasizing their sisterhood—to help her daughter grow up as a powerful woman, despite her fears that Maxine wouldn't be able to avoid becoming a wife and a slave. Her fears about slavery are realized when Maxine is too weak to resist the racism of her boss, when he tells her to order "nigger yellow" paint and to book a banquet hall being picketed by CORE and the NAACP.
Maxine's inability to combat racism stems, in part, from orientalizing her Chinese culture, which leaves her with no inner resources upon which to draw. It is little wonder then that she whispers her protest to her boss, her "voice unreliable." By regarding her Chinese heritage as Other, she has effectively silenced her own voice. In telling Maxine the story of Fa Mu Lan, Brave Orchid was trying to give her daughter a precious gift to inspire and strengthen her. In trying to find strength apart from her mother, Maxine rejected this story as inapplicable to the racist power struggles of the twentieth century. As a young woman trying to form her own identity, she finds that the story of Fa Mu Lan simply does not translate well, unlike the story of Ts'ai Yen—the second-century poet, scholar, and musician held captive for twelve years—whose songs of both barbarian and Chinese culture "translated well." Before Maxine gets to the point where she can appreciate how two cultures—or two very different people—can meet in a spirit of mutual appreciation, she has to come to terms with her own needs to orientalize her Chinese heritage.
One of the needs Orientalism fulfills is the need for dominance. Power is gained by seeing the non-Western culture as weak and female, for implicit in Orientalism, Said notes, is a male "power-fantasy." Through her interest in a woman warrior such as Fa Mu Lan, Maxine shows her desire for power. But by re-presenting a powerful and more sexualized Fa Mu Lan who, at the end of the story, nevertheless returns to her village, gives her son her helmet and swords, kneels before her in-laws, and assumes her duties as housewife and the bearer of more sons, Maxine thwarts her acquisition of genuine power. Brave Orchid was once a scholar and doctor, but now lines up with transients, alcoholics, and drug addicts for part-time farm work in addition to working long hours in the laundry. Looking at her mother as an example as well as the stories she tells, it is little wonder then that Maxine is conflicted about her real possibilities for power. She wants nothing so much as to get away from the chief reminder of what a Chinese woman is—her mother.
One way that this conflict is manifested is Maxine's desire to be like a boy. Constantly aware of the privileges of manhood, she rebels against traditional female tasks. She won't cook for her family, and she breaks dishes when she is forced to wash them. Her mother's reprimands for this behavior please Maxine; after all, "Isn't a bad girl almost a boy?" She questions why there are elaborate month-long celebrations for the birth of a boy and none for the birth of a girl. When Maxine and her sisters visit their three cousins, the girls' great-grandfather screams at all six of them, calling them maggots and reproaching them for not giving him grandsons, but Maxine, who wants the privileges accorded to men, is nevertheless quick to condemn such patriarchal views. When her cousins explain that their great-grandfather behaves that way at every meal, Maxine and her sisters console them by saying, "Our old man hates us too. What assholes." When she grows up and attends Berkeley, she refuses to be passive and marches for political causes, but still, "I did not turn into a boy." Although as an adult Maxine continues to long for the independence which she associates with being male, her disgust with someone calling girls "maggots" shows her appreciation for female worth. Her readings in anthropology teach her that the Chinese believe that "'girls are necessary too,'" although she says that no Chinese she ever met conceded this point. But still she is willing to allow that "perhaps it was a saying in another village." This growing acceptance of her own femaleness and her admittance of the possibility that not all Chinese disregard women reflect her movement away from Orientalism, which sees non-Western culture as sensual, feminine, and weak.
It is interesting, though, that Maxine usually associates China with femaleness and dependency since her mother, who represents everything Chinese that she wants to flee, is so strong. In some ways, Maxine views her mother as despotic—another characteristic of Orientalism. Perhaps the incident which best reflects the tyrannical power Maxine invests her with is the cutting of her daughter's frenum. With the understandably characteristic ambivalence of an Asian person who orientalizes her culture, she says, "Sometimes I felt very proud that my mother committed such a powerful act upon me. At other times I was terrified—the first thing my mother did when she saw me was to cut my tongue."
