Summary and Analysis
Waverly Jong: Four Directions
Waverly Jong takes her mother out to lunch, planning to break the news that she and Rich Schields are getting married. The lunch goes badly, however, and Waverly does not tell her mother about the upcoming marriage. Waverly is afraid of her mother's disappointment and censure. When Waverly's friend Marlene suggests that Waverly and Rich elope, Waverly explains that she eloped with her first husband, and the marriage was a disaster. Her mother threw her shoe at them — and that was just for starters.
To allow her mother an opportunity to realize that Waverly and Rich are already living together, Waverly invites her mother back to her apartment. It is cluttered with her daughter Shoshana's toys and Rich's clothes and barbells. Waverly opens a closet and shows her mother the mink jacket that Richard gave her for Christmas. Mrs. Jong's comment makes Waverly feel that the gift is shabby; she makes no mention of the fact that Waverly and Rich are obviously living together. Waverly recalls another time when her mother hurt her.
That time, Waverly insulted her mother on Stockton Street and hid in the alley for hours. To retaliate against her mother for bragging about Waverly's outstanding chess playing, Waverly decided to quit the game. Even that ploy, however, didn't thaw the chill between them, so Waverly returned to chess. Mrs. Jong seemed unconcerned, yet she tenderly nursed Waverly through her bout with chicken pox.
Waverly realized then that she had erected a wall between herself and her mother. To her horror, Waverly began to lose tournaments. She lost her feeling of supreme confidence. She was terrified that she would no longer be a prodigy and would become someone ordinary. She quit chess for good when she was fourteen years old.
Now, Waverly is afraid that her mother will point out Rich's flaws and turn him into something ordinary. This is what happened to Waverly's feelings for her first husband, Marvin Chen. Waverly concocts a plan: Her mother will cook dinner for her and Rich.
At the end of the evening, Rich is sure that he has "passed the test," but Waverly knows that he failed miserably. The next day, angry at what she perceives as her mother's manipulations, Waverly decides to tell her mother that she and Rich are getting married.
Her mother is kind and understanding, which puzzles Waverly and she bursts into tears. They talk and Waverly finally sees that her mother does indeed love her. She had only been waiting for Waverly to "let her in" to her world. Waverly and Rich postpone their wedding until October so that they can honeymoon in China in the cooler season. Waverly thinks it would be disastrous — yet wonderful — if her mother would go with them.
Here, we see that this chapter picks up the conflict described in "Rules of the Game" — that is, Waverly's love/hate relationship with her mother. Waverly is now an adult. She is a highly successful tax attorney in a high-powered position. According to her friend Marlene, Waverly is so assertive that she does not even have a problem taking on the IRS. Nonetheless, all of that power dissolves when she has to deal with her mother. She becomes a child again in her mother's presence. Her mother seems all-powerful, and Waverly feels that she must continually prove her worth to her mother. She feels that her mother poisoned her first marriage — and, now, she will not get married again until she gets her mother's approval. She cannot even imagine eloping — even though it is her second marriage. Marlene is astonished that Waverly has difficulty telling her mother that she is getting married. Even Rich is amazed. "How long does it take to say, Mom, Dad, I'm getting married?" he asks jokingly. Because of Waverly's dependence, her mother still has the power to change Waverly's perception of reality.
Waverly adores Rich. He loves her unconditionally and makes her happy in every way. "I had never known love so pure," she says. Yet when she senses that her mother does not approve of Rich, her own opinion of him sours. Rich tumbles from being a sort of god to being an animal. "He had the look of a Dalmatian, panting, loyal, waiting to be petted," she says in disgust.
Tan uses a chess metaphor to explain Waverly's feelings and her battle with her mother: "In her hands, I always became the pawn. I could only run away. And she was the queen, able to move in all directions, relentless in her pursuit, always able to find my weakest spots." In addition to figuratively expressing Waverly's relationship with her mother, this metaphor also serves to unify the structure of the book. It continues the chess metaphor central to "Rules of the Game," and thus it links the two stories.
Notice, however, that nowhere has Mrs. Jong directly criticized Rich: The perception of maternal disapproval is all in Waverly's mind. For example, Waverly interprets her mother's remark about Rich's freckles — which she herself elicited — as an insult. Waverly responds to her mother's remark "a bit too heatedly." Clearly she is looking for a confrontation. Similarly, the Jongs do not criticize Rich's clumsy attempt to use chopsticks or his gauche gift of wine — only Waverly does. In the same way, Rich has no way of knowing that Mrs. Jong, by tradition, criticizes her own cooking as a way of eliciting compliments. Waverly is horrified when Rich agrees with Mrs. Jong's criticism about her famous steamed pork and preserved vegetable fish. Yet, because Waverly did not brief Rich about her mother's habits, it almost seems as if Waverly was waiting for him to fail. This behavior is called a "self-fulfilling prophecy." Waverly has decided what her view of the world is, collected information to support it, and finally shared her view with others as "truth." In communicating this way, people can actually change their own behavior, and that of others, so that the result affects their own distorted view. Waverly is so busy finding fault with Rich that she does not even realize that her mother has already acknowledged their love, as well as their probable plans to marry. In a fury, Waverly rushes over to her mother's house to assert herself.
What she sees amazes her. Her mother is not the monster that she imagined. Rather, the old woman seems innocent and childlike. Waverly is pulled apart by her contradictory emotions and perceptions. Recall that the title of this story is "Four Directions." Waverly has difficulty telling appearance from reality because she is pulled in different directions by her own preconceptions, misconceptions, and memories of the past. She is pulled in two directions by her Chinese heritage and American ways. Her mother realizes this dilemma: ". . . if you are Chinese you can never let go of China in your mind," she says. Her mother has been waiting for Waverly to let her in, to accept her Chinese heritage so that she can accept Waverly's Chinese-American future, symbolized by Waverly's daughter, Shoshana. At the end of the chapter, Waverly finally realizes this truth. She imagines what it might be like to travel back to China with her mother, to "move West to reach East."
IRS the popular name for the Internal Revenue Service. Empowered by the U.S. government to collect taxes, the IRS has traditionally triggered fear because of its power to examine tax records, impose fines, and seize property to pay off tax money owed. Tan likens Mrs. Jong to the IRS to humorously illustrate how much Waverly fears her.
pawn one of eight chess figures of one color; it has the lowest power and value. Pawns are usually moved one square at a time vertically; they capture diagonally. The word has come to mean a person who is used or manipulated to further another person's purposes.
queen the most powerful chess piece of either color. The queen can move any unobstructed distance in any direction.