Written in the third person, Fifth Chinese Daughter reveals the self-actualizations of both the younger Jade character and older Jade Snow Wong narrator. I’d like to consider how education—formal and informal—plays a big role in Jade’s self-actualizations, specifically her self-acceptance and resistance to forced acculturation.
Informally, at home, Jade’s early “education” is mostly painful, starting with the annual arrival of the rice barrel, which provides not only their main food staple, but also Father’s yearly switch supply. Capital punishment abounds in the Wong household. Bad enough. Worse, no explanations accompany the whippings. So little children are left to wonder what they did wrong. Understandably, Brother dreads the barrel’s arrival but, like his siblings, suffers without complaint. It seems that Father’s capital punishment guarantees filial piety. However, our older narrator ends the chapter “Learning to be a Chinese Housewife” with Jade as a little child, avoiding eating rice (twice a day) to forestall the next barrel’s arrival. Recounting such self-deprivation, Jade Snow Wong signifies on her father’s abuse and builds the case for Jade’s later detachment from her father’s iron will. (See Henry Louis Gates’ Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey.)
Uncle Kwok, a janitor and factory worker, more positively influences Jade’s self-actualization. Although she considers him peculiar, Jade continues to watch his lifelong scholarship of Confucian classics in hopes of becoming a private tutor. Uncle Kwok prefigures her grandfather, who also values informal education. Autodidacts model the examined life that can lead to self-understanding and potentially, self-acceptance. From Uncle Kwok, Jade sees an example of private study, which will serve her well not only in college but thereafter, as an artist and writer.
And what of her home education? Father announces to his 3rd grade daughter that being a girl, she need not worry about college. Conveniently, is code relieves him of financial support. As her high school graduation looms, he elucidates that the sons “perpetuate our ancestral heritage by permanently bearing the Wong family name and transmitting it through their blood line, and therefore the sons must have priority over the daughters when parental provision for advantages must be limited by economic necessity” (108-109). Notice how that nonjudgmental report changes with Father’s own words: “If you have the talent, you can provide for your own college education” (109). Then, overtly Jade Snow Wong criticizes: “. . . his answer tonight left Jade Snow with a new and sudden bitterness against the one person whom she had always trusted as fair to her” (109). We have moved from signifying on Jade’s early disappointment to condemning Father’s decision, authority, and character. However, we don’t know if young Jade actually voices her irritation. I suspect she doesn’t rebel. The first set of her reaction appears in quotation marks but is clearly an internal dialogue of what she would normally have thought. The next set of reactions consists of questions with the same address to “Daddy,” followed by her retreat to her bedroom. If young Jade never rebels against her father’s sexism, Jade Snow Wong does rebel: “Don’t the Chinese admit that women also have feelings and minds? (110)” Further, Wong reports that Father ignores Jade’s educational accomplishments unless someone important appears. Apart from Uncle Kwok, a marginal figure in her life, Jade’s family teaches her only filial piety. Dissatisfied with her father’s critical nature, Jade rejects this forced acculturation and leaves home.
Outside the home, Jade attends a US public grade school and a half hour of Chinese instruction before school.1 She quickly learns that forming Chinese characters in writing demands skilled calligraphy, that girls’ suffer rare but disgraceful punishments, and that “foreign’ American Ways” conflict with her parents’ more Americanized practices (21). During Chinese instruction, order is prized “in the most uncompromising Chinese sense” and “enforced strictly” (62). Sounds like home. Because this formal education discomforts Jade, she turns to writing, the “only subject which permitted students to exercise their imaginations” (61). Writing, like pottery making later, allows Jade to develop her creativity. Jade discovers her writing voice, which empowers her early attempts to self-actualize. “Without one single exception,” Maslow notes, self-actualizers become “involved in a cause outside their own skin” (Farther 43). When we’re dissatisfied with our lives, we should remember that.
Financially strapped, Jade attends junior college. When her professor declares that “[p]arents can no longer demand unquestioning obedience from their children” (125), Jade pays attention but fails to rebel. For after joining Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society, being recognized as the “most outstanding woman student of the junior colleges in California” (134) and selected as salutatorian of her graduating class, Jade declares publicly, “But it seems to me that the most effective application that American-Chinese can make of their education would be in China, which needs all the Chinese talent she can muster” (135). Disappointingly, Jade accepts her father’s acculturation agenda as her quest for “intellectual development” (147)2 instead of experiencing an educational peripateai.
Unlike her friends, Jade continues past junior college. Still broke, she accepts Mills College’s full scholarship and becomes empowered by her sociology teacher’s mandate: “But no matter how successful you may become never forget the fight you must make for racial equality. When an individual from a minority group personally succeeds, he too often turns his back on his own group” (153). The Mills College dean promises, “If you want to shine in your family, Mills will polish you to a more brilliant light” (152). But shining in her family is exactly what Jade doesn’t need. Aligned with her parents’ Gradgrind emphasis on “facts and the Chinese absolute order of things,” Jade initially struggles with the informality and critical thinking of her seminars until she embraces Mills’ emphasis on happiness through the liberal arts and ethics. This is the path that Maslow would recommend (Farther 179). Jade learns that disciplined artists must apply theory to practice, modeling what Maslow observes in self-actualizers as controlling both spontaneity and expression (Toward 198). This requires self-trust as both an artist and a person. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa and with distinction, Jade’s self-pride arms her to self-actualize as an artist.
Jade’s stingy father co-ops his daughter’s academic achievements several times. Failing to recognize her college awards and honors, including her Phi Beta Kappa membership, Father fawns on professors, the dean, and musicians, rather than his daughter. And what of her mother? She tears up seeing Jade in her regalia but doesn’t attend the graduation. When the family joins Jade after the graduation, neither parent praises her but Father mugs for a photograph with the college president. Bypassing Father’s narcissism, our narrator spotlights Jade’s triumph and self-congratulations: “She had shown her father and mother that without a penny from them, she could balance her own budget and graduate from college, not in debt, but with one hundred of the original hundred and seventy-four dollars still in the bank” (181), experiencing “an overwhelming flood of happiness and release” (181). Signifying without overtly condemning her parents, Wong identifies their failures as “the two who had no words of congratulation” (181).
Jade Snow Wong’s third-person autobiographical narration establishes an uneasy double voicing of the younger and older selves. Given this third-person narration, it’s difficult to tell when the young Jade self-actualizes. However, it’s clear that when narrating her father’s death, Wong adopts the first-person voice, she takes a huge self-actualizing step.
Without parental support, Jade is both limited in her educational choices but free to choose the institutions she can afford, where she excels in her classes, manages her disappointments, chooses her friends, and financially supports. By rejecting her parents’ Chinese American acculturation of filial piety, she learns to accept herself as an artist. Ironically, Father’s tyrannical behavior becomes the catalyst for his daughter’s self-actualization.
1 Judith Oster assures that “there was no conflict over the relative importance of Chinese and American educations” for Mr. Wong (197).
2 According to Gerrye Wong, Jade Snow Wong originally aspired to be a Chinatown social worker, while her family “was living in a basement ‘ghetto environment,’ where the family was forced to share space with her father’s sewing machines and workers in the garment industry” (28).