Perhaps this mutilation subconsciously reminds Maxine of the mutilation most associated with the Chinese—footbinding, a practice introduced during the Five Dynasties period of the tenth century among court dancers [Ono Kazuko, Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution 1850–1950, edited by Joshua A. Fogel, 1989]. Men praised the "golden lotus," finding it erotic to see women sway like willows. And so, for a thousand years, breaking the arches and bending the foot so that it would curve into a three-inch bow was a sign of gentility, soon imitated by all but lower-class villagers who had to work. By the late nineteenth century, intellectuals saw it as an "out-moded vestige of the past which crippled half the population and caused loss of 'international face'"; Natural Foot Societies started springing up in the early twentieth century [Elisabeth Croll, Feminism and Socialism in China, 1978]. Still, footbinding is an image that resonates in Maxine's mind: "Even now China wraps double binds around my feet." Like footbinding, the mutilation that Brave Orchid inflicts on Maxine suggests that her mother wants to help break her power—to destroy her voice. Just as footbinding suggests contradictory images of women, the cutting of her frenum causes Maxine to feel ambivalent. Kay Ann Johnson notes that in Chinese culture "while women were seen as naturally weak and submissive, they were also often portrayed as dangerously powerful" [Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution in China, 1983]. So the image of binding and the actual cutting of her frenum coalesce in Maxine's mind, making her feel that her mother is trying to weaken her, despite her reasonable explanations.
Maxine is unable to accept Brave Orchid's reasons for cutting her frenum. She tells her daughter that she cut it so that she would not be tongue-tied and so that her tongue would be able to move in any language. Despite this explanation, Maxine repeatedly asks her mother to explain her motives and questions why she didn't cut her brothers' and sisters' tongues. Maxine believes her mother is lying to her; in fact, any explanation Brave Orchid gives her daughter is immediately suspect: "If my mother was not lying she should have cut more, scraped away the rest of the frenum skin, because I have a terrible time talking. Or she should not have cut at all, tampering with my speech." Although Maxine often accuses her mother of being irrational and finds her actions incomprehensible, she is the one who is behaving irrationally in rejecting her mother's explanations, Instead of believing that her mother is acting on her behalf, Maxine attributes her difficulty speaking to her mother's mutilation of her tongue, an action which she can only read as willfully cruel.
This cruelty could have only one objective, according to Maxine—to dominate and silence her. As proof, she recalls her early years when she found it almost unbearable to speak. She thinks about how, even as an adult, her voice cracks and she feels dumb when she speaks But her youth was the worst: she was silent at school for a year; for three years both she and her sister were completely silent, Maxine's only expression being her totally black paintings. She associates this domination with Chinese culture, observing that the other Chinese girls were also silent, so she knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl. Maxine struggles with English at school, where she speaks it for the first time. When she recites in class, her voice sounds splintered. But it is not merely that English is a new language for her. One of her classmates whispers, "You can't entrust your voice to the Chinese, either; they want to capture your voice for their own use. They want to fix up your tongue to speak for them." Despite her mother's statement that she wants her daughter to communicate freely, Maxine is silenced both in English and in Chinese.
Because Maxine cannot overpower her mother, she dominates one of the girls in school. She torments a girl who cannot even speak up in her Chinese school, perhaps because in the girl's timidity Maxine sees an image of her own powerlessness. By torturing another Chinese American girl, Maxine reveals her own self-contempt. Frank Chin and Jeffrey Chan note that such "self-contempt is nothing more than the subject's acceptance of white standards of objectivity, beauty, behavior, and achievement as being morally absolute, and his acknowledgment of the fact that because he is not white, he can never fully measure up to white standards" ["Racist Love," Seeing Through Shuck, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, 1972]. So Maxine—barely able to communicate herself—pinches the girl, squeezes her face, pulls her hair, and demands that she talk. Maxine tells her to say her name, to call for her sister, to ask Maxine to leave her alone, to say anything—even "a" or "the"—and she promises she will relent. But the girl can only sob and make choking noises. Finally, in language that partially echoes her mother's admonition to Maxine when she tells the story of her aunt, she tells the girl that she is doing this for her own good and that she must never tell anyone she has been bad to her. She badgers the girl to talk. But the girl never really does talk; even as an adult, she remains sequestered in her family's home. The prospect of being silent and closed up—one of the crazy women that Maxine imagines every Chinese house has—increases her desire for independence from the oppressive Chinese culture her mother represents.
