Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

This is one of those books that got some buzz when it came out and ended up on those “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” shelves at Barnes and Noble that I used to find so hard to resist. After buying it, I was afraid it would actually be a little boring or overly sweet and languished on my shelf. I’ve been enjoying World War II novels lately, so I decided to give it a shot.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself loving this book! The story zipped along but still focused primarily on characters, characters who develop and change through the course of the novel. The narrative goes back and forth in time, something I love when done correctly. The “current” part of the book takes place in 1986, with flash backs to the early 40s during the war.

While I knew the book had something to do with the Japanese during the war, I was surprised that the book’s protagonist is a Chinese American. This brought a fresh perspective to the war to me. Even before the war, Henry was torn between being an American and carrying forward the Chinese traditions of his father. By earning a scholarship to a white school, he was taunted for being too white by the Chinese kids and for being Chinese by the white kids. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, things got even worse because people would lump him in with the Japanese. To protect him, especially once the internments started, Henry’s father makes him wear a badge that says “I am Chinese.” Henry’s best friend is a Japanese girl, a girl who doesn’t speak any Japanese and is a second-generation American, yet she is treated like a foreigner in her own country.

The relationship that forms between Henry and Keiko is beautiful and heartbreaking, as is Henry’s relationship with his son in the present day. The characters really came alive in the novel, including the secondary characters. Even the chief bully has layers. I loved the characters of Sheldon, a black man making jazz music on the streets who befriends Henry, and Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria lady who is more than she seems.

While the novel is worth reading for the characters alone, it also makes you think. We tend to gloss over the Japanese internment camps in our history. The ones that were used in this book were real places; real people were sent there. American citizens were sent there. I think we tend to think it was people “fresh off the boat” who were sent away (not that that’s better), but families who had never even been to Japan or spoke Japanese and were far more American than Japanese were also imprisoned. Their land was sold out from under them, their possessions looted. When they left the camps, many had nothing left to return to.

An added layer to this story is that it’s told by a Chinese American whose father hates the Japanese. China and Japan were enemies fighting their own war as well. He didn’t just want Henry to avoid spending time with Keiko or other Japanese people because of WWII, but because of his own hatred toward the Japanese. We see how different Keiko’s family is, how they think of themselves as American first, with a Japanese heritage. When Keiko talked about the war, I was reminded of a quote a friend with Japanese-American and American parents wrote on Facebook about Pearl Harbor: “I’m sorry my people bombed my people.” That was what Keiko seemed to feel, and she identified more with those being bombed than with those doing the bombing, yet she was punished for being of Japanese descent.

The story made me think about how we label people. Many non-Asians lump all Asians together and don’t really make distinctions even though within Asia there are many distinct groups. With blacks, we lump them together as African-Americans, even though most of them have been here for centuries. Aren’t they just American? Whites aren’t identified by their family’s nationality/continent. When you think about it, African-American is an odd term anyway because there are many places in Africa with more people of Middle Eastern descent than are black, and then you have people who are really African-Americans like Charlize Theron because she’s from South Africa, but we’d never describe her that way. I wouldn’t want to be called European-American or British-American. I’m just plain old American, although I love my British and European heritage. I think in trying to respectfully label people we’ve actually caused more confusion and are inadvertently disrespecting people by slapping a qualifying label on them that seems to say they’re not as American as someone else is. And perhaps we worry too much about labels period, because when it comes down to it we’re all just people anyway.

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