Feathers from a Thousand Li Away

In this international bestseller, four Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters try to understand each other.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. fragile
    easily broken or damaged or destroyed
    My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English.
    Tan's use of the word "fragile" to describe the immigrant women's English could be 1) to avoid wincing at the phrase "broken English" (see essay "Mother Tongue); 2) to suggest that the women's grasp of English is as fragile as their hold on their American lives; 3) to emphasize the women's emotional fragility.
  2. numbness
    the trait of lacking enthusiasm for or interest in things
    Or at least, my mother recognized the numbness in these women’s faces.
  3. meager
    deficient in amount or quality or extent
    “What fine food we treated ourselves to with our meager allowances!
  4. despair
    abandon hope; lose heart
    “It’s not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost.
  5. somber
    grave or even gloomy in character
    What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness?
  6. gruel
    a thin porridge
    She traded that gruel for two feet from a pig.
    Although Jing-mei is using this sentence as part of a longer description of how her mother's Kweilin story changes each time it's told, she recognizes how grueling ("characterized by effort to the point of exhaustion") her mother's escape had been.
  7. gradual
    proceeding in small stages
    “Along the way, I saw others had done the same, gradually given up hope. It was like a pathway inlaid with treasures that grew in value along the way.
  8. deplete
    use up, as resources or materials
    When the train pulled out of Hangzhou the next day, the Hsus found themselves depleted of some nine thousand dollars’ worth of goodwill.
  9. recoup
    regain or make up for
    Months later, after an inspiring Christmastime service at the First Chinese Baptist Church, Auntie An-mei tried to recoup her loss by saying it truly was more blessed to give than to receive, and my mother agreed, her longtime friend had blessings for at least several lifetimes.
  10. oblivious
    lacking conscious awareness of
    Listening now to Auntie Lin bragging about the virtues of her family in China, I realize that Auntie Lin is oblivious to Auntie An-mei’s pain.
    "Oblivious" also means "failing to keep in mind"--both definitions fit here, since Jing-mei is not sure whether Auntie Lin is being thoughtlessly mean or whether she doesn't actually know about Auntie An-mei's greedy family (which is unlikely because the four members of the Joy Luck Club have known each other a long time). Auntie Lin is likely unaware of Auntie An-mei's pain at the moment because she is failing to keep in mind other people while bragging about her own family.
  11. ignorant
    unaware because of a lack of relevant information
    They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America.
    "Ignorant" also means "uneducated in general; lacking knowledge or sophistication"--this definition does not fit here, because all the daughters have attended college (although not all graduated). The use of the adjective is very specific to their daughters' lack of knowledge about them, their lives, and what's important to them (which are very different than what their daughters have grown up with in America).
  12. dowry
    money brought by a woman to her husband at marriage
    So when my brother gave her a sour look, Auntie said our mother was so thoughtless she had fled north in a big hurry, without taking the dowry furniture from her marriage to my father, without bringing her ten pairs of silver chopsticks, without paying respect to my father’s grave and those of our ancestors.
  13. insolent
    marked by casual disrespect
    She looked strange, too, like the missionary ladies at our school who were insolent and bossy in their too-tall shoes, foreign clothes, and short hair.
  14. shrill
    being sharply insistent on being heard
    Above this noise, Popo’s shrill voice spoke. “Who is this ghost? Not an honored widow. Just a number-three concubine. If you take your daughter, she will become like you. No face. Never able to lift up her head.”
  15. betrothed
    pledged to be married
    This is how I became betrothed to Huang Taitai’s son, who I later discovered was just a baby, one year younger than I.
  16. modest
    not large but sufficient in size or amount
    My family lived in a modest two-story house with a smaller house in the same compound, which was really just two side-by-side rooms for our cook, an everyday servant, and their families.
    Lindo's childhood home was modest compared to the larger home of her betrothed. It was also "modest" ("marked by simplicity" and "low or inferior in station or quality) because it was on a little hill made up of centuries of mud washed up by a river; this same river ran right through the middle of their lands, and during a summer of heavy rains, made everything unusable and unlivable.
