Jeanne says that she can trace her path over the next few years by her shifting relationship with Radine. They start off much the same: Radine’s family is even poorer than Jeanne’s and they both derive satisfaction from the attention they get from the Boy Scouts. In a junior high school full of immigrants and minorities, they are more or less “social equals.”
Radine and Jeanne come from similar socioeconomic situations, which emphasizes that it’s racial discrimination that’s responsible for their changing fortunes in high school.
However, when the girls move to a majority white high school, everything changes. Radine is asked to join high school sororities, while Jeanne is excluded. Boys flirt with Jeanne but ask Radine to dances. In the school band, Radine graduates to song girl, a better position, but the band teacher has to have a special discussion with the school board and some parents before Jeanne can be a majorette. Even though she’s the most qualified candidate, he’s unsure “if it was allowable for an Asian to represent the high school in such a visible way.” Jeanne feels guilty that he has to go to such trouble for her, and she’s grateful when she finally gets the position, and vows to work twice as hard to prove she belongs.
It’s shocking that the band teacher has to court approval from individual parents so that Jeanne can be a majorette. Even though Jeanne has taken pains to do everything expected of an “American” teen and obscure traces of her heritage, the school hesitates to see her as a representative student. This shows that, in Anglo-American society, being “American” isn’t just about sharing a culture but about being part of the same race.
Jeanne isn’t discouraged by discriminatory treatment but rather by witnessing the social acceptance Radine achieves so effortlessly. They have shared everything, but Jeanne’s inability to fit in now drives them apart. While Jeanne has adopted “white American values,” white America won’t adopt her. Even if it did, that would pose problems at home—Jeanne knows that even if a white boy did ask her out, he would have to come to Cabrillo Homes and face Papa, who would shout and embarrass her.
In both her school and home life, Jeanne feels that she doesn’t fit in. She’s too Japanese at school, and too American for Papa’s expectations. The lack of any social environment where she feels completely at home not only causes loneliness but makes Jeanne ashamed, as if not fitting in is a sign of personal failure.
Jeanne doesn’t want to change herself or her heritage. She just craves the acceptance that Radine enjoys. Starting in high school and throughout her life, Jeanne has a recurring dream in which she sees a beautiful blonde girl walking through a room of other teenagers, admired and beloved by everyone; meanwhile, Jeanne watches the scene through a window, not envious but feeling that she can never have what this imaginary girl has.
Jeanne’s dream poignantly evokes the sense of acceptance that she will never achieve, showing how deep her feelings of loneliness run. At the same time, it shows that for Jeanne—as for many teenagers—personal fulfillment is more about being liked by others than being satisfied with herself.
Jeanne loses interest in school and starts cutting class and hanging out in the streets. She might have dropped out altogether, but eventually Papa decides to start farming again and moves the family away from Cabrillo Homes. Recently, he’d almost died while on an extended drinking binge; frightened out of his alcoholism, he’s sobered up and decided to make a new start leasing land from a strawberry grower outside San Jose.
Papa’s new start also means a new social start for Jeanne—potentially preventing her from dropping out of school. Even though father and daughter are often in conflict, this parallel between them emphasizes the similarity in their characters and their struggle to find a sense of belonging in a country that remains suspicious of their heritage.
As a senior in high school, Jeanne starts over in San Jose; despite the stigma of her race, she has a certain amount of cache from the big-city high school she attended before. When it’s time to elect the annual carnival queen, Jeanne’s homeroom chooses her. She and fifteen other girls have to parade in front of the student body in a special pep rally. Jeanne knows she won’t succeed if she dresses conventionally like the Caucasian girls, but she also doesn’t want to look too Japanese; she decides on a sarong and wears her hair loose. When she walks into the gym, all the boys start howling and whistling, and she knows she’s going to win.
When Jeanne was a majorette with the Boy Scouts, she didn’t really understand that they had allowed her in because of her long legs. Now, she understands more explicitly that she can use her sexuality to be accepted in high school. While Jeanne is pleased with the results now, her later ambivalence about being carnival queen shows her knowledge that this isn’t the complete and wholehearted sense of belonging she’s craved.
The next day, while the ballots are being counted, Jeanne’s friend Leonard Rodriguez runs up to her and says that he caught the teachers trying to rig the vote—they’re afraid of what the parents say if they let a Japanese girl be carnival queen. Instead, they want to elect Lois Carson, whose father has donated a lot to the school.
Here, the teachers appear in a consummately undignified and even immature light. Through their behavior, the memoir argues that racism leads to the degeneration of personal character.
Jeanne affects nonchalance and pretends not to care about the outcome, reluctant to admit how much she wants to win. But Leonard is outraged, saying that she can’t let this happen. He runs back into the office, where he threatens to expose the teachers to the student body and create a scandal. An hour later, the teachers announce that Jeanne has won the contest. She can’t quite believe what has happened, but she forces herself to look “overjoyed.”