Unless she breaks away, Maxine knows she will go crazy. This prospect terrifies her because she has seen craziness up close in her aunt, Moon Orchid, as well as in the mad Chinese women in her neighborhood. Like the moon, her aunt is a reflective surface, but what she reflects are the traditional Chinese beliefs about women and their relations to their families, which Maxine finds so repellent. When Moon Orchid comes to the United States to reclaim her husband, Maxine sees a cultural clash which convinces her more than ever that China is the Other. At her sister Brave Orchid's prodding, Moon Orchid begins her quest. Her husband abandoned her and her daughter thirty years ago. Now, however, Brave Orchid persuades her that she can once again enjoy her status as first wife, although her prosperous physician-husband is married to a Westernized nurse and has a son. The plans, so incomprehensible from a Western point of view, but so reasonable to Brave Orchid, leave Moon Orchid humiliated. She begins her descent into madness. Soon she has paranoid fantasies; she thinks that Mexicans are plotting to kill her, so she stays in the house, with the windows and drapes closed and the lights off. When she refuses to let anyone else leave for fear they will turn into ashes, Moon Orchid is finally institutionalized. The plight of her aunt is not lost on Maxine. To be Chinese is to go mad; it is to be trapped in an alien, irrational world. Not surprisingly, Maxine notes that all of Brave Orchid's children decided to major in science or mathematics.
Maxine values the orderly, rational world represented by science since, through the lens of Orientalism, she sees nothing but irrationality in Chinese culture. A prime example is Brave Orchid as shaman. The song of her experiences at the To Keung School of Midwifery should serve as an example to Maxine of an independent woman with her own career. Certainly she is a model to the group of students who are like daughters to her as well as to her colleagues and friends. Instead, her experiences set her further apart from her daughter. Of all the incidents that surely happened at the medical school, the ones Maxine focuses on are all supernatural, like Brave Orchid's exorcism of a ghost. Dared by the other students, Brave Orchid sleeps in a haunted room where she battles a sitting ghost: "She grabbed clutches of fur and pulled. She pinched the skin the hair grew out of and gouged into it with her fingernails. She forced her hands to hunt out eyes, furtive somewhere in the hair, but could not find any. She lifted her head to bite but fell back exhausted."
Although a knife is just beyond her reach, Brave Orchid defeats the ghost not through physical violence but through words. She speaks to the ghost throughout the night, insisting that it has no power over a strong woman. When the students gather around her the next morning to find out what happened, her story becomes even more strange and wonderful. She tells them that she was gone twelve years in all, during ten of which she was lost. She says that she walked back to the To Keung School from the Gobi Desert and that once she died Had she not willed the monster to shrink, it would have fed on both her and the others. Finally she says that it waits to feed on them unless they attack it first. After they burn it out, one of the students finds a piece of wood covered with blood.
After retelling this story of her mother's medical training, Maxine says, "She had gone away ordinary and come back miraculous, like the ancient magicians who came down from the mountains." Once she becomes Doctor Brave Orchid, her experiences are hardly the sort that would make her a credible scientist in the West. When she goes to work in the villages, she sees ghosts falling out of trees and coming out of cervixes because "medical science does not seal the earth, whose nether creatures seep out, hair by hair, disguised like the smoke that dispels them." One night she encounters an ape-man which has escaped; she is undaunted, though, telling it to go home. Supernatural events like these do not trouble her because she "was midwife to whatever spewed forth … sometimes babies, sometimes monsters."
Most irrational of all is the fact that Brave Orchid refuses to treat people who are dying. This, however, only improves her reputation and increases the number of her patients. She will not deal with the dying because she insists on bringing only health from house to house. The last picture of Brave Orchid as doctor is her turning her back on a woman who has been stoned by her villagers. Fearful of strafing by Japanese airplanes in 1939, they are alarmed by the village crazy lady, who has put on a head-dress with small mirrors. As she dances, the light glints off these mirrors, which the villagers fear are signaling the planes. They stone her to death while Brave Orchid turns and walks to the mountains. Neither these experiences nor her medical expertise would be valued, much less comprehensible, in the West.
In fact, in the United States Brave Orchid's medical skills completely fail. It is not merely that her Chinese diploma is not recognized: she cannot even help her family. She tells Maxine that her diet is too yin, which is causing her to catch colds so frequently. In fact, she mistakenly thinks one of Maxine's cold pills is LSD but takes it anyway. Maxine tells her mother it is a simple over-the-counter cold tablet and also reprimands her for taking pills that are lying around. It is curious that a medically trained person would need to be told such things, but she does. Brave Orchid's medical expertise obviously does not translate well into the Western world that Maxine knows and accepts as right and normal So, although Brave Orchid's knowledge and professional accomplishments should connect mother and daughter, they do not. Because the experiences are so alien to Maxine's cultural perspective, they make the chasm between mother and daughter even greater.
