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.
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.
Or at least, my mother recognized the numbness in these women’s faces.
“What fine food we treated ourselves to with our meager allowances!
“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.
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?
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.
She traded that gruel for two feet from a pig.
“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.
When the train pulled out of Hangzhou the next day, the Hsus found themselves depleted of some nine thousand dollars’ worth of goodwill.
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.
"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.
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.
"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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
This is how I became betrothed to Huang Taitai’s son, who I later discovered was just a baby, one year younger than I.
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.
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.
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.
Someone, probably Huang Taitai, had added imperial dragon heads at the corners of the roof.
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.
Huang Taitai had made elaborate plans, but our wedding was very small.
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.
And after that she confined me to the bed so that her grandchildren’s seeds would not spill out so easily.
Your daughter-in-law was born with enough wood, fire, water, and earth, and she was deficient in metal, which was a good sign.
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.
I chose an auspicious day, the third day of the third month.
My body was writhing as if I were seized by a terrible pain.
“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.
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.
There was another smell, outside, something burning, a pungent fragrance that was half sweet and half bitter.
“Stand still, Ying-ying!” she cried, her usual lament, while I giggled and wobbled on the stool.
She smoothed some of my wayward hairs back in place and tucked them into my coiled braid.
I nodded my head and began to run toward her, my self running ahead. “Slowly, go slowly,” admonished Amah.
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;
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.
"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).
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.
I walked over to the edge and looked at the bird. He looked back at me warily with one eye.
And sure enough, I turned around and a sullen woman was now squatting in front of the bucket of fish.
That is how Amah found me: an apparition covered with blood.
“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.
And the crowd laughed and groaned, then began to disperse.