Though Kim has several casual friends, Annette remains her only true friend. In ninth grade, Annette begins to "get political." She starts wearing buttons, passing around petitions, and even calls herself a Communist. Kim struggles with this, as Ma's family was killed because of Communism. As Annette changes, she becomes more attuned to the fact that she's never been to Kim's apartment. Kim continues to make excuses and hide her situation from Annette; she feels as though she can only make it through if she keeps hiding.
The gulf between Kim and Annette's understanding of Communism shows Kim that Annette is extremely sheltered. In short, she doesn't have the real-world experience to understand why Communism might be dangerous and scary for some people who have seen it go very wrong. This is because Annette was allowed to have a protected childhood, thanks to her family's wealth and her status as a white American citizen.
One afternoon, when Annette finds Kim in the library, she asks why Kim is never home in the afternoons. Kim dances around it, but finally asks if Annette remembers her saying that she and Ma work in a factory. Annette's eyes widen, but Kim shushes her—she tells Annette that if she starts to protest, she and Ma could lose their jobs and they can't afford that. Annette tells Kim that she can trust her. Kim thinks for a moment and then tells Annette everything about the cheating accusations and her oral exam. Annette assures Kim she'll pass the test. A week before Kim's exam, she finally tells Ma the entire story as Ma studies for her naturalization exam.
Kim understands that factory work for underage employees is illegal and in theory, should be stopped, but she also recognizes that she has no choice but to participate in the system, as it's her only way out. Choosing to then tell Annette about the exam and the cheating allows Kim and Annette to continue to become close by letting her in on a major stressor in Kim’s life. Annette's encouragement suggests that there is support for Kim if she asks for it.
A week before the exam, Annette insists on taking Kim to Macy's to relax. Kim is skeptical that this is even possible, but she lies to Ma and follows Annette through Macy's. The perfume ladies offer them sample spritzes without question, and they say nothing when Kim and Annette spritz each other with the other testing bottles. They giggle until Kim leaves for work. When she arrives at the factory, both Ma and Matt are aghast at the way Kim smells. Kim tells Ma that Annette simply let her try a new perfume, which Ma accepts. Later, Kim can still smell the perfume and feels as though she's surrounded by Annette's friendship.
Annette's plan helps Kim both to relax and to feel American in a way that she seldom does as a poor Chinese immigrant. This reinforces that if Kim were more willing to ask for help, Annette would likely find ways to offer it—even if those might seem unconventional or strange at first. It's also telling that Kim has this positive experience only when she momentarily abandons Ma; her independence brings her some happiness, as her constant responsibility keeps her from enjoying her youth.
Kim obtains working papers, which means that she can actually be paid for time working at the library. She opens a bank account in Ma's name and begins stashing all her paychecks there. Kim spends all her free time studying and wishes Pa were around to help her, as he'd been a brilliant student. Eventually, Kim picks up a copy of Car and Driver and discovers that the fancy cars offer her a wonderful escape from her adult responsibilities in real life. One afternoon, as Kim flips through Cycle magazine, she notices an article on a motorcycle that Park has in model form. At the factory later, Kim finds Park watching a lady sewing. The woman uses a