3 May 2000

Mother and Daughter: Two Different Worlds, Two Different Identities, And One Common Bond

In her autobiography, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston depicts her life as a Chinese-American woman growing up in a Chinese home. As the first American-born daughter of two Chinese immigrant parents, Kingston experiences numerous difficulties balancing the cultures that influence her. One of the major conflicts in her life comes from her relationship with her mother. Mother-Daughter relationships are often difficult, "but when mother and daughter are literally ‘worlds apart’, separated not only by the time gap but also by a wide cultural gap, then the subject is yet more complicated" (Chan 66). Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, is a Chinese woman who expects her family to love and respect their Chinese ancestry. Although they live in America, she does not want her family to give in to the American influences that surround them daily. As a Chinese-American Kingston has problems with her mother’s philosophies, and in typical American fashion, rebels against them. She rejects her Chinese heritage and attempts to become a "true American." But because she is Chinese-American she is faced with two questions, "Would she remain Chinese and agree, in fantasy, to be sold into mother arranged by her tyrannical parents? Or would she rebelliously claim a personal freedom as an "American feminine" autonomous individual" (Henke 215). Despite Kingston’s problems with her mother and the culture that she represents, once she accepts her role as a Chinese-American woman and embraces her Chinese family traditions, she and her mother connect and their similarities surface.

In China, Brave Orchid lives the life of a strong and independent woman. She attends medical school and becomes a well-respected doctor. Although she does use the money that her husband sends from America to pay for her schooling, she remains extremely self-reliant. In order for Brave Orchid to succeed in medical school she has to be very motivated and determined, and she has to have a lot of confidence in herself and her abilities. These are not typical characteristics for a woman in a culture that believes "when you raise girls, you’re raising children for strangers" (Kingston 46). Once her husband is able to support her in America, she comes and lives with him. Upon her arrival to the United States, her life drastically changes. She becomes a wife and soon, a mother. She is unable to practice medicine and must settle for employment in the family laundry and later in her life, as a field hand, gathering food and crops among other immigrants and migrant workers in California.

Brave Orchid’s independence in China is somewhat out of place for a proper Chinese woman. Unlike many women of her time, she was taught to read and write by her father, a man who valued girls as people, unlike the popular belief at the time that girls were worthless. Ironically, Brave Orchid was independent in China where self-sufficient women were not revered, and then she becomes dependent in America where independence is considered a virtue. Despite her unconventional upbringing in China, Brave Orchid raises her daughters to be subservient and dependent. She does not expect them to go to college, but to attend secretary school instead. She also attempts to find a "proper" Chinese husband for them. Even after Kingston leaves home to build her own life, her mother continues to control her. In one scene Brave Orchid begs Kingston to stay longer by stating that "you children never tell me what you’re really up to…how can I bear to have you leave me again" (Kingston 100). Even as an adult, "she has had to break away in order to be free, to be rid of psychomatic pains and illnesses and imagined terrors associated with the mother and childhood" (Chan 71). Brave Orchid continuously attempts to stifle her daughter’s freedom, which adds to Kingston’s desire to release herself from her mother’s control.

Kingston grows up in America, surrounded by Chinese people. She experiences life in a multi-cultural world where she attends school with other Americans but comes home to live and work surrounded by Chinese. In this world she has a hard time communicating. She has to communicate for her parents and for herself, yet as she becomes more a part of American society the ways of her parents become more foreign (Chan 76). In school, although she is quite smart, Kingston is fearful to speak out loud, for fear that someone will make fun of her squeaky "Chinese" voice. She struggles with the American ideas of the roles of women which directly contrast the Chinese ideas. At school she learns that she could be "a scientist or a mathematician if [she wants]. [She] can make a living and take of [her]self" (Kingston 201). While at home she hears that "there’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls" (Kingston 46). To Kingston being a female means being subservient and dependent, especially being a Chinese woman. Also she looks at her mother who "represents all that is baffling and repugnant about Chinese culture" (Mylan 133). She recalls that "there is a Chinese word for the female I—which is ‘slave" (Kingston 47). The thought of being a Chinese woman is not positive to Kingston because "she wants nothing so much as to get away from the chief reminder of what a Chinese woman is—her mother" (Mylan 138).

