Summary and Analysis
Rose Hsu Jordan: Half and Half
Rose's mother used to carry a Bible. When she lost her faith, she used the Bible to steady the short leg of the kitchen table. The Bible has remained under the table leg for twenty years.
Tonight, Rose has come to tell her mother that she and her husband, Ted, are getting a divorce. She dreads telling her mother. Rose met Ted Jordan seventeen years ago at the University of California at Berkeley. Initially, she was drawn to his brash, self-assured nature; he was very different from the Chinese boys whom she dated. Rose's mother, Mrs. Hsu, was displeased about the budding relationship because Ted was not Chinese, and Ted's mother, Mrs. Jordan, was displeased because Rose was not American — she was Chinese. At a family picnic, Mrs. Jordan took Rose aside and confided that Ted's future did not include a wife who was a member of a minority race.
Hurt and infuriated by Mrs. Jordan's racism, Rose broke up with Ted that evening. Later, they reconciled and were married a month before Ted started medical school. After his graduation, they bought a home, and Rose set up a freelance graphic arts business. Ted made all the decisions in their lives — from what to eat to where to vacation. The marriage was steady until Ted lost a malpractice suit; afterward, he began to press Rose to make some of her own decisions. The marital break came while he was attending a medical convention in Los Angeles. He called late at night and demanded a divorce. Rose lost all faith in Ted's love for her.
She recalls when her own mother lost her faith. One day many years ago, the entire family — parents and seven children — had gone for a day at the beach. Rose was assigned the care of her four brothers — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing. The three elder boys could amuse themselves, but Bing was only four years old and difficult to amuse. Momentarily distracted, Rose's eyes left Bing and he fell into the ocean and drowned.
Everyone took the blame for the tragedy. The next day, Mrs. Hsu returned to the beach with Rose to find Bing. With her Bible in hand, she implored God to return Bing. She even threw her own mother's blue sapphire ring into the ocean as a sacrifice. Finally, with utter despair and horror, she seemed to accept Bing's death.
Rose knows now that her mother never really expected to find Bing — just as she herself knows that she can never save her marriage even though her mother tells her that she must try. She looks into the Bible and discovers that her mother has entered Bing's name under "Deaths" — inscribing it gently, in erasable pencil.
By now you should realize that Tan uses the titles of these various stories to link themes and convey meaning. The title of this particular story, "Half and Half," can be understood on a number of levels, as can the titles that we have encountered so far. As a couple, Ted and Rose are "half and half" — part American, part Chinese. In some instances, a dual heritage can be a source of strength, but not in this particular instance. Together, Rose and Ted do not "fit" into either culture. They are shunned by his mother, who mistakes Rose for Vietnamese instead of Chinese. Later, she cries bitterly at the wedding, convinced that her son is marrying beneath his social status.
Unlike Mrs. Jordan, Mrs. Hsu is no racist — she is just wary of the foreigner. Cut off from their heritages, Rose and Ted do not unite to create something new, something upon which to build. The Joy Luck Club explores the importance of understanding one's heritage as a way of affirming identity. Without her heritage, Rose is like a ghost. Lacking substance, she can but twist in the wind of her husband's decisions and demands.
When Ted abruptly withdraws his support, she is left without balance. "You can't have it both ways, none of the responsibility, none of the blame," Ted screams at Rose. Like Mrs. St. Clair in the previous section, Rose is thrown "off balance." She has nothing to trust — not her husband, not her mother, not even God. There is nothing to prevent her from losing her balance again. "Even if I had expected it, even if I had known what I was going to do with my life," she says, "it still would have knocked the wind out of me." Rose is like the wind; she has no substance.
In contrast, Mrs. Hsu is firmly grounded. Initially, she was supported by her faith. She attended the First Chinese Baptist church every Sunday — until Bing died and she lost her faith. After Bing's death, her Bible becomes a physical, rather than spiritual, prop — a wedge to shore up a rickety table. Ironically, the Bible is still fulfilling its original purpose — "correcting the imbalances of life." On the surface, it seems that Mrs. Hsu is just being practical; after all, why waste a perfectly good Bible? But even twenty years later, the cover is still "clean white," showing that she hasn't wholly discounted the power of religion to buttress her life. This condition is affirmed when Rose opens the Bible and sees that her mother has entered Bing's name in "erasable pencil." This entry is proof that when she made the entry, she didn't believe that Bing was really dead. She was still hoping that he might return through the power of faith. Even now, she has not reentered his name in ink.
The story of Bing's death parallels Rose's condition. The Hsu family, like Rose and Ted early in their marriage, believed that luck and fate were on their side. Mrs. Hsu strongly believed that she could prevent the tragedies detailed in "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates" by simply being constantly aware of all of them. Ted believed that he could guide the course of their marriage by making all the right decisions. But Rose and Ted both realized, at last, that life was not as simple as that. There was fate to consider.
Mrs. Hsu mispronounces "faith" as "fate." She attributes their good luck to "faith," only she pronounces it "fate." Rose comes to believe that it was fate — not faith — all along. Their good luck was nothing more than an illusion. Evil is arbitrary and non-preventable. The imagery of the scene of Bing's death reinforces the power of fate's arbitrary hand.
The beach is described as being "like a giant bowl, cracked in half, the other half washed out to sea." This is what will happen to the Hsu family after Bing's death. Moments before the accident, he was sitting "just where the shadows ended and the sunny part began." Like Rose and Ted, he was caught between "half and half," the title of the story.
At the end of the story, Rose concludes that fate "is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention." What remains after tragedy? Faith. This is Mrs. Hsu's reaction to loss, and it is the path that she advises Rose to take. It remains to be seen if Rose can harness the "invisible strength" of the wind that powers Waverly Jong and her mother — or if the wind will sweep her off her feet, off balance.