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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 4: "At the Western Palace"


When she is sixty-eight years old, Brave Orchid goes to the San Francisco International Airport to wait for a plane bringing her sister, Moon Orchid, to the United States. She has not seen her sister for thirty years and is so anxious about her arrival that she gets to the airport nine hours before her plane is to land. Two of Brave Orchid's children have brought her to the airport but have wandered off. “Her American children...did not understand sitting; they had wandering feet.” Only Moon Orchid’s daughter waits with her. To make herself comfortable, Brave Orchid makes a bed for herself out of the airport waiting room chairs and a blanket that she has brought. She also eats the food that she has prepared for the wait.

Brave Orchid observes many soldiers and sailors on their way to Vietnam and wonders why they are not crying hysterically. Her own son is in Vietnam, and she knows he is not really where he claims to be in his letters. He does not want to worry his mother. Brave Orchid had advised him to flee to Canada, but he had gone to war in spite of her advice and concern. Her children, who have come to say that the plane has arrived early, interrupt her thoughts. But for four more hours, Brave Orchid must stand and watch the process of the new arrivals pass through customs. She refuses to sit as her children urge her to do. She knows her sister is standing, so to be honorable, she must do the same. "Her American children had no feelings and no memory."

As she waits, Brave Orchid remembers Ellis Island, where she first entered the United States. When she had been asked when her husband had cut his pigtail, she had seen a Chinese man motion for her not to talk. She told the officer she did not know. Suddenly, Brave Orchid thinks she sees her sister and points out a young woman, younger even than her niece. Her niece, who saw Moon Orchid only five years before, easily spies her mother and calls out to her. Brave Orchid is surprised to see a "tiny, tiny lady, very thin, with little flittering hands." Brave Orchid, who is one year older than she, cannot believe Moon Orchid is so old.

After arriving home, Moon Orchid insists on giving out her presents. She has shoes for everyone from a relative in Hong Kong; she has a green, silk dress for Brave Orchid, who cannot imagine where she might wear such fancy clothing. For the children, she brings out jewels, a paper warrior, a paper scholar, an orange warrior-poet, a purple knight, an archer, a modern Communist worker, a girl Communist soldier, and Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior. Brave Orchid scolds her children for touching them, and thinks to herself how impolite they are for playing with the presents in front of the giver. She is also bothered by her sister’s making a mess of the room and is amazed that after thirty years she is still able to irritate her so quickly.

After dinner, Brave Orchid tells her sister they can now "get down to business." Moon Orchid and her daughter protest that she should get some sleep after her long journey, but Brave Orchid insists on discussing what they will do about Moon Orchid's husband. Moon Orchid has been receiving money from him for thirty years, but he has never asked her to come to America. She has come at the insistence of her sister and her daughter, and openly admits, "I shouldn't be here." Brave Orchid tells her it will be fun to confront her husband: to go to his door and tell his second wife and three children that she wants to speak to her husband. Moon Orchid says she is scared and wants to go back to Hong Kong, but Brave Orchid reminds her that her apartment has been sold. She also reminds her sister that her husband abandoned her and his daughter and should “pay.” Moon Orchid protests that he did not abandon her, but gave her money for food, clothes, and servants, and has sent her daughter to college. Brave Orchid looks at Moon Orchid, who has never even worked, and sees how delicate she is; Brave Orchid decides she must “toughen up" her sister and immediately begins the task. By midnight, some twenty-two hours after leaving Hong Kong, Moon Orchid tells her sister that she will face her husband.

Moon Orchid wants to hear about her grandchildren. Her daughter tells her that the children are smart and can speak Chinese and English. Brave Orchid says her children can speak Chinese too and calls them to come and talk to Moon Orchid. They mumble something and then go away, hiding in the bathroom and the basement. Brave Orchid takes her sister to the living room to show off her children's accomplishments kept in a large upside-down fish tank; there are athletic trophies and scholarship recognition. Brave Orchid finds it hard to believe her children can do the things the trophies claim they do and thinks that maybe her children have stolen them from the real winners. "Perhaps they had fooled the Ghost Teachers and Ghost Coaches, who couldn't tell smart Chinese from dumb Chinese. Her children certainly didn't seem like much."

Moon Orchid tries to figure out which of her American nieces and nephews are which. The oldest girl is "absent minded and messy" and has an American name that sounded like "Ink" in Chinese. Another of Brave Orchid's girls has the mark of an unlucky woman, a lip that curled like Brigitte Bardot's. The youngest girl shouts at Moon Orchid to stop following her around. A son seemed thick witted to both Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid. In fact, "None of them were articulate or friendly.” It takes Moon Orchid several weeks to figure out how many children there are because some live away with their own families. The children who do not speak Chinese, she decides, are the grandchildren. Moon Orchid has trouble getting used to the children looking directly into her eyes, a trait that causes her to squirm for she feels they are searching her for lies. She says, “They were like animals the way they stared.” When Moon Orchid asks her sister why she did not teach her girls to be demure, Brave Orchid yells that they are so demure they barely talk. Moon Orchid is also shocked that when she compliments them, they say "thank you" instead of denying the compliment. But when Brave Orchid screams at the children, Moon Orchid defends them, saying they are "sweet wild animals.

The family's routine centers around work in the laundry. Some of the children have the morning shift, and some go to summer school and take the afternoon and evening shifts. Brave Orchid plans to put her sister to work in the laundry. On the way there, they pass the Chinese school where they hear the children singing their lesson. Moon Orchid is glad to see that Americans talk like the Chinese. Brave Orchid corrects her, telling her she is looking at the overseas Chinese, not Americans. When they get to the laundry, Brave Orchid tries to find an easy job for her sister, but cannot find one Moon Orchid can do. She has to constantly remind her sister to be careful around the hot presses. Finally, Brave Orchid sets Moon Orchid on a crate outside the laundry where it is cooler and she will be out of the way.

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