“Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts” … Oh My!

By Lindsay Czechowski

The memoir The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston is a collection of stories about the author’s life growing up. The important things in her life were the “talk stories” her mother, Brave Orchid, told her growing up to “warn us[her] about life” (Kingston, 5). Progressing through the book Kingston begins to write more and more about these ghosts that constantly haunt her and her family. Ghosts typically represent people of the past that have died. In ancient China “ghosts were taken very seriously”because they were seen as beings that did harm to the living (Mark). Brave Orchid’s life was surrounded by ghosts. Kingston recognizes her not as “crazy” but as a “capable exorcist” because she was strong enough to fight off the ghosts (Kingston, 92). Because of Kingston’s mother, ghosts are a large part of Kingston’s girlhood even in America.

In the chapter Shaman, Kingston switches point of views between herself and her mother. Brave Orchid grew up in China and is the reason for Kingston’s thoughts and stories in this book. In the perspective of herself, Kingston refers to regular people as ghosts. This is interesting because the “talk stories” from Brave Orchid contained harmful ghosts that haunted her throughout life in China. Those stories differ from the thoughts Kingston creates about ghosts in her life. She replaces people with ghosts. She writes about being “regularly visited by the Mail Ghost, Meter Reader Ghost, Garbage Ghost,” all people in normal everyday life (Kingston, 98). These ghosts are not harmful to anyone yet Kingston continues to write about them as if they are, in turn copying her mother’s stories. It is said that ” in ancient China, they were reality whether one believed in them or laughed them off”(Mark). These stories are very real to the Chinese. Tales of certain deaths such as “the drowned one,” or Kingston’s aunt that killed herself and her baby, can haunt and “waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute” (Kingston, 16). The contrast between this mother and daughter duo is the severity of these ghosts within their culture. Kingston lives as a Chinese American not surrounded by the ancient Chinese beliefs causes her to make up stories like her mother’s. This behavior attributes to why the reading is confusing to the reader. Kingston writes about what she remembers from her childhood trying to explain these happenings as if she knows everything about them, however in reality she knows very little. This leaves the reader with little knowledge of what her stories’ purposes were.

These stories emphasize hidden thoughts of Brave Orchid. For example, while explaining a story about the garbage man that Kingston refers to as “Garbage Ghosts,” Brave Orchid refers to him as “the White Ghost” (Kingston, 98). Brave Orchid says, ” Now we know”and continues,” the White Ghosts can hear Chinese” (Kingston, 98). Why does she include that in the story? Does Brave Orchid have something against Americans? This contributes to why Kingston never feels like enough. In the chapter White Tigers Kingston says,”My American life has been such a disappointment” (Kingston, 45). Why did Kingston refer to her life as her “American life”? America was not what Brave Orchid was used to nor did she have her family there with her. Chinese traditions are up to her to continue on to Kingston. However, these stories make Kingston seem less than acceptable to Brave Orchid only because she is not fully Chinese. Although she married an American man she has unhappy feelings on white Americans, specifically, even compared to black Americans.

The ghosts are significant in Chinese culture and to Brave Orchid. These “talk stories” reveal a side to Brave Orchid and her actions towards Kingston. These are important to recognize because these stories about ghosts slowly begin to unravel the truth about Kingston’s life and stories as a female, Chinese American.

  1. What was the purpose of including “White” and “Black Ghosts”?
  2. Why does Kingston call machines and people “ghosts” growing up in her stories?

Works Cited

Kingston, Maxine H. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Childhood among Ghosts. Vintage, 1989.

Mark, Emily. “Ghosts in Ancient China.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 Sept. 2019, www.ancient.eu/article/892/ghosts-in-ancient-china/.

10 Replies to ““Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts” … Oh My!”

  1. Hey Lindsay! I really enjoyed reading your blog post and I thought that you made a lot of interesting points about ghosts and how they differ in her mothers’ life and her own, as well as how they are viewed in China vs America. A note that Kingston made that I found useful towards the information that you provided in your blog post was when Kingston is talking to her mother when she is in America about how the ghosts are much more prevalent there than they are to her in China. She says “I don’t hear ghost sounds. I don’t stay awake listening to walking in the kitchen. I don’t hear the doors and windows unhinging” (108). This makes it apparent that Kingston is more scared to go about her life in America than she is in China.

    -Sara Weber

  2. Hi Lindsay! I really liked how you acknowledged the fact that Kingston and her mother were haunted by different types of “ghosts” due to their environment and beliefs. I believe that that greatly impacted the way in which they saw the world. To answer your second discussion question, I feel that Kingston referred to people she encountered in everyday life as ghosts because they were foreign to her. The theme of ghosts and the past being a haunting aspect of life correlates with the idea that ghosts represent the unknown. Growing up a Chinese-American with a very traditional mother, she was faced by many things that were foreign to her. According to Kingston, she was, “regularly visited by the Mail Ghost, Meter Reader Ghost, Garbage Ghost…,” or in other words, American figures that seemed abnormal to her due to her Chinese background (98). She actually mentions that all but the Japanese were “ghosts,” and this is because they were less foreign than other cultures to her due to the war. Overall, I find it very interesting that she uses “ghosts” as a symbol in a different manner than Brave Orchid, her mother.

