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...I'm not really sure why I still give in to my family obligations. While I would never admit this to Phil, I've come to resent the duty. I'm not looking forward to seeing the Kwongs, especially Mary. And whenever I'm with my mother, I feel as though I have to spend the whole time avoiding land mines. (16)
I could relate to this last line regarding her mother. By my mid-twenties, I did my best NOT to discuss anything personal with my mother. Why? Because she would launch into "lecture" mode and I would hear every single nuance of my behavior, thoughts, and attitudes that was wrong, simply wrong! Never was there any acknowledgement of a job well done, just critical essays of my many shortcomings. I believe Pearl felt communication with her mother was much the same...and, of course, Pearl's mother, "Winnie," knew nothing of the illness. I could understand Pearl's reluctance to confess this to her mother, fearing that she would never 'hear the end of it' once Winnie knew...
The bulk of this book is Winnie's story of her life in China, before coming to the U.S. in her late twenties. We also learn about 'Helen'/Hulan and Auntie Du/Grand Auntie who followed her to the U.S., and so many others who remained in China but played pivotal roles in Winnie's life. Polygamy was the name of the game, with men housing as many wives as they could afford, in addition to concubines, etc. Homes were not just multi-generational, but also contained multi-nuclear families with one common male figurehead. By Winnie divulging her own personal history to her daughter, Pearl, her actions, behaviors, and attitudes become much more understandable, as a natural outgrowth of the various and multiple abuses she had suffered throughout her lifetime.
Perhaps more than anything, this book is about "secrets." Secrets kept from one another as 'best friends,' relatives, mother-daughter, husband-wife, father-child, etc. Along with secrets are lies, for many times, one must lie to another in order to keep personal knowledge hidden. Winnie endured her father sending her away to his brother's home once her own mother 'disappeared.' Of course, there was bribery involved, in that the brother was given a factory and other income-producing gifts. Then she was married off to a man and his family known to be volatile, with unethical and immoral business practices as well as his own personal behaviors. There was nothing but betrayal and exploitation in Winnie's life while in China, with what little satisfaction and achievement she could accomplish given her lack of control of most aspects of her life. I believe Winnie embodied a similar 'fight' that her mother probably displayed in her own life, and that is what prompted her mother to abandon Winnie. Winnie realized her powerlessness in the Chinese society, but there was little she could do to 'fight back.' It is only at the end of the book that Helen's secret is revealed and we realize the extent of her foresight and ultimate loyalty in lying and keeping secrets!
As Pearl describes her mother:
To this day it drives me crazy, listening to her various hypotheses, the way religion, medicine, and superstition all merge with their own beliefs. She puts no faith in other peoples' logic--to her, logic is a sneaky excuse for tragedies, mistakes, and accidents. And according to my mother, nothing is an accident. (29)
It would be difficult to be either Pearl or her mother, wouldn't it? Winnie emigrates to the U.S. and a totally different culture, from one based upon superstitious negativity and fear, to one that is in many ways more 'enlightened,' where her own beliefs have long been abandoned. It would be so difficult! Then to be the first-generation U.S.-born children of immigrants would prove so challenging, trying to fit into U.S. culture while dealing with your own parents, whom you truly don't understand based upon your current environment. But once Winnie's history is known, it is easier to understand her amalgam of personal beliefs. And this brings me to a subject I have been pondering as of late. I think each of us should record our own autobiography for the sake of our offspring and/or other relatives. Our individual understandings of life should be written for others to learn more about us. I have begun this process so that although my sons and I have little time for 'personal revelations,' there would be a way for them to truly know who I am. I feel few adults truly know who there parents are or were. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this now in the aftermath of my own mother's death and the revelations that have followed. I would like my own children to have a frame of reference when they think of me without needing to guess about everything. But I digress...