Jing-mei is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. At the beginning of the story, she lives in Chinatown, San Francisco, with her parents. She is nine years old when the story starts, and is in her 30s at the end of the story.
As a child, she had her hair cut to look like Shirley Temple, but ended up with “an uneven mass of crinkly black fuzz”, after which she got her hair cut short “the length of a boy’s, with curly bangs that hung at a slant two inches above my eyebrows”. Jing-mei also attends piano lessons and learns to play the piano but does not practice very hard. At the recital, she wears a “white dress, layered with sheets of lace and a pink bow”.