A Taiwanese factory worker leaves his homeland to seek opportunity in America, where he struggles to find connection while balancing family and newfound responsibilities in this multi-generational drama.
Flashbacks intercut with the present-day life of Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), telling the story of how he came to America from Taiwan. He was in love with a woman named Yuan, but marries Zhenzhen, who he doesn’t love, so that her father pays to move them to America so he can provide a better life for his own mother, Minghua, who slaves away day after day in a factory.
He has a daughter Angela (Christine To), who is very hard on and not close with. His marriage with Zhenzhen deteriorates through his own carelessness and she divorces him. He reconnects with Yuan who tells him and Angela are similar, and he finally opens up to her and takes her to Taiwan to tell her his life story.
Pin-Jui is a young boy from a poor family living in Huwei (“tiger tail”). His father died when he was a year old, so his mother sent him to live with his grandparents who work in a rice field removed from Huwei. There, he meets a similarly aged girl, Yuan Lee, from a wealthy family. They spend an idyllic few years together, but after he returns to Huwei, he loses touch with her.
Years later, after Pin-Jui and Yuan have grown into young adults (Hong Chi-Lee and Yo-Hsing Fang), they reconnect in Huwei and begin an intense romance. Pin-Jui feels they can never marry, however, because of the economic disparity of their families. During this time, he works at the same factory as his mother, Minghua (Yang Kuei-mei), doing manual labor.
The boss of the factory tells Pin-Jui that he has heard that Pin-Jui wants to go to America, to which the teen replies it is his dream. The boss tells Pin-Jui to meet his daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li as young Zhenzhen). During dinner, Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen make small talk but seem unable to connect. After dinner, Pin-Jui rushes to see Yuan, who wonders why he is late. Pin-Jui lies that he was just at home and forgot the time. Afterwards, Pin-Jui shows Yuan his home. One day at the factory, Minghua gets into an accident and hurts her hand. This prompts Pin-Jui to marry Zhenzhen so that he can move to America and provide a better life for his mother.
Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen get into a car for the airport, and while riding, he sees a woman who looks like Yuan seeing him.
After moving to America, the couple move into a small apartment, and Pin-Jui gets a job working at a grocery store. Zhenzhen stays at home and cleans. Feeling lonely, she begins doing small loads of laundry to see other people. She eventually meets Peijing, another Taiwanese woman, at the laundromat and they become friends. While hanging out, Zhenzhen confides in Peijing that she doesn’t connect with Pin-Jui and wants to become a teacher. Peijing tells her that they will begin to connect over time and encourages her to pursue a teaching career. While Zhenzhen is at dinner, Pin-Jui calls his mother and tells her she can come to America. His mother declines, however, saying she likes it in Taiwan and neither speaks English nor has friends in America. After coming home from dinner with Peijing, Zhenzhen finds Pin-Jui at home, where he immediately asks where she has been. Zhenzhen tells him she was having dinner with Peijing and that she wants to become a teacher. Pin-Jui discourages her from pursuing teaching, thinking she will have little time to take care of the children they will have. Though she tells him that they do not have kids yet, she gets pregnant soon after, and they move out of their small apartment.
Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma as the older Pin-Jui) and Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu as the older Zhenzhen) have a daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). Growing up, the father and his daughter have an estranged relationship. In a flashback, Angela forgets part of the song she plays at a piano recital, to the embarrassment of her parents. She cries in the car on the way home, and Pin-Jui tells her crying will not solve anything. After the children are grown up, Zhenzhen tells Pin-Jui she wants a divorce because she feels Pin-Jui treats her like a servant and seems to care only for himself.
Angela moves into an apartment with her fiance Eric (Hayden Szeto), and her father visits her there. He expresses reservations about Eric, saying her fiance does not work as hard as Angela.
Later, Angela picks up her father from the airport, as he has returned from a trip to Taiwan to attend his mother’s funeral. She did not know he went to Taiwan and asks why he did not tell her about the funeral. He tells her that she did not know her grandmother. After Pin-Jui is dropped off at home, his ex-wife calls him to say Angela has been having a hard time at work. Pin-Jui says he did not know and Zhenzhen asks for him to connect with her more.
Pin-Jui asks to have lunch with his daughter, and they spend most of it in silence. She eventually says Eric left her, but feels Pin-Jui does not comfort her. She leaves the lunch abruptly in frustration.
One day, Pin-Jui looks up Yuan (Joan Chen) on Facebook and they begin messaging. When she comes to New York from Maryland, they decide to meet at a Chinese restaurant. They talk about the past and missed opportunities and she says she is happily married, and he admits his difficulties in connecting with his daughter. She suggests that he open up to Angela about his life.
Angela hosts a Chinese New Year party for family and friends. Her mother, now a teacher, attends with a new partner, who clearly makes her happier than Pin-Jui did. After the party, Pin-Jui stays to his daughter’s surprise and opens up about his tragic past. He eventually takes her to Taiwan — including his hometown — and begins to tell his life story
The present-day story of Pin-Jui is intercut with the flashbacks to his life.
In narration, present-day Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) explains that his father died when he was a year old, and that his mother left him with his grandparents to go work in rice fields to provide for him. In his loneliness, he explains he saw things because he wanted to see them, as a young Pin-Jui runs towards an image of his parents and falls on his way. When he returns home, his Grandmother hides him when soldiers arrive for an inspection searching for dissidents. His grandmother tells them only she and her husband live there. She then admonishes Pin-Jui for claiming to see his parents in the field, and tells him to be strong and never let anyone see him cry.