Because Kingston does not want to be like her mother, she also does not want to be Chinese, which leads her away from her culture. It also leads her away from her role as a female. She attempts to become more like a boy. "Constantly aware of the privileges of manhood, she rebels against traditional female tasks" (Mylan 139). She breaks dishes, refuses to cook, and sabotages all her mother’s attempts to find her a husband. Kingston’s rebellion eventually reaches it climatic point when she yells at her mother and the truth finally comes out.

Brave Orchid and Kingston’s misunderstandings of one another place them in constant opposition. The difference in the values of the two cultures is the major cause of conflict between the mother-daughter pair. An example of the conflict of cultures in action is when Kingston finally tells her mother everything she has been holding back for years. She doesn’t think her mother really knows her as a person, and Kingston believes that if she informs her mother of all the things she has done wrong then everything will be all right. This does not work out the way that she hopes because "[Kingston] wants the truth to bring them closer, but unlike Brave Orchid who wants their Chinese heritage to unite them, [Kingston] wants their union grounded in a Western sense of fact and accuracy" (Mylan 147).

Another examples of the conflict between the two women comes when Brave Orchid does things that she believes will help her daughter, Kingston sees these things as her mother’s attempt to belittle her. One example is when Brave Orchid cuts Kingston’s tongue, which is not a cultural act, but just a mother trying to help her daughter. Brave Orchid claims that she cut it "so that [Kingston] would not be tongue-tied. [Her] tongue would be able to move in any language" (Kingston 164). Yet, Kingston sees this act as her mother’s attempt to silence her, because now she has a "terrible time talking" (Kingston 165).

Despite her constant attempts to rebel against her mother and everything that she represents, Kingston proves that she is like her mother in many ways. One way that they are alike is their need to obtain power over others. Brave Orchid uses her influence over family members. When her sister Moon Orchid comes to the United States, Brave Orchid forces her to look for her husband, who has been working in America and supporting her life in China for the past thirty years. Moon Orchid raises strong objections to seeing him again, but Brave Orchid persists and eventually wins. The need to impose power over others is a trait that Brave Orchid passes down to her daughter, which is shown when Kingston attempts to overpower a classmate. She corners the quiet and shy girl in the basement of the school and attempts to force her to speak. She does not yield even though the girl cries relentlessly. Kingston’s ulterior motive is that because "[she] cannot overpower her mother, she dominates one of the girls in school" (Mylan 141). This experience is a prime example of the parallels between mother and daughter, despite major culture differences.

The links between mother and daughter become more apparent by the end of the memoir. They both possess the ability to persist through any situation. Both women desire to be powerful and have the ability to make people listen to them and follow them. Although Kingston does rebel against her heritage, she eventually becomes content with it. She even becomes proud of her Chinese background, as is evident with her inclusion of Chinese folk tales in her autobiography. "In telling the story of Chinese women, she writes herself into the narrative and ‘atones’ for her ostensible rejection of ethnic bonds" (Henke 224). This reverence for their ancestry is the final link between Brave Orchid and Kingston—between mother and daughter.


Works Cited

Chan, Mimi. "’Listen, Mom, I’m A Banana’: Mother and Daughter in Maxine Hong

Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club."

Asian Voices in English. Ed. Mimi Chan and Roy Harris. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1991. viii, 65-78. Henke, Suzette A. "Women’s Life-Writing and the Minority Voice: Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Alice Walker." Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel Since the 1960s. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995. 215-224. Mylan, Sheryl A. "The Mother as Other: Orientalism in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th Century Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1996. 133-150.
 
 

Bibliography

Chan, Mimi. "’Listen, Mom, I’m A Banana’: Mother and Daughter in Maxine Hong

Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club."

Asian Voices in English. Ed. Mimi Chan and Roy Harris. Hong Kong:

Hong Kong UP, 1991. viii, 65-78.

Goellnicht, Donald C. "Father Land and/or Mother Tongue: The Divided Female

Subject In Kogawa’s Obasan and Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth Century Women’s Fiction: An Essay Collection. Ed. Janice Morgan. New York: Garland, 1991, xvi, 119-129. Henke, Suzette A. "Women’s Life-Writing and the Minority Voice: Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Alice Walker." Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel Since the 1960s. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995. 215-224. Mylan, Sheryl A. "The Mother as Other: Orientalism in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th Century Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1996. 133-150.