Not only are Brave Orchid's experiences in medical school and as a doctor alien, but so is her behavior in ordinary life, which Maxine finds baffling. When a delivery boy from the drug store mistakenly brings some pills to the Hong household, Brave Orchid is enraged and swears vengeance. She forces Maxine to go to the store and demand that they stop the curse. She feels their house has been tainted by the medicine and can only be remedied by free candy. Maxine recognizes that the druggist will no doubt think she is begging. But since her mother will not be dissuaded, she tells the druggist, "'My mother said you have to give us candy. She said that is the way the Chinese do it.'" Interestingly, she does not say, "That is the way we do it." She separates herself from what she sees as her mother's bizarre ideas and behavior. When the druggist presses her further—"'Do what?'" he asks—she responds, "'Do things.' I felt the weight and immensity of things impossible to explain to the druggist." After that discussion, he does give the family candy, but it is leftover candy from holidays just past. Brave Orchid thinks she has triumphed, but Maxine is sure that the druggist is merely taking pity on them. The confrontation that is supposed to show power and victory only reinforces Maxine's belief that the Chinese way is weak, inappropriate, and irrational.
As it these traits were not enough to stigmatize the Chinese culture and its people as Other, its inaccuracy, another characteristic of an orientalized culture, troubles Maxine. The West, with its penchant for dominating the world through definition, precision, and fact, rejects ambiguity, imprecision, and mystery. It is not surprising that Maxine, in her efforts to reject her mother, is so bewildered and frustrated by her mother's inattention to fact. For example, when they are discussing age, Brave Orchid tells her daughter that the last time she saw her she was still young, but now she is old. Maxine tries to point out to her that they visited only a year ago. But her mother won't change her opinion; she simply notes that during that year Maxine became old. Then, talking about death, she mentions that she is eighty. Maxine says that according to her papers she is seventy-six. They argue about the exact age for a while; Brave Orchid says that her papers are wrong and that she's eighty, eight one in Chinese years. She says she may be seventy or eighty and that numbers do not matter. To her, exactness is simply unimportant. There is a truth beyond fact, and a way of knowing beyond reason. Brave Orchid's is a different way of knowing, but Maxine makes no room for alternate visions of reality.
Nor does Maxine recognize that she sometimes mistakes ambiguity for inaccuracy. It is only as she develops, both as a person and as a writer, that she sees that there can be richness and beauty in ambiguity, especially in the Chinese language. As an adult she begins to look up the meanings of "Ho Chi Kuei," which immigrants call her and the others who have lived in the United States for a while. She does not know Chinese, but instead of orientalizing the culture to reject it, she begins exploring the language—the basis of any culture. She learns that "Ho Chi Kuei" translates in various ways, from one of a number of insects to "non-eater," a term which relates to Brave Orchid's notions of heroism. But she does not make this realization, which allows her to move away from her Western monoculturalism, until adulthood.
As a girl, she also fails to recognize that there might be serious, practical reasons for the inaccuracy, outright lies, and "the secrecy of the Chinese"—not our secrecy—which she detests. "Don't tell" is her parents' constant refrain, although, as Maxine notes, "we couldn't tell if we wanted to because we didn't know." As an adult, of course, Maxine recognizes that "they would not tell us children because we had been born among ghosts, were taught by ghosts, and were ourselves ghost-like." But when she was growing up and trying desperately to divorce herself from her mother and her Chinese heritage, she did not realize how serious the possibility of deportation was and, therefore, how great the need for secrecy about one's background was. Although the worst of the deportation fear was over by the 1950s when Maxine was a girl, the fearful memories from earlier years surely must have remained strong in the tightly knit Chinese communities. The Immigration Act of 1924, passed to halt further Japanese immigration, also prohibited Chinese wives from coming to the United States to join their husbands. This act effectively stopped the growth of Chinese families, which typically had from six to a dozen children. Women who tried to enter the country were detained at Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay, where they might be held up to two years [Judy Yung, Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History, 1986]. The Chinese had good reason for guarding their identities even from their children, who might blurt out information that could lead to deportation for their families, but all Maxine could see was a legacy of lies, of which she wanted no part.
