The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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Course Hero. "The Woman Warrior Study Guide." February 7, 2017. Accessed August 19, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Woman-Warrior/.

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Course Hero, "The Woman Warrior Study Guide," February 7, 2017, accessed August 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Woman-Warrior/.

The Woman Warrior | Shaman (The Doctor) | Summary

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Summary

The story "Shaman" is about Brave Orchid, Maxine Hong Kingston's mother. It opens as Kingston looks at old photos of her father and her mother as well as her mother's medical degrees from China. She notices her father, whose photos were all taken in the United States with his buddies, looks relaxed and well dressed, and everyone in the photos is laughing. There are, however, no candid shots of her mother, Brave Orchid, and the only portrait photos she finds have an ink thumbprint over her forehead. There are also photos of her mother graduating from medical school with her fellow graduates. Brave Orchid is a full 10 years older than they are.

When Kingston's father travels to the United States to work, it takes quite a long time before he can send for Brave Orchid. He sends her money, however, to care for herself and their two young children. The two children die very young, and after using the money to buy herself clothing, Brave Orchid decides to go to medical school in Canton. She sails for the city by herself and is placed in a dorm with the rest of the women in her class. She learns both traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine.

Brave Orchid memorizes every textbook and lies to her roommates about what she is doing at night because she wants them to think she is graced by the gods with her good grades. In reality, she is worried she isn't really smart enough, so she becomes the hardest worker on campus, making every effort to keep up with the younger students. She worries if the others find out how hard she studies, they will think she is dumb because older people are supposed to be smarter. Therefore, in theory, she should effortlessly do better than the younger students. She does perform better, but it is due to her hard, hidden work. The other students all fight about who gets to sit next to her during exams because she always knows the answers.

Analysis

The photos of Maxine Hong Kingston's father having fun on Coney Island and smiling with his friends are stark reminders of how much easier, despite the awful employment situation, his social life was than his wife's life back in China. The fact that there aren't any similar candid photos of Brave Orchid, Kingston's mother, reflects the no-nonsense reputation Kingston says Chinese women have. The difference in how each of Kingston's parents reacts to being alone without children proves interesting. Her father goes out and has fun when he isn't working, but Brave Orchid spends every minute of every day studying. Part of the difference is that Kingston's father cannot get a job teaching in the United States because he is Chinese, so he is doing a menial job rather than one he would willingly spend his extra time on. Brave Orchid, however, could live a leisurely life on the money her husband sends but lives up to her name with her bold decision to spend her money on medical school.

Brave Orchid's choices make her a remarkable character because she could have fallen apart when her children died, and it would have been understandable if she had spent the money her husband sent on frivolous items to make herself feel better. Instead, she chooses to move on with her life and use her intelligence for good. Her decision to become a doctor, however, was still not a common decision for women to make, and it was especially rare for women her age who were married and had already had children. In addition, traveling alone to Canton, especially because ships heading for Canton were often pirated, is not a small undertaking. By making this decision, Brave Orchid steps outside the usual female roles.

Brave Orchid's time at medical school is influenced heavily by social norms and expectations: older people are expected to know more than younger people because they have been around longer. Why this should be true for medical texts is a mystery because people who are not actually in medical school would have no way of knowing the material without studying it. However, Brave Orchid is sure that if she is seen studying this much, the other women will think she is stupid, having to study more than they do even to do as well as they do in classes. Brave Orchid's determination to avoid humiliation affects her social life a great deal. The secret studying she does, however, gives her an edge with her colleagues, and makes her look like she studies only a little bit to perform consistently better than the other women.

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