On Jeanne’s first day of sixth grade, her kindly teacher asks her to read a page aloud. After she finishes, a blond girl turns around and says, “I didn’t know you could speak English.” Jeanne is stunned to learn that such a thing had ever been in question. She sits down, realizing that while she won’t suffer physical abuse at school she’ll always been seen “as someone other than American, or perhaps not be seen at all.”
Jeanne’s first day of school shows her how much prejudice and propaganda has taught people to think of Japanese-Americans as essentially foreign. For Jeanne, who considers herself American and is in fact largely alienated by Japanese culture, this both humiliating and unsettling.
In her years at Manzanar, although Jeanne knew her family hadn’t done anything wrong, she never truly questioned why the government put them there. The girl’s remark is a moment of “illumination” on this question, and the start of Jeanne’s pervasive feelings of shame.
It’s not until Jeanne returns to Long Beach and goes to school with students who don’t accept her that she begins to understand the feelings of shame with which Mama and Papa have always struggled.
From that day on, Jeanne frequently wants to be invisible. She feels that if people notice her, they will only see her Asian face and consider her part of a faceless bloc of Japanese, rather than as an individual. Jeanne notes that internment is only possible when people “stop seeing individuals”; in fact, she’s inherited the inability to see herself as one from the very people who put her family in Manzanar and can’t believe she speaks English.
It’s depressing to be considered as a member of a faceless group, rather than on her own individual merits. However, at some points it’s also comforting—if people don’t notice Jeanne they can’t overtly attack or humiliate her.
However, another part of Jeanne wants to “prove” that she belongs in America, just as Woody proved his patriotism by joining the army. For the rest of her schooldays, these two impulses are constantly at war within her.
The twin impulses to be unnoticeable and notable are part of many coming-of-age experiences; however, in Jeanne’s case both these possibilities are complicated by the discrimination she experiences.
Soon, Jeanne learns that she’s accepted in certain areas of school life—she’s expected to be a good student and athlete and allowed to join clubs like the yearbook and newspaper. Things outside school are trickier—some girls’ parents won’t allow them to invite her over, which makes it hard for her to cultivate friends. When things like this happen, Jeanne feels guilty and ashamed as if she is “imposing a burden” on her friends.
It’s especially important that Jeanne herself feels guilty when people discriminate against her. This shows that she’s come to see internment as her own fault and to be ashamed of it, when the opposite is true. She also considers the burden of social acceptance to be hers alone, rather than expecting tolerance and open-mindedness from others.
Jeanne excels at school and extracurriculars, but she’s still not satisfied and doesn’t feel that she belongs. She decides she wants to joint the Girl Scouts. By now, she’s become friends with the girl who was surprised to hear her speak English—Radine also lives in Cabrillo Homes, and they often walk to school together. When Jeanne asks if she can join Radine’s Girl Scout troop, Radine seems uneasy but promises to ask her mother, the troop leader. The next day, she politely tells Jeanne that she can’t join. Jeanne too responds politely, saying that she understands.
Jeanne’s quick friendship with Radine shows how racial prejudice can fade after meaningful contact between members of different groups. However, Radine’s mother’s intransigence is a reminder that prejudice against Asian Americans far outlasts the war and the official “tests” of their loyalty.
Jeanne doesn’t truly blame Radine—she’s used to people’s parents being suspicious of her. As if in compensation, Radine becomes extremely protective of Jeanne, always challenging people who give her hostile looks on the way to school. Radine’s outspokenness shocks Jeanne, whose instinct is to avoid these looks.
Although Jeanne is like Papa in many ways, her unwillingness to confront those who malign her is very different from Papa. In many ways, she copes with her feelings of shame as Mama does—by making sure her own behavior remains irreproachable.
Jeanne teaches Radine to baton twirl, which bring the two girls even closer together. Practicing every day, they soon master all the common stunts. In the fall, they try out to baton twirl for a Boy Scout band in the housing complex next to theirs. Jeanne even gets to be the lead majorette, and she and Radine get beautiful uniforms and white boots and hats. They perform at all the junior high assemblies and in parades each spring.
Baton twirling buys Jeanne some limited social acceptance, so it’s ironic that she learned this skill from another Japanese girl at Manzanar—it’s an example of the cultural fluidity that characterizes her identity and which her Anglo-American peers refuse to recognize.
Jeanne explains that for her, it’s easier to gain acceptance from men’s organizations than women’s. Like high school and college sororities, the Girl Scouts is run by mothers and quick to exclude Asians. On the other hand, the boys and fathers in the Boy Scout troop like to have Radine and Jeanne, who are both maturing early, at all their events. Jeanne is too young to understand that her acceptance is based on her sexuality or that this is really “another form of invisibility.” However, she does know that her “femininity” is a good way to overcome anti-Asian sentiment.
The trope of Asian-American women’s sexual appeal to white man is another harmful stereotype preventing these women from feeling truly at home in American society. Yet it’s only by buying into one stereotype—however unwittingly—that Jeanne can relieve the feelings of foreignness she suffers most of the time.
Jeanne’s brothers are proud of her new role in the parades, but Papa is not; he wants her to cultivate a more traditionally Japanese feminine demeanor and is always lecturing her about the perils of showing her legs and smiling too much.
Papa’s refusal to bow to cultural pressure is an important lesson to Jeanne; however, since he’s relatively isolated from Anglo-American society, he’s not appreciating or responding to the social pressures she faces.
However, Jeanne’s feeling influenced less and less by her family; she doesn’t like being in the crowded apartment, where the family eats in shifts and Mama is rarely home. Moreover, she’s lost respect for Papa—he’s never able to gain support for his housing cooperative idea, and a later scheme he and Woody develop for harvesting abalone also fails.
Jeanne wants Papa to be a fatherly provider, fulfilling the role he occupied before the war and which society expects of men. Her expectations may seem unrealistic, but it’s true that Papa, absorbed in his own feelings of shame and hurt, is doing little to give his children a steady and stable home life.
Woody has returned from Japan confident and mustached, bringing valuable gifts from Aunt Toyo. Papa is proud to see how much Woody has grown, but it also seems like he’s “shrinking” in comparison. Papa starts drinking again, a development which Jeanne witnesses in “sorrow and disgust.” She channels her shame at the family’s poverty, their strained home life, and the stigma she endures at school into her shame of Papa and her feeling that he is responsible for what is happening to him.
While Woody’s development into a confident man is necessary and positive, it also highlights the decline of Papa and the rest of the Issei generation. Correspondingly, Jeanne’s increasing ability to navigate the world around her makes her aware of the skills Papa lacks and makes her mad at him for not being an attentive enough parent.
Papa refuses to come to the parades when Jeanne marches, but she’s even more upset when he does show up to events. One night the PTA hosts a dinner for all the students in the scholarship society, of whom Jeanne is one. Papa and Mama arrive completely overdressed. As each student is presented, the parents are also introduced and stand up to give a quick wave to the crowd. When it’s Jeanne’s turn, Papa performs a slow ceremonial bow. Everyone looks at him in uncomfortable silence except Mama, who is pleased with his dignity. Jeanne wants to scream—or, better, to become invisible.
At this moment, the cultural differences between Jeanne and her parents are starkly clear. Mama and Papa are so ensconced within the Japanese-American community they don’t even know it’s not considered “normal” to bow in such a way. On the other hand, Jeanne is not only highly attuned to Anglo-American culture, she considers displays of her own “foreign” heritage as an embarrassment and cause for shame.