Cultural conflict: the theme of cultural conflict is reflected in the conflict between Chinese-born Mrs. Jong and American-born Waverly. Waverly and her family live in Chinatown in San Francisco. They live above a Chinese bakery and shop in traditional Chinese stores (like the medicinal herb shop and fish market). The Chinese immigrant parents want to preserve their traditional culture, whereas the children want to integrate into American society. Waverly's mother emphasizes traditional Chinese values of self-control and obedience, whereas Waverly wants to assert her independence. As Waverly becomes increasingly Americanized, she is embarrassed by her mother's old-fashioned ways and her mother is disappointed at her daughter's dismissal of tradition. For example, Mrs. Jong expects Waverly to accompany her on market days and be shown off to people without protesting, while Waverly ends up confronting her mother and running away.
The cultural conflict is also reflected in each character individually:
Mrs. Jong's Americanization is reflected in naming Waverly after the street that they live on, she takes her children to a Christmas party, she allows Waverly to play in the chess tournaments and she gives Waverly special privileges (according to the new American rules), such as not needing to finish her meals and getting a room all to herself. However, while Mrs. Jong wants her daughter to succeed in American terms (to do well in the chess tournaments and have status), she expects her to retain Chinese values of family loyalty and respect.
Waverly's Americanization increases as she grows older. In the beginning of the story, Waverly is more in touch with her Chinese culture because she is younger and her immediate influential environment is Chinese. She bites back her tongue when she goes into the shop with her mother, knowing she should not ask for salted plums. Even when she starts playing chess, she is very careful not to talk back when her mother gives her wrong advice about how to play chess (losing less pieces is good strategy). Waverly starts to lose touch with her Chinese culture when she is older, after she is exposed to American culture at the "American" chess tournaments which take place farther and farther away from home. She complains that the bedroom is too noisy and she tells her mother that she can't practice when her mother stands over her: she is asserting herself (an American value), even if it leads to confrontation. Waverly also talks back to her mother: "I wish you wouldn't do that, telling everybody I'm your daughter." Waverly's criticism of her mother is un-Chinese. She is expressing herself openly – a quality valued by American culture.
Generation gap – mother-daughter conflict: the theme of conflict between mothers and daughters is reflected in the relationship between Waverly and her mother. When she is younger, Waverly accepts her mother's right to set the rules and control her life. As she grows older, however, she begins to assert her independence. Her mother feels she is losing control and a power struggle ensues. Their relationship reflects the generation gap, which causes misunderstandings. Waverly's impatient behavior and intolerance of her mother cause conflict. For example, Mrs. Jong misunderstands the chess game, thinking that it is better to lose fewer pieces. Waverly gets annoyed at her ignorance. Waverly is also rude to mother in the market. Mrs. Jong misunderstands Waverly, thinking that her daughter is embarrassed to be seen with her. But Waverly just doesn't want to be displayed. Mrs. Jong is insulted and Waverly becomes frustrated and runs away.
The game of chess as a metaphor for the game of life: life has rules, and we need to learn the rules in order to win/succeed in life. Everything Waverly learns about chess can be applied to her life. For example, self-control, tactics, using psychology and keeping a goal in mind from the beginning.
The most vivid comparison between chess and life is described at the end of the story, when Waverly's mother is winning the imaginary game of chess. When Waverly realizes that she cannot defeat her mother in the imaginary game, she retreats and quits the game, flying out of the house and high above the city (and her mother's influence) until she is completely alone. She symbolically breaks the ties with her family and home. She is lost and alone and doesn't know what to do next. As in her dream, Waverly feels that her mother is an opponent whom she cannot defeat. She physically tries to remove herself from her mother's influence by running away in the market, but then she must return home. Her mother controls the home as she controls the chess board, making sure that Waverly's family doesn’t pay attention to her when she returns home. Thus, while Waverly feels that her mother has too much control over her life, at this stage in life, she still cannot win. She can only plan.