  17. hastily
    in a hurried manner
    It had been hastily built and then rooms and floors and wings and decorations had been added on in every which manner, reflecting too many opinions.
  18. imperial
    befitting or belonging to an emperor or empress
    Someone, probably Huang Taitai, had added imperial dragon heads at the corners of the roof.
  19. prestige
    a high standing achieved through success or influence
    This room contained tables and chairs carved out of red lacquer, fine pillows embroidered with the Huang family name in the ancient style, and many precious things that gave the look of wealth and old prestige.
  20. elaborate
    marked by complexity and richness of detail
    Huang Taitai had made elaborate plans, but our wedding was very small.
  21. felicitous
    marked by good fortune
    She had even commissioned someone to write felicitous messages on red banners, as if my parents themselves had draped these decorations to congratulate me on my good luck.
  22. confine
    to close within bounds, limit or hold back from movement
    And after that she confined me to the bed so that her grandchildren’s seeds would not spill out so easily.
  23. deficient
    of a quantity not able to fulfill a need or requirement
    Your daughter-in-law was born with enough wood, fire, water, and earth, and she was deficient in metal, which was a good sign.
  24. valid
    still legally acceptable
    I made the Huangs think it was their idea to get rid of me, that they would be the ones to say the marriage contract was not valid.
  25. auspicious
    indicating favorable circumstances and good luck
    I chose an auspicious day, the third day of the third month.
  26. writhing
    moving in a twisting or snake-like or wormlike fashion
    My body was writhing as if I were seized by a terrible pain.
  27. remorseful
    feeling or expressing pain or sorrow for sins or offenses
    “They knew you would not believe me,” I said in a remorseful tone, “because they know I do not want to leave the comforts of my marriage.
  28. chafe
    become or make sore by or as if by rubbing
    And so the stale heat still remained in the shadows behind the curtains, heating up the acrid smells of my chamber pot, seeping into my pillow, chafing the back of my neck and puffing up my cheeks, so that I awoke that morning with a restless complaint.
  29. pungent
    strong and sharp to the sense of taste or smell
    There was another smell, outside, something burning, a pungent fragrance that was half sweet and half bitter.
  30. lament
    a cry of sorrow and grief
    “Stand still, Ying-ying!” she cried, her usual lament, while I giggled and wobbled on the stool.
  31. wayward
    resistant to guidance or discipline
    She smoothed some of my wayward hairs back in place and tucked them into my coiled braid.
  32. admonish
    counsel in terms of someone's behavior
    I nodded my head and began to run toward her, my self running ahead. “Slowly, go slowly,” admonished Amah.
  33. provisions
    a stock or supply of foods
    The servants had already packed and loaded a rickshaw with the day’s basic provisions: a woven hamper filled with zongzi—the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, some filled with roasted ham, some with sweet lotus seeds;
  34. presumptuous
    going beyond what is appropriate, permitted, or courteous
    I climbed into the rickshaw with my mother in it, which displeased Amah, because this was presumptuous behavior on my part and also because Amah loved me better than her own.
  35. bristle
    be in a state of movement or action
    At last, the day has begun! I raced to the pavilion and found aunts and uncles laughing as they used chopsticks to pick up dancing shrimp, still squirming in their shells, their tiny legs bristling.
    "Bristle" also means "a stiff hair" (which many shrimp have on their legs to help them move) and "rise up as in fear" or "react in an offended or angry manner" (which could also fit since the shrimp have just been plucked from their watery cage and are about to be dipped into sauce and eaten raw).
  36. wary
    marked by keen caution and watchful prudence
    I walked over to the edge and looked at the bird. He looked back at me warily with one eye.
  37. sullen
    showing a brooding ill humor
    And sure enough, I turned around and a sullen woman was now squatting in front of the bucket of fish.
  38. apparition
    a ghostly appearing figure
    That is how Amah found me: an apparition covered with blood.
  39. penance
    voluntary self-punishment in order to atone for something
    “My fate and my penance,” she began to lament, pulling her long fingers through her hair, “to live here on the moon, while my husband lives on the sun.
  40. disperse
    move away from each other
    And the crowd laughed and groaned, then began to disperse.
Created on June 17, 2013 (updated July 16, 2018)

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