Maxine sees the Chinese as inaccurate or deceitful not only in matters with potentially serious consequences, but also in ordinary situations. She says that she and the other children in the family never really had a sense of when holidays occurred. There was no anticipation or excitement, only a vague awareness that they had eaten a certain food which deemed it a holiday. If anyone had the temerity to ask for explanations the adults got angry and evasive and silenced the annoying child. Maxine finds all the secrecy about these events doubly puzzling. She is confused not only about the actual dates of holidays, but also about how Chinese traditions, which her mother seems so insistent about honoring, are ever maintained or how they maintained a continuous culture for five thousand years. Once again, it is interesting to see that she refers to the Chinese as "they"—the Other—to distance herself from a culture that seems irrational from a Western perspective.
Though Maxine is often curious about how a culture that seems so strange to her could have lasted for so long, she also says she has no desire to understand it. In fact, she says that "if you don't figure it out, it's all right. Then you can grow up bothered by 'neither ghosts nor deities.'" But, of course, she is tormented by Chinese ghosts. Although Maxine may have learned from Brave Orchid and other members of the Chinese American community to refer to all non-Chinese people as ghosts—Meter Reader Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, Urban Renewal Ghosts, Public Health Nurse Ghosts, Burglar Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts—for her, the real ghosts are Chinese, those shadowy, inexplicable presences that haunt her life. And she expends considerable effort to understand why her mother uses language in a way that bewilders rather than clarifies.
One such instance regards the birth of babies, who must be named and described as other than they are in order to protect them from the jealous gods. Despite her avowed desire for accuracy, Maxine is, however, pleased when her mother calls her "Little Dog," even though she, like her mother, is a Dragon. "Little Dog" is "a name to fool the gods." This name signifies a loving connection, rooted in a cultural heritage that Brave Orchid hopes her daughter will eventually accept with pride. This sense of connection, however, will come only in time. When she is younger and prone to orientalize Chinese culture, Maxine is frustrated to the point of rage by what she regards as duplicity.
Maxine's frustration leads to one of the most memorable battles between mother and daughter. Because she believes Brave Orchid does not really know her, Maxine feels compelled to recite a list of "over two hundred things … so that she would know the true things about me." She wants the truth to bring them closer, but unlike Brave Orchid, who wants their Chinese heritage to unite them, Maxine wants their union grounded in a Western sense of fact and accuracy. So she says. "If only I could let my mother know the list, she—and the world—would become more like me, and I would never be alone again." One night when mother and daughter are alone in the laundry, Maxine begins to tell her the items on the list—how she killed a spider, how she hinted to a girl that she wanted a doll. When Brave Orchid doesn't respond to these revelations, Maxine thinks she must be more explicit. But to Brave Orchid, such precision and details are not the means to truth. In fact, telling her to go away, she adds. "I don't feel like hearing your craziness." What is taking place in this scene is a clash of cultures arising from two different ways of knowing. Viewing her mother from a Westernized perspective, Maxine misunderstands what her mother values as truth. Consequently, she sees her disregard of the "truth" as a sign of Chinese primitiveness and inferiority, from which she must dissociate herself. Maxine recalls that she had to leave home to view the world logically, as a place filled with simplicity and without ghosts. She equates the West with order, logic, and rationality—a way of knowing superior to the byzantine complexities of a culture that she herself has orientalized. It is a way for her to escape her ghosts, for it is the Chinese culture which seems foreign to her. She also equates China with darkness, the West with a light that can illuminate the error of non-Western societies.
But Chinese society is only "backward" from a Eurocentric point of view in which progress is the domain of the West. The stories about her mother's cooking and eating as a strategy to combat ghosts are one such case in point. Maxine attributes Brave Orchid's ability to win over the sitting ghost to her ability to eat anything; "all heroes," she says, "are bold toward food." Maxine notes that her mother kills and cooks raccoons, snakes, and skunks for her family and gives them five-day-old leftover squid eyes. She doesn't want to know the reasons why her mother cooks the kinds of food that she does; she evidently does not realize the privation which the Chinese suffered for many years and which had driven them to the United States since the 1850s. So thrift and inventiveness in the face of privation, which would ordinarily be praiseworthy qualities, do not make such a cuisine acceptable to her. Her rejection is far more than children's usual dislike of exotic foods, though. It is the exotic culture represented by the foods which Maxine rejects. This is suggested by her linking her mother's cooking with the fantastic stories of warriors who are heroic eaters: Kao Chung, "who in 1683 ate five cooked chickens and drank ten bottles of wine that belonged to the sea monster," Chou Yi-han, who ate a fried ghost, and Wei Pang, who ate a "ball of flesh entirely covered with eyes."
