Waiting takes place over a period of about 20 years beginning in the mid-1960s. In his tale of the interaction of temperaments, circumstances, and culture, the narrator escorts us through the lives and relationships of three main characters. Lin Kong is a highly literate medical-school-educated physician who was born in a rural village. From adolescence he has been educated away from home; his career is in an army hospital in Muji, a city some distance from his family home in Goose Village. A few years before the beginning of the story, he entered into an arranged marriage at his parents’ behest so that while he was away there would be someone to care for them as they grew old. Shuyu, his loyal wife, is from a peasant family and could not have been better chosen for the task. She is kind and devoted and cares diligently for his parents. But she could not have been worse chosen for an educated, well-read army officer’s wife. Illiterate, shriveled, looking older than her years, and with bound feet, she was "absolutely unpresentable outside his home village." So, Lin Kong returns home each year for 12 days of vacation but lives an exemplary but passionless life as an army doctor elsewhere the rest of the time. Manna Wu, a head nurse in the hospital, has known Lin Kong since she was a student. Slightly older than the other students, without family since she was orphaned at 3, and devastatingly rejected by a boyfriend, she faces life as an "old maid." The kind friendship Lin Kong shows her becomes the seed that grows into an extremely problematic relationship.