He makes friends with a young girl Yuan, and for the first time in a long time, he is happy. When he is able to move back in with his mother, he fears he will never see her again. Years later, as young adults, they reconnect and begin a romance. He knows her parents won’t let them be together because she is of an upper class, but he wants to enjoy his time anyway. He takes her to a fancy restaurant, and when the staff is rude and judgemental, they joyously run out without paying for their meal. Yuan wants to see his place, but he never lets her come over – he returns home to the small apartment he shares with his mother, Minghua.
Young adult Pin-Jui works with Minghua in a factory. His boss, Li, tells Pin-Jui he knows he has an interest in going to America but has no way of getting there. He mentions his daughter, Zhenzhen, and that they are looking for someone to watch out for her, and sets them up on a date, where they have little to talk about and lack the passionate chemistry Pin-Jui has with Yuan, who he deeply loves. His date with Zhenzhen makes him late to meet Yuan. The two have sex in a clearing. He lies to her about where he’s been, though she is concerned. To avoid the topic, he finally brings her to see his apartment.
When Minghua injures herself at work, Pin-Jui tells her it’s too dangerous and she needs a new job, and that she’s miserable there. She tells him there’s no point in dreaming of something else that won’t happen. He tells her he could make enough money that she wouldn’t have to and could retire somewhere else. She laughs this idea off, but Pin-Jui goes to Li and agrees to marry Zhenzhen for the opportunity to go move to America and lead a better life, providing for his mother. As his car leaves for the airport, he thinks he sees Yuan out the window.
In America, they adjust to life uncomfortably. Pin-Jui works at a grocery, mopping floors day after day. Zhenzhen is very lonely, and finally makes friends with other Taiwanese people she meets at the laundromat, who she tells about her uncomfortable relationship with Pin-Jui – they have nothing in common and he’s always working, and when he’s not he never wants to go out.
Pin-Jui, lonely himself, calls Minghua and asks her to come live with them in America, but she has no interest in moving to a place where she knows no one and can’t speak the language. Zhenzhen tells him she wants to get a teaching credential to work, but he is not supportive, getting angry that dinner isn’t ready when he gets home. Her friend Peijing supports her in doing so anyway, but she soon discovers she is pregnant and abandons that.
Pin-Jui (now played by Ma) and Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu) grow older and have kids, including a daughter, Angela. When she makes a mistake during a piano recital, she cries in the car while Pin-Jui admonishes her not to cry. When the kids are grown, Zhenzhen tells him she’s leaving him and divorcing him. He doesn’t understand why, since he gave her a house and a car, and she says she never cared about any of that, and that he treats her like a servant. He says he worked all day, and she says she raised the kids all by herself. He tells her he never wanted to marry her, and she says she always hoped he would learn to care about anyone besides himself, but she knows now he never will and that he’s broken inside. She tells him she wishes she had never met him.
When Angela (now played by Christine Ko) gets engaged, he tells her he’s concerned that her fiance Eric (Hayden Szeto) can’t support her. She tells him money isn’t the important thing in a relationship and that he makes her happy, but the two do not agree and leave things in an uncomfortable place. Later, Angela picks him up from the airport after he returns from his mother’s funeral, and she’s a little concerned that he didn’t tell her about the funeral. He says she never visited and didn’t know her grandmother.
Angela tells Zhenzhen, who calls him to offer her condolences. She also tells him that Angela is having a hard time at work and encourages him to talk to her more, but he says they live separate lives. She tells him is is very hard on Angela, and he says he just wants what’s best for her. Meanwhile, Eric and Angela are having problems, and he moves out of their apartment.
Pin-Jui asks Angela to lunch, but barely says a word the entire time. When she pushes him to, he finally asks her about herself, and she cries and tells him about Eric. He barely says anything, and Angela becomes more upset, wondering why he can’t just say anything nice. She tells him her whole life she never felt like he cared about her and has no idea how to talk to him. She suggests it might be easier to just stop trying, and leaves.
Pin-Jui finds Yuan (Joan Chen) on Facebook and messages her. The two converse, and when Yuan comes to New York, the two arrange to meet for dinner. He asks her if he really saw her out the window the day he left, and she admits it was her, but she couldn’t bear seeing him go. She asks him why he didn’t tell her he was leaving – he says he didn’t feel like it would have changed anything, and she says they’ll never know. She tells him that her husband just retired, and he tells her about Angela and how she works too much and is having a hard time. When he says he can’t get Angela to open up, she points out how similar they are, and says maybe he needs to open up first.
Angela has a party for Chinese New Year and invites her parents. Zhenzhen is now a teacher and is remarried to Hank (James Saito), and they are very happy together. Pin-Jui stays after and helps Angela clean everything up. Angela confesses how hard it is to host the party without Eric. Pin-Jui finally opens up to her about Yuan. She asks him what he did after Zhenzhen left him, and he tells her he went home.
The two take a trip together to Taiwan, and he takes her to the house that he lived in with his grandparents, the factory he worked in with his mother, and to his mother’s burial site, finally telling her the stories from his life as the narration becomes clear. He ends with his house and points out the bar he used to go to with Yuan. Angela asks what the woman’s name was, tells her and begins to cry, and Angela puts a hand on his shoulder.