  3. Hi Lindsay! I loved reading your blog post. I like how you explained Kingston being “regularly visited by the Mail Ghost, Meter Reader Ghost and Garbage Ghost”. The ghosts were not harmful to anyone, yet Kingston continues to write about them as if they are and I believe that is because Kingston grew up listening to so many of her mother’s stories that in writing the memoir, she can no longer tell what is real from what is imagined. Another important part of your blog that I agreed with is that ghosts in the story change depending on the point of view. To Brave Orchid, Chinese culture is important to her, so she sees everyone who is not Chinese as ghosts. For example on page 138 Brave Orchid says “To make my waking life American-normal, I turn on the lights before anything untoward makes an appearance. I push the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible stories. Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.”

  4. Hey Lindsay, firstly I think your title is absolutely amazing. Secondly, I think it was really important to analyze the ghosts in the story. I think the reason that Kingston refers to so many people and things as ghosts is because this is how she interprets and applies what she knows from her culture. As she observes in “Shaman” of the Japanese, “The Japanese though ‘little,’ were not ghosts, the only foreigners considered not ghosts by the Chinese.” (Kingston, 93) From this we can gather that Kingston sees all foreigners as ghosts. In the cases of the casual ghosts like “Burglar Ghost,” “The Hobo Ghost,” and “Wino Ghost” they are referring more innocently to foreigners Kingston encounters (98). These aren’t like haunting experiences like the Sitting Ghost her mother faced but we see that Kingston has her own issues with these ghosts. I don’t think there is any malice towards the American ghosts in particular but I think there is rightful suspicion of them.

  5. Hey Lindsay! I loved reading your blog post because it shed light on somethings that I would not have seen in the book before. I loved that you analyzed the fact that she used the words black and white ghosts to describe what she was seeing in the ghosts. Kingston says about her childhood in the US, “There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts.”(Kingston 97) She states this because she wanted the reader to know that the country she was in, the United States was less of a melting pot than she had realized. She said that the black ghosts stood out more than the white ghosts meaning that minorities stood out to her because the majority of people in the US were white and being represented by white ghosts. Kingston states that the black ghosts were distinct meaning that they were different in some sort of way than the majority of people. Overall, I loved hearing everything you had to say about the chapter and I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say in class.

  6. Hi Lindsay! I really love your explanations on Ghosts and the difference in meanings that they have between cultures. I loved how you took the time to explain how in Chinese culture, Ghosts are considered to be dangerous, yet Kingston has constantly been visited by them, as well as her mother. Kingston states “my mother was not crazy for seeing ghosts nor was she one of those women being teased for longing after men”(92). I wonder if Kingstons view on ghosts would be different if she was not visited by them and she only heard about her mother being visited. I loved the ideas you brought up and I think it was very creative. If I were Kingston I would probably be writing about mine and my families experiences as well. By the way, I LOVED your title, its very clever!

  7. Hi, Lindsay! I love the creativity of your title. You chose a very important topic that is an ongoing theme throughout this book. I like how you dissected the importance of ghosts and why they are used in the story. Your second question about Kingston calling machines and people “ghosts” is interesting because I wondered the same thing while I read the text. Spirits and ghosts are very important in the Chinese culture and they tend to have a lot of influence in families. I think that Kingston and her mother use it as a way to make sense of unfamiliar things in the world. In the story about her mom, when a fellow student talked about the ghosts caught on camera, Kingston’s mother simply says “That was a Photo Ghost. She needn’t have been afraid. Most ghosts are only nightmares.” She then goes on to name other types of ghosts. This is where Kingston learned to use the term “ghost” for something that is unknown to her. New people and objects can be less intimidating if you try to understand them, even in your own way, and this is what Kingston does. By using the simplicity of “Mail Ghost” and “Garbage Ghost”, I think these new things became less frightening for her.

  8. Hi Lindsay, I really liked your blog post and how you chose to focus on the ghosts included in the story. I really liked this section of the book and I like how you included the differences between the ghosts in America vs. China, and also the difference between the way Kingston interacts with them vs her mother. I think that Kingston refers to many things as ghosts because she doesn’t quite understand what ghosts are. I think she uses the term ghost to describe anything she is unfamiliar with, like with her aunt. “My aunt haunts me- her ghost drawn to me…” (16). Since her aunt is just an idea in her mind, she refers to her as a ‘ghost’.

  9. Hey Lindsay! throughout the book ghost are itself an underlying story and serves as a very important theme. I think the reason for this is because she sees the Americans as ghosts because she doesn’t see them as the same thing as her. The culture is completely different and they might as well not even be the same being. In china ghosts were scary, and were capable of doing harm to people. this isn’t too far from how she is feeling in the United States while she is alone. Ghosts were a part of her childhood and she is holding on to that thing that brings her back to her original culture “My mother was not crazy for seeing ghosts…” Keeping that part of her upbringing in her head and comparing these normal people to ghosts are separating her from the normal Americans, and I think that’s what she’s going for.

  10. Hi Lindsay! I really liked reading your blogpost and I thought it was very interesting that you went even further to look up what ghosts in the Chinese culture meant. To answer your second question, I think that Kingston calls machines and people ghosts because from all the stories that her mother would tell her about her ancestors watching her, I think that being a young girl she looked at the world through that perspective. At one point Kingston states, “From earliest awareness, my mother’s stories were always timely” (96). I think that this really proves the kind of impact Kingston’s mom had on her, causing her to look at everyone as a ghost that had some kind of story.

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