Maxine makes the sorts of equations that set up China as Other, which she can then reject. She thinks that all she is rejecting is weirdness, not heroism. Out of ignorance, she is cutting herself off from a tradition of courage. Sau-ling Wong discusses the semiotics of eating in Asian literature, the importance of the ability to "eat unpromising substances and to extract sustenance, even a sort of willed enjoyment, from them: to put it symbolically, it is the ability to cope with the constraints and perceptions Asian Americans have had to endure as immigrants and racial minorities." But rather than really face these problems, Maxine would rather ally herself totally with Western culture. In fact, so total is her denial that she refuses to cook for others and apparently cooks very little for herself, since her mother is so concerned that Maxine hasn't fattened up. But Maxine wants nothing to do with the heroics of eating. After recounting the mythic stories about eating, she says she would live on plastic, a perfect metonym for the greed and unnaturalness of Western society.
Eventually, however, Maxine rejects the plastic society of the West, but, more importantly, she rejects her Orientalism. She realizes that she understands little of her Chinese legacy, but now, instead of exoticizing it so much that she can dismiss it out of hand, she longs to discover this part of her culture. She knows now that to fix one particular image of a culture is to falsify it; she is open to fluid interpretations which allow and appreciate cultural difference. Though she once said she never wanted to go to China, she ultimately changes her mind and plans a visit as she continues to sort out what was real and what was imagined.
The Woman Warrior concludes with a collaborative talk-story by mother and daughter. Brave Orchid begins the story, telling about her grandmother and how she foiled thieves that struck the homes of theater patrons who were watching plays. Leaving the doors and windows open, the family went to the play. Because the bandits struck at the theater, the family's home and their possessions were safe. This segues into Maxine's portion of the story. She begins: "I like to think that at some of those performances, they heard the songs of Ts'ai Yen, a poetess born in A.D. 175." For twelve years, Ts'ai Yen was a captive of a barbarian chieftain by whom she had two children. At night the barbarian warriors played music on their flutes—a high, disturbingly beautiful music that contrasted with the deathly music of the arrows which flew during the daytime. Ts'ai Yen begins singing in a voice which matches the flute music, her pain and anger about being separated from her family and China evident in her song. When she is ransomed, she brings her "songs back from the savage lands," one of which is "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," a song that the Chinese sing to their own instruments. Maxine notes that the barbarian songs translated well, a comment usually seen as a reconciliation of the conflicts that have divided mother and daughter. But such a reading is in danger of sentimentalizing the reconciliation, of making it seem that the two cultures can meet in a happy fusion or assimilation. Maxine's Chinese heritage is not neatly compatible with her American culture, as suggested by the fact that mother and daughter each tell different stories with only the slightest of connections. The two cultures can only touch; each must stand separate, its difference accepted rather than stigmatized as Other.
More importantly, Maxine is no Ts'ai Yen, a sojourner in barbarian cultures, longing to return to her native land. The United States is her native land, not China. Like Ts'ai Yen, she is, of course, an artist, reinterpreting the stories her mother tells her in the light of her American experiences. As Frank Chin notes, it is important to distinguish between being Chinese and being Chinese American. In a racist society, both are lumped together because of skin color and physical characteristics. But, Chin notes, "We're not interchangeable. Our sensibilities are not the same" [Bridge Vol. 2, No. 2, December, 1972]. It is Maxine's mother, Brave Orchid—also a consummate storyteller—who has spent long years away from her homeland in an alien culture. Unlike Ts'ai Yen, though, she is not returning home. And even if she were to try, it would not be the China she knew—but instead a tissue of the fact, fantasy, and endlessly retold myths that would form her own memoir among ghosts. Though mother and daughter's collaborative talk-story does not signal an assimilation of Chinese and American cultures—which would not be desirable, even if it were possible—it does suggest that Maxine has stopped duplicating the hegemonic cultural values and assumptions of the West. She is free to find meaning in a cultural heritage that has a vital presence in her life and, finally, can put to rest the ghosts of her past.
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