A Warrior’s Triumph The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston presents the story of a girl trapped between the cultures of her surrounding environment and that which her mother and family have forced upon her. Knowing only the Chinese way of life, this girl’s mother attempts to familiarize her daughter, whom is also the narrator, with the history of their family. The mother shares this heritage through the use of stories in hopes the narrator will be prepared for her ultimate return to China, which is a life completely foreign to her own. Through these stories and the strong influence of the surrounding American culture, the narrator’s life and imagination spin off in a new direction. She is confronted by many obstacles, which cause problems with not only her mother, but also with her attempt to discover her personal identity.
Although the narrator’s assimilation to the American culture causes numerous conflicts with her mother, she is able to overcome adversity and come of age as a Chinese-American with the help of her mother’s stories. In Kingston’s first story, “No Name Woman,” the reader is first introduced to the stories of the narrator’s mother. This particular tale involves an aunt that the narrator never knew, who was shunned from her family for having an affair. It was through this story that the narrator learned how careful a young woman must be when growing up in the Chinese culture. Years after hearing of her aunt’s misfortune, the narrator realizes that she has carried on this ostracism and is equally as guilty as the others who participated in this punishment of silence. However, the narrator feels an intense connection with the outcast of her family.
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“My aunt haunts me-her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her… .” (16).
Perhaps the narrator feels this bond because she herself feels completely alienated from the family and could never be fully connected to her Chinese heritage. Although she is angry for the terrible punishment inflicted on her aunt, she feels remorse for “telling on her” (16).
This shows that the narrator does not only disapprove of the Chinese culture, but also feels sorry for those who must suffer in an eternity of exile. “White Tigers” brings readers into the creative imagination of the narrator. Here, she explains the pressure placed on Chinese girls to succeed. “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (19).
These expectations increased when she was in the presence of “great power, [her] mother talking story” (20).
In one particular situation, the narrator recalls her mother singing about Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior. Although her mother expected her daughter to become a wife or a slave, the narrator had a different idea; she would “grow up a woman warrior” (20).
As a young girl, she said that she “couldn’t tell where the stories left off and the dreams began” (19).
This is the case in “White Tigers.” The narrator’s dream-state takes readers into the mind of a girl who attempts to please her mother and entire family by becoming a woman warrior. This is possibly an attempt to subside much of the harsh ridicule she receives from her mother due to cultural differences.
Although this is a key factor in her early childhood, she learns to block out these criticisms as she grows older. There is significant evidence of this growing maturity in “Shaman.” In the beginning of the chapter, the reader can find an increased pressure placed on the narrator while hearing about her mother’s bravery and intelligence at medical school. This story added on to those her mother told about World War II fighter planes, which terrified the narrator for many years. Also, as a young girl, her mother would refer to America as being ‘full of machines and ghosts” (96).
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These false assumptions about this life foreign to her mother and family plagued the narrator’s mind. It was not until years later, after moving away from home, did she realize the invisible trap her family had set for her. Since the narrator was given a false sense of reality at home, she was required to discover herself and the world on her own. She would have to put an end to her fear of the “size of the world” (99) her mother had already established. Through this courageous independence, the narrator was able to lead her own productive life while sacrificing the relationship with her mother. Furthermore, one can see the overall effect of America on the narrator’s mother as well.
“I don’t want to go back anyway,” (107) is what her mother says. Her time here has allowed her to become adjusted. However, this adaptation has not changed the disapproving nature towards her daughter. A different kind of story with an alternate meaning arises in “At the Western Palace.” An encounter between Brave Orchid, the narrator’s mother, and Moon Orchid, her aunt, helps the narrator to further realize her place in life and just how far from the Chinese way of life she is. The story also helps her to discover more about her family lineage and the obligation a man should have to his wife, which is an apparent similarity between each culture. However, the meeting the narrator hears about does not go as planned.
The reader can additionally see the influence of American culture on Moon Orchid’s husband and how difficult it would be for him to change. He says, “The new life around me was so complete; it pulled me away. You became people in a book I had read a long time ago” (154).
Similarly, the narrator could possibly feel the same distance as her uncle, which causes miscommunication and abandonment with the only family she has known.
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Furthermore, one can see the difference between the narrator and the Chinese culture in “Shaman.” Her aunt, who had just arrived from China, finds the narrator’s lifestyle so fascinating. She finds it necessary to talk about all she sees going on: the daily routines, the unusual clothing, and the foods and style of eating. All these events allow the narrator to see not only the culture shock Moon Orchid has experienced, but also how adjusted the narrator is to the American culture. Although it was difficult for her to first adjust to the school life of America, her overall growth and maturity are noticeable in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” First of all, she had to overcome her introverted personality due to the speech impediment caused by her mother. Second, she had to deal with the hassle of going to a Chinese school in the afternoon. This school was full of disruptive children and unsupervised activities, which seemed to frustrate the narrator.
In addition, there was the usual ridicule from her mother. Perhaps this was the reason she had “no IQ-a zero IQ” (183).
She may have been too afraid of failing and causing further disappointment in the eyes of her family. Finally, the reader is able to see the anger building deep inside the narrator come alive during the bathroom scene when she torments a young, quiet girl in her class. Although not apparent, this can be seen as a breakthrough for the narrator. While feeling sympathy for this little girl, we also feel sympathy for the narrator as well.
She is now able to build the strength to confront her mother in later years. It is in some ways sad to see the narrator and her mother, seeming like two strangers, do battle in hopes the narrator’s mother can somehow accept her in one final plea. The decisions are now left to the narrator. ” I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation” (204).
Here the reader is left to appreciate the overall triumph, but unfortunate loss, in the narrator’s search to understand the world. The life the narrator has had to struggle through is an interesting one. To identify herself as a Chinese-American seems to plague the narrator endlessly. She knows she can never break away from one culture without having to completely abandon the other. In the end, however, she realizes that she must leave home if she is ever to discover her purpose in the world, be it in China or America. The harsh criticisms and endless disapproval causes detrimental effects to the narrator, while at the same time giving her strength to overcome this lifelong struggle by facing her mother.
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Although the stories of her mother’s Chinese experiences and the insistence on her daughter living there push the narrator further away, it eventually causes an interest to discover what is really true. “Soon I want to go to China and find out who’s lying… .” (205).
Though some can constantly feel sorry for the narrator, we can also feel sorry for her mother not knowing any better. This is what ultimately caused the nonexistent relationship between the two. Through this complicated life, the narrator gained the strength, intelligence, and experience that allowed her to overcome numerous obstacles.
Contrary to the belief of some, I feel she has her mother to thank for these gains, and that may have made all the difference.