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BRIAN LAMAR

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					                                                                           BRIAN LAMAR
                                                                     Heroes and Tricksters
                                                                      November 19, 2002

                                    A Haunted Youth

       Maxine Hong Kingston encounters difficulties in finding an identity as she grows

up as a Chinese-American girl in Stockton, California. In “The Woman Warrior” she

examines her youth from different perspectives and at different stages of her

development. She struggles to find her place in her family and the world. Kingston

relates her life through various devices. As an outsider her mother referred to everyone

not Chinese or Japanese as ghosts. The talk-stories provide Maxine with life lessons to

teach Maxine how to behave. Maxine desires to be a strong woman figure like Fa Mu

Lan in the talk-story told by her mother. The Chinese community is very guarded and

protective of itself. Maxine learns to be quiet as a child growing up in a very enclosed

community; however, she later learns that she can give voice to her feelings best through

her writing, allowing her to speak out and express herself in ways she could not as a

child. Throughout the book Maxine expresses her feelings of being unwanted and

unvalued by her family. Only boys are felt to be of worth to the Chinese family.

Maxine‟s mother is a strong woman figure and role model for young Maxine, however;

her mother reinforces the negative stereotypes that girls are disappointments to their

parents. Maxine imagines herself a swordswoman, like Fa Mu Lan, whose revenge is her

words rather than a sword. Kingston‟s dream is to break apart stereotypes and old

traditions and create new ideas.

       Being a first generation Chinese child in America means that you do not belong to

any culture. Maxine is torn between two worlds and is not fully accepted in either.
Maxine‟s Chinese heritage is second-hand, retold through her mother‟s talk-stories and

from what images she can conjure from these stories. She struggles with the strictness of

the Chinese traditions and the freedom allowed in America. She does not know how to

dress or what to say. As a child, Maxine is naturally soft spoken and shy which are

labeled American characteristics. The Chinese women are described as being loud and

public. Maxine‟s mother, Brave Orchid, freely expresses her opinions and even attempts

to get others to be more assertive. Brave Orchid, attempts to get her sister, Moon Orchid,

to reclaim her husband who has abandoned Moon Orchid. Brave Orchid is a very bold

and strong willed woman. She claims to have cut Maxine‟s tongue as a girl so that she

would speak more. Maxine explains, “My American life has been such a disappointment.

„I got straight A‟s, Mama.‟ „Let me tell you a true story about a girl who saved her

village (45).” Maxine tries to please her family at first, but learns that Chinese girls are

thought worthless. Kingston attempts to find her place in the world while facing the

obstacles of old traditions and unfamiliar people.

       Kingston grew up surrounded by ghosts. Brave Orchid calls anyone who is not

Chinese or Japanese a ghost. Ghosts represent outsiders. Ghosts appear throughout the

book; some ghosts protect the living while others can do harm. Maxine acknowledges

that “America is full of machines and ghosts – Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts,

Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once

upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly; breathe; I could hardly

walk, limping my way around the White ghosts and their cars (97).” Ghosts are

everywhere and their role changes depending on the point of view from which people are

seen. Brave Orchid‟s sister is convinced that “Mexican ghosts” are trying to hurt her.
There are ancestral ghosts who can protect the family and gifts are given to them. There

are also animal ghosts. Brave Orchid is said to be able to dispel ghosts. She fights one in

her dormitory at school displaying her powers as a shaman. The Chinese emigrants were

uncomfortable around Americans. The children were taught to “Lie to Americans.” The

children are taught to see non-Chinese people as ghosts and as outsiders.

       This idea of everyone not Chinese and in their community being ghosts displays

the intense strictness and closeness of these communities. The only people that mattered

were the other Chinese emigrants living in the same community. The first thing Kingston

says she is told is “You must not tell anyone.” She is taught to keep quiet. “Don‟t tell

anyone you had an aunt (15.)” Ironically, Kingston ends up telling everyone the story.

When she is grown and capable of maturely analyzing the situation Kingston voices her

anger declaring “Sometimes I hated the ghosts for not letting us talk; sometimes I hated

the secrecy of the Chinese. „Don‟t tell,‟ said my parents, though we couldn‟t tell if we

wanted to because we didn‟t know (183).” Maxine learned about her heritage from

piecing together stories told by her mother. The talk-stories heard by Maxine illustrate

the high value of control within the Chinese community. The community is very close

and the emigrants are wary about anything threatening a disruption. In No-Name Woman

the story explains that all the villagers are connected and responsible for one another's

lives. In the talk-story the community punishes Kingston‟s aunt for disrupting order.

Maxine illustrates the Chinese community as strict and oppressive, where people are

unable to have private lives. Women have to bind their feet, which represents the

restricted lives of the women. Everyone is part of one family that worked together.

Kingston‟s aunt disrupts the stability by being pregnant. Although she is probably
pregnant by no fault of her own, she is made an example of and disgraced. The

community‟s need for order and secretiveness is oppressive to Maxine who wishes to be

like Fa Mu Lan in the stories told by her mother.

       The most oppressive force in Maxine‟s life is the traditions, which are carried

through the women. Men do not play a vivid role in this book. Kingston‟s mother tells

her the talk-stories to teach her lesson and which also relate the status of girls in the

Chinese community. It is women who say “There‟s no profit in raising girls. Better to

raise geese than girls.” “Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds (46).” Chinese parents would

leave their baby girls to die because they had wanted boys. Females were seen as being

either wives or mothers, nothing more. Traditions passed on through the women

pounded in the devaluing idea of girls as worthless yet the talk-stories exalted women

warrior figures such as Fa Mu Lan. “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. We could be

heroines, swordswomen (19).” Kingston set out to become a swordswoman of sorts,

using her words to strike at the backward traditions that are imposed on young Chinese-

American girls.

       Maxine‟s mother tells talk-stories which are oppressive and uplifting for Maxine.

Maxine learns about shamans and swordswomen who claim their own positions and are

empowered. However, her mother and other women constantly remind her that girls are

disappointments. Kingston‟s mother is a very imposing figure. Brave Orchid seems to

possess supernatural powers and intelligence, which contradicts the traditional role as a

weak housewife. Brave Orchid went to school where she was allowed to escape the

confines of her community. At the school she demonstrated superior intellect and
bravery by dispelling a ghost. She is a kind of shaman, with the ability to fight ghosts

and cure ailments. After an encounter with a ghost, Brave Orchid‟s classmates call to her

“Your friends need you. We need you. Return to us. Return to us at the To Keung

School. There‟s work to do. Come back, Doctor Brave Orchid, be unafraid (71-72).”

Amongst her classmates Brave Orchid is revered for her abilities and her strong

character. However, in America, Brave Orchid slaves away in a laundry and tomato

fields. She is reduced to the traditional role of mother and wife. She still maintains her

outspoken temperament. Brave Orchid is a powerful female figure in Kingston‟s life.

       The story related by Kingston is a journey to finding one‟s voice. Kingston was a

naturally quiet child who deliberately behaved contrary so as not to be married off. She

did not fit in with the Chinese community and she felt oppressed by the demeaning

values put on women. Her emotions built up inside of her and when she allowed them to

be expressed verbally it was typically a poor reflection of Maxine. Her confrontation

with the quiet girl at school illustrates Maxine as a bully. She is unable to express her

emotions in a controlled fashion. Her outburst at her mother is another unflattering

example of Kingston letting her emotions fly. She discovers through writing she can

convey her emotions with more maturity. Writing is her sword that can be drawn upon to

attack the ignorances perpetuated by some Chinese traditions. The years of oppression

and anger at the Chinese traditions can be aptly expressed through her writing. She

comes to terms with her mother and ends by creating a talk-story from part of a story her

mother had said.

				
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