Jeanne feels it would be a sign of shame to admit she wants to win, but this shame prevents her from advocating for herself—it’s Leonard, with his understanding of the injustice uncomplicated by any feeling of personal guilt, who saves the day. Just as with Mama and Papa, Jeanne’s feelings of shame prevent her from pursuing the things she truly wants.
That night, Jeanne has to admit to Papa that she has won the carnival queen contest. When she tells him about the outfit she wore, he becomes enraged and accuses her of “showing off your body.” Mama tries to intercede, but Papa shouts her down, yelling about the importance of modestly and grotesquely imitating a girl’s walk. He tells Jeanne that if she keeps acting like this no Japanese boy will want to marry her and she’ll have no prospects except white boys—a grave insult. He even yells at Mama, saying that it’s her fault Jeanne has no allegiance to traditional Japanese culture.
It’s understandable that Papa wants Jeanne to preserve his beloved culture, but he’s not being the understanding parent she needs right now—by mocking female sexuality, he’s reinforcing the impression Jeanne receives at school that her body is different from others and worthy of shame. In contrast, Mama is more concerned with Jeanne’s well-being than Japanese culture—even if she equates well-being with social acceptance.
Furiously, Papa demands that Jeanne sign up for Japanese deportment classes at a nearby Buddhist church. He says he’ll allow Jeanne to be carnival queen if she agrees to this. Jeanne takes the bargain, but she only lasts through ten lessons—the teacher sends her away because, due to her majorette training, she smiles too much.
Jeanne’s inability to complete the classes is a reminder that, even though she’s not considered American enough by her classmates, she’s too Americanized to participate fully in Japanese culture.
Papa never mentions the carnival queen contest again, but Jeanne can sense he’s reluctantly proud of her independence and ability to stand up for herself. Meanwhile, Mama is very proud and helps Jeanne pick out a dress to wear to the coronation ceremony. She craves acceptance just as much as Jeanne does.
Mama’s support is crucial for Jeanne at this moment; however, her emphasis on acceptance at all costs is part of the reason that Jeanne doesn’t fight back when people slight her or feels too timid to combat the teachers over the election results.
Under Mama’s influence, Jeanne decides on an elegant but modest ball gown—unlike the other girls in the ceremony, who are wearing strapless dresses. Although she used the sarong to win the contest, she wants to be “respectable” now.
Jeanne’s desire to be “respectable” shows that she considers her body something shameful and not proper—unfortunately, this is a trope enforced both by Papa and the lewd whistles of boys at school.
On the night of the ceremony, the gym is decorated like a church, with a plywood throne and a carpet made out of bed sheets. Jeanne waits in the locker room with her four attendants. One of them is Lois Carson, who cattily compliments Jeanne on her “sedate” choice of dress. All the other girls agree. Lois tells Jeanne how much she loves Chinese food, and all the girls discuss recipes until it’s time for them to take the stage.
Lois’s blithe comments about Chinese food are almost funny, yet highlight the inability of Anglo-Americans to perceive Asians individually, or even distinguish between discrete cultures. That Jeanne declines to tell Lois off shows that she doesn’t consider herself entitled to this recognition, even though she craves it.
Jeanne walks onto the carpet of sheets, feeling like a bride. There’s a polite round of applause followed by a lot of murmuring; hot and disoriented, Jeanne imagines everyone is talking about her dress. The throne seems so far away, and her dress seems ridiculous. She wonders if Papa was right about the whole thing; after all, the teachers didn’t even want her to be carnival queen. Jeanne thinks about all the kids who voted for her and resolves not to let them down, although “in a way I already had”—they voted for the girl in the daring sarong, not a sedate queen.
Jeanne thought that this would be the best moment of high school, proving that she belongs among her peers. However, now she feels both undermined by those around her—thanks to Lois’s comments—and unsure that her persona as “carnival queen” reflects her true self. The identity she’s spent so much time crafting turns out not to be fulfilling.
Jeanne reaches the throne and looks back at her attendants. She knows that after the ceremony Lois Carson will host a party at her house, but she won’t be invited. She wants to cry, and she wishes she was ten years old. She feels that it’s “too late,” both to be a traditional dancer as Papa wants or to be a true carnival queen. She wants the ceremony over so that she can get out of this dress, but first she has to “follow this make-believe carpet to its plywood finale.”
Jeanne finally realizes that she can’t gain personal satisfaction by trying to fulfill rigid ideals of what an American teenager should be. At the same time, this has been her goal for so long that relinquishing it is a deeply disorienting and disappointing sensation. Ultimately, her disillusionment now will help her accept and take pride in her complex cultural identity.