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Ties That Bind Ties That Break Ailin Descriptive Essay

Namioka (Den of the White Fox, 1997, etc.) offers readers a glimpse of the ritual of foot-binding, and a surprising heroine whose life is determined by her rejection of that ritual. Ailin is spirited—her family thinks uncontrollable—even at age five, in her family’s compound in China in 1911, she doesn’t want to have her feet bound, especially after Second Sister shows Ailin her own bound feet and tells her how much it hurts. Ailin can see already how bound feet will restrict her movements, and prevent her from running and playing. Her father takes the revolutionary step of permitting her to leave her feet alone, even though the family of Ailin’s betrothed then breaks off the engagement. Ailin goes to the missionary school and learns English; when her father dies and her uncle cuts off funds for tuition, she leaves her family to become a nanny for an American missionary couple’s children. She learns all the daily household chores that were done by servants in her own home, and finds herself, painfully, cut off from her own culture and separate from the Americans. At 16, she decides to go with the missionaries when they return to San Francisco, where she meets and marries another Chinese immigrant who starts his own restaurant. The metaphor of things bound and unbound is a ribbon winding through this vivid narrative; the story moves swiftly, while Ailin is a brave and engaging heroine whose difficult choices reflect her time and her gender. (Fiction. 9-14)

Ailin, a wealthy Chinese girl in 1911, tells of the changes the Chinese Revolution has brought in her household, her battle with her mother and grandmother over bound feet and her struggle to stay in school though her family disapproves as many thought that girls did not need an outside education.

Read p. 38 ("That night Mother and the maids brought the strips...) through 39(finish with "I would never walk naturally again.).

Then when she learns to read and write not only Chinese, but English! More and more, Ailin realizes that a girl from a good family is powerless in Chinese society if she has no prospect of marriage. What does she do? What can she do?

Discussion questions

  1. Discuss Ailin's relationship with her father and grandmother. What is her relationship with her mother? How does Ailin's life change after her father dies?
  2. Why does Second Sister feel that she must warn Ailin of the dangers of being different?
  3. Ailin and her friend Xueyan are alike in many ways. How is Xueyan's family more supportive than Ailin's family?
  4. Ailin rebels against many ancient Chinese customs. How is change the result of rebellion? How is James also fighting a war against traditional Chinese customs and values? Suppose Ailin and James have children. Do you think their children will be taught Chinese customs and culture?
  5. Ailin doubts that she would ever again be allowed in the family compound. Do you think Ailin might ever return to China for a visit. If so, what would she say to them?
  6. How do Ailin's father's values differ from those of Big Uncle?
  7. Ailin is high-spirited, headstrong, and defiant, and her father supports her determination not to get her feet bound. How does it take courage for her to resist the wishes of her elders? How does it take courage for him to stand up to Big Uncle? Discuss other times in the novel that Ailin displays courage. Does it take more courage for her to remain in the United States or to return to her native land?

If you liked this book try

  • Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
  • Nisei Daughter by Monica Itoi Sone
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Portions of this guide are credited to Random House Teacher's Guide for Ties that Bind, Ties that Break.

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.