“Shaman” focuses on Kingstons mother, Brave Orchid, tracing her life in China from the time Kingstons father left for America. After her first two children died in China, Brave Orchid decided to use the money her husband sent her to become a doctor. She attended a medical school in the city of Canton. Looking at her mothers diplomas and graduation photographs, Kingston recreates the experience from both her imagination and her mothers talk-stories.
In Kingstons narration, her mother finds independence and success at the To Keung School of Midwifery. Away from the New Society Village, she is responsible for no one but herself, and quickly makes herself known as one of the more brilliant students in her class. She also impresses her classmates when she fights and destroys a malicious ghost and then hunts down the ghost and destroys it.
When Brave Orchid returns to her village, she is treated like a magician or shaman, with an amazing ability both to heal the sicknesses of others and to destroy or scare away ghosts. She fools ghosts that seek to prey on newborn babies and scares away an “ape-man” that runs loose in the village. Kingston, who was also told talk-stories about ghost-killers that vanquished monsters by eating them, believes that her mothers abilities are linked to her ability to eat any sort of beast. She vividly recalls one particular talk-story in which Chinese people eat brains out of the head of a living monkey.
Many of Brave Orchids talk-stories are upsetting to Kingston. Brave Orchid bought a slave-nurse when she was in China, and one time, Kingston remembers, her mother bitterly complained to her that Kingstons birth had cost her $200 at a time when they were giving away slave girls in China for free. Other talk-stories provide Kingston with her own ghosts, which cause her to have nightmares. In one talk-story, Brave Orchid delivers a child with no anus, and the family decides to leave it in the outhouse to perish. In another, the villagers stone a crazy woman to death because they think she is a spy for the Japanese.
In America, Brave Orchid teaches her daughter to think that all the white people around them are ghosts: “Newsboy Ghost,” “Garbage Ghost,” and so on. Still, Kingston prefers her Californian surroundings to the places in China her mother tells talk-stories about, where “the ghosts took shapes nothing like our own.”
The last section of the chapter takes place in the present, during one of Kingstons visits to her see her parents. Brave Orchid sits by the bed and complains about life in America, how hard her work in the laundry and now in the tomato fields is, how time passes too quickly in America. Brave Orchid tells Kingston that they have finally given away their remaining lands in China and now will never go back—although Kingston knows they never would have returned anyway. Brave Orchid also begs her daughter to come and live with them again, but Kingston says she gets too sick when she is home, as there are too many ghosts that bother her. In the end, Kingston is surprised and relieved that her mother seems to understand, calling her by her affectionate nickname “Little Dog.”
“Shaman” depicts the conflicts and paradoxes of Brave Orchids life and of the mother-daughter relationship she has with Kingston. On the one hand, Kingston seems to gain inspiration from Brave Orchid, a woman of incredible powers and intelligence who escapes her traditional role as housewife and mother. As a ghost destroyer, Brave Orchid is a woman warrior in her own right, not unlike Fa Mu Lan. On the other hand, Brave Orchid reinforces many of the negative stereotypes that Chinese women are useless and disappointing, particularly in her descriptions of the slave-nurse who seemed to be worth more to her than her own daughter. Brave Orchid also describes to Kingston the common practice among midwives of killing baby girls at birth, suffocating them in a box of clean ashes. Kingston does not know whether her own mother ever killed a baby, but she has nightmares for the rest of her life about killing babies that she is trying to help.
Part of Kingstons difficulty stems from the ambiguity of the talk-stories; Kingston never quite knows whether or not her mother is telling the truth. At the beginning of the chapter, Brave Orchid has told Kingston that she had two other children, a boy and a girl, who died before Kingston was born; at the end of the chapter, she accuses Kingston of making these stories up and asserts that Kingston was her first child. We never quite know—as Kingston herself never knows—what, in these stories, is factual and what resides merely in the imagination of either Kingston or Brave Orchid. When Kingston writes about her mother in medical school and the story of the haunted room, she speculates that “maybe” the haunted room was actually her mothers secret study place. This uncertainty casts a general doubt over Brave Orchids talk-story and Kingstons retelling of it.
Another paradox of “Shaman” is Brave Orchids experience making the transition from China to America. In China she is a doctor, able to carve out a life for herself as a respected and powerful woman, able to live out the “daydream of all women”—to have a room and job of her own. In America, however, Brave Orchid must toil first in a laundry and then in a tomato field, fulfilling the roles of wife and mother at the same time. Brave Orchid is nostalgic for Chinese life, thinking that she would “still be young” if she lived there. She never stops referring to China as “home.” Yet every week she receives reports of the Communists killing her uncles and other relatives for their land. She seems to understand little of the political situation in her own country, thinking that Chinese refugees from the Communists are actually Communists themselves.
Above all, “Shaman” is a story about ghosts—both the ghosts that surround Kingston and her family in America and the ghosts that Brave Orchid brings from China in her talk-stories. The ghosts can be terrifying, like the deformed babies that Brave Orchid used to deliver; ridiculous, like the “Newsboy Ghost” that Kingston and her friends follow around; or simply mysterious, like the shapeless ghost her mother battled at the To Keung School. Kingston must live with the ghosts of a country she has never seen, a country she only knows about through talk-stories that are usually fantastic and often contradictory. It seems, to say the least, to be an incredibly frustrating experience: while Kingston tries to live an “American-normal” life during her waking hours, she dreams about “shrinking babies” and “airplanes” screaming across the sky. Furthermore, the place she is taught to call home, for all she really knows of it, is nothing more than “a Chinatown bigger than the ones here.”