Summary and Analysis
Jing-mei Woo: Best Quality
After a Chinese New Year's dinner, Jing-mei's mother gave her a jade pendant which she said was her "life's importance." At first, Jing-mei did not like the pendant; it seemed too big and ornate. After her mother's death, however, the pendant will begin to assume great importance to her — even though she does not really understand the meaning that her mother assigned to it. Later, Jing-mei will notice other Chinese wearing similar pendants and will ask one of them what the pendant signifies. He won't know either.
Jing-mei had helped her mother shop for the crabs that she served at the New Year's dinner. That day, her mother was annoyed about the tenants living in the second-floor apartment of a six-unit building that she owns. She was especially bothered by their cat, which Jing-mei and the tenants suspect that she poisoned. Jing-mei listened patiently to her mother as she poked the crabs to find the liveliest ones. As she was spearing the live crabs from the tank, one of them lost a limb. Mrs. Woo refused to accept it because a maimed crab is bad luck for the New Year. After a lengthy discussion, the fishmonger threw it in for free. When they return home, Jing-mei watches her mother cook, but she leaves the room when Mrs. Woo begins to boil the crabs; she cannot bear to see them die.
There are eleven people at the New Year's celebration. Mrs. Woo hadn't counted Waverly's daughter, Shoshana, and so she purchased only ten whole crabs. When she sees the extra person, she decides to cook the eleventh crab, the one missing a limb. At dinner, Waverly takes the best crab for her child, and Mrs. Woo ends up with the maimed one, which she doesn't eat.
Waverly subtly insults Jing-mei during the dinner, mentioning her choice of hairdresser. Jing-mei retaliates by teasing Waverly about her firm's finances because the bill that Jing-mei submitted for her ad copy has not been paid. Waverly retorts that Jing-mei hasn't been paid because her work was not acceptable — a retort that reduces Jing-mei to tears. Auntie Lindo comes to Jing-mei's rescue, pleading with Waverly to let Jing-mei rewrite the material. Waverly ignores her. Jing-mei goes to wash the dishes; she is no longer angry at Waverly — she simply feels tired and foolish.
Later that night, after everyone has left, Jing-mei asks her mother why she did not eat her crab. Her mother tells her that it was already dead before she cooked it, and thus it was not edible. She cooked it merely because she thought that it might still be good and because she knew that only Jing-mei would pick it, because Jing-mei would never choose the "best quality." She sees this virtue as one of Jing-mei's best qualities. Then she gives to Jing-mei her "life's importance," the jade pendant necklace.
Note that the last section of this chapter is set in the present. Jing-mei is cooking dinner for her father, who has not been eating well since his wife's death. She hears the tenants upstairs and now understands her mother's former complaints. The tenant's cat appears at the window, and Jing-mei realizes that her mother did not poison it, after all.
In part, this novel's richness comes from its ability to make the specific general. We see this illustrated best in Jing-mei's experiences. Jing-mei, like many people, is satisfied with less than "best quality." She is so self-effacing that she sacrifices for others without even thinking about her actions. Not being fond of crab, she nonetheless, automatically, reaches for the least desirable crab — the one with the missing leg — during the New Year's dinner. She does not think herself worthy of the best. Clearly, however, this admirable selflessness also has a destructive side. Jing-mei is easily humiliated by those who possess a greater deal of self-confidence — such as her childhood friend Waverly Jong. During Jing-mei's childhood, her mother had tried to make her into a child prodigy like Waverly, the childhood chess champion. All of Mrs. Woo's efforts failed. Waverly became a successful tax accountant for a major firm; Jing-mei, a copywriter for a small advertising firm. Jing-mei is awed by Waverly's great economic success. She sees this material success as proof of Waverly's greater worth as a person.
Jing-mei's mother does not value Waverly so highly. She sees Waverly as a crab, scuttling in a rut. "Why you want to follow behind her, chasing her words?" Mrs. Woo scolds. "She is like this crab . . . always walking sideways, moving crooked. You can make your legs go the other way." Mrs. Woo believes that her daughter has freedom of choice, the ability to think for herself and go against the tide of convention. Jing-mei, she believes, is a leader — not a follower. Mrs. Woo gives her the jade necklace in order to bequeath this belief to her daughter. This necklace, worn against the skin, will hopefully transfer the family heritage from mother to daughter.
Perhaps Jing-mei is correct in believing that her mother gives her the necklace, in part, to soothe her humiliation. Perhaps, however, Mrs. Woo foresees her own death, only months from now. The maimed crab, "a bad sign at Chinese New Year," might herald her end. Perhaps it is a combination of both factors, as well as Mrs. Woo's desire to impress upon her daughter that she is "best quality," worthy of the best that life has to offer. She should no longer be satisfied with the leavings of others; it's time that she herself reach for the best. Mrs. Woo is offering love and confidence to her daughter. These two character assets are her heritage to her.
Tan's subtle humor is evident when Mrs. Woo smugly recounts to Jing-mei how she got the better of one of her tenants. To retaliate, the tenant called her "the worst Fukien landlady." She complacently tells Jing-mei that he was wrong — she is not from Fukien. She mistook the obscenity for a Chinese city and thus completely missed the point of his insult. In effect, she won this skirmish — because she misunderstood his insult.
jade a gemstone that ranges in color from dark green to almost white. In ancient times, it was used for weapons, utensils, and ornaments. Today, it is used for rings, necklaces, earrings, and other articles of jewelry. Jade has always been prized by the Chinese as the most precious of all stones. The finest quality jade carvings come from China.
tofu bean curd. The small white squares have a soft, spongy texture and a bland taste. Tofu is considered a nutritious food because it is an excellent source of protein, is fat free, and low in calories. Tofu can be eaten plain, but it is usually cut into small squares and used in lieu of meat, fish, or chicken in stir-fry recipes. It can also be used in making cold salads. Tofu is often sold in deli departments of large supermarkets or small food specialty stores.
AIDS Waverly says that because Jing-mei's hairdresser is gay, he could have AIDS. He is cutting hair, "which is like cutting a living tissue." There has not been a single reported case of anyone contracting AIDS through a haircut; this scene is proof that Waverly can be prejudiced, misinformed, and even cruel.