Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Amy Tan’s ‘Half and Half’

‘Half and Half’ is one of the stories from Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club. Told by a Chinese American woman named Rose Hsu Jordan, ‘Half and Half’ incorporates two stories from the narrator’s life: the breakdown of her marriage to an American man named Ted, and an incident from her childhood when one of her younger brothers drowned while she was supposed to be looking after him.

Before we offer an analysis of this story, here’s a summary of its plot.

‘Half and Half’: plot summary

The story is narrated by Rose Hsu Jordan, an American woman and one of seven children born to her Chinese parents. She begins by telling us about her mother’s loss of faith, but then quickly reveals that she recently divorced Ted, her husband with whom she had been for seventeen years, having met him in college.

Ted, who was a medical student, made all the decisions in their relationship. He was the one who decided they should get married, despite their mothers both being sceptical about the relationship. (Rose’s mother dislikes the fact that Ted is American: all of her other daughters had dated, and then married, Chinese men. Meanwhile, Ted’s mother is worried about how racist Americans might respond negatively to Ted as a doctor if he’s married to an Asian woman, because the Vietnam War is ongoing at the time.)

Although Rose readily accepts Ted’s role in being decision-maker in their marriage, when Ted is charged with medical malpractice after several mistakes he makes at work, he appears to lose his confidence and starts telling her to make the decisions. However, Rose is not, by nature or habit, a decisive person, and in the end Ted announces that he wants a divorce.

Rose then returns to the story of her mother’s loss of faith. She recounts an incident when the family were at the beach one day, and Rose is tasked with looking after her four younger brothers while her father is fishing and her mother and older sisters go for a walk. During a moment of confusion, Rose’s four-year-old brother, Bing, falls into the sea while climbing along a reef, and drowns.

The next morning, Rose’s mother takes her daughter with her back to the beach to try to find Bing’s body. Her mother takes her Bible with her and calls to God to help her locate her dead son. She then tells her daughter about her memories from her childhood back in China, including a boy who lost a hand in a firecracker accident; her mother claims that the boy’s hand grew back because his mother believed it would.

Then Rose’s mother takes off a sapphire ring she is wearing and throws it into the sea as an offering to the ‘Coiling Dragon’, in the hope that it will persuade the dragon to give her son back. They both see a figure walking along the beach and believe that it’s Bing, alive and well after all, but as the figure comes closer they realise it is someone else. The mother then gets a large inflatable tube from the car and tosses it into the water, telling her daughter this will bring Bing out from the cave in which she believes her son is trapped. But this doesn’t work either.

‘Half and Half’ ends with Rose taking her mother’s Bible out from under the table, where her mother had placed it after losing her faith. Under a section of the Bible called ‘Deaths’, her mother had written Bing’s name, but in erasable pencil – keeping alive the hope that he might still turn up safe and well.

‘Half and Half’: analysis

The key themes of Amy Tan’s story are probably faith, fate, and hope. Rose Hsu Jordan tells two stories in ‘Half and Half’. Although the story’s title is first and foremost a reference to the ‘yin and yang’ of Rose and Ted, two ‘halves’ who appear to complement each other, after their marriage fails that title, ‘Half and Half’, starts to look more like a nod to these two ‘halves’ of the story which Rose tells: the death of her brother and the collapse of her marriage are two halves of the same truth.

Both of these stories are, of course, about a failure to save something, as Rose’s narrative makes clear towards the end of ‘Half and Half’. Just as she and her mother could not save Bing from drowning, so Rose realises she cannot save her marriage to Ted. The ensuing conversation between Rose and her mother also reveals one of the central messages of Tan’s story: that ‘hope’ and ‘fate’ are two very different ways of looking at one’s life.

So Rose has no hope that she can save her marriage, but for her mother, this makes no difference. Hope has nothing to do with it: instead, she must try to save her marriage, even if there is no hope, because it is her fate. In other words, it is what she is meant to do. This obviously echoes the mother’s determined actions the day after her son Bing drowns.

Deep down, Rose knows these efforts are pointless and doomed to fail, just as we as readers know Bing won’t be saved and is already dead. But to the mother, who has a very different outlook, it doesn’t matter that her son is almost certainly dead and beyond saving. She must go through the motions of trying to save him.

Why? Why do something if we know there is no point to it? It depends, perhaps, on what we mean by ‘point’. To take a more trivial example, many football or baseball supporters religiously wear their lucky shirts (or even underwear) to every match their team plays. They may know, from a rational perspective, that which pair of underpants they have on will make no tangible or measurable difference to the outcome of the game.

But we are not always logical creatures. What if the one time you didn’t wear your lucky pants, your team lost? Would you be able to forgive yourself? Rationally speaking, it should be easy to absolve yourself of any guilt. But again, we are not always rational about such things, especially when we have an emotional investment in them. And there is perhaps nothing we have more of an emotional investment in than our marriage or the lives of our children. Even when hope may be lost, we must have faith, and we must, in the narrator’s words, ‘pay attention to what you lost’.

‘Half and Half’ includes some Chinese terms which deserve glossing. Waigoren, the term Rose’s mother uses to describe Ted, means roughly ‘foreigner’ or ‘Westerner’ in Mandarin Chinese. Yiding, the word Rose’s mother speaks to her daughter when commanding her to look after her four brothers, means ‘certainly’, ‘surely’, or – in this context – ‘you must’.

And Nengkan, a term Rose uses to describe her father, means an ability to do whatever you put your mind to. It is her parents’ nengkan, Rose tells us, that brought her parents from China to America as immigrants. But nengkan is also a guiding principle in ‘Half and Half’, since it governs the mother’s outlook and, to an extent, the daughter’s, after she realises the valuable lesson her mother has taught her.

But what is that lesson? Faith, fate, and hope are perhaps not so easy to distinguish in Tan’s story as Rose’s narration would have us believe. The mother’s writing her dead son’s name under ‘Deaths’ in her copy of the Bible implies acceptance of the fact that he is dead, and yet her use of erasable pencil suggests she retains some small hope that he will yet turn up alive after all, even if it is what we might call a ‘hope against hope’.

Perhaps the key difference between ‘hope’ and ‘faith’ is in the mother’s actions following Bing’s accident. She may not logically or rationally entertain the hope that he has survived, but she must have faith in the possibility. Faith involves giving oneself over to a higher power, and ceding control to them, whether it’s the Christian God of the Bible or the Coiling Dragon of the sea. Or, indeed, ceding control to a higher power one calls ‘fate’.

And it’s worth remembering, too, that faith involves a tacit acknowledgment that something may not exist. Faith is not the simple opposite of doubt, since faith incorporates doubt: strictly speaking, we only have ‘faith’ in something we know might not be true. We don’t have faith that Wednesday is the day after Tuesday, because there is no doubt about the matter.

But Rose’s mother’s faith flies in the teeth of the horrible truth she knows deep down in her gut: that her son is dead. Similarly, Rose knows her marriage is probably over. But she must overcome those doubts and have faith – because, as her mother would say, it is her ‘fate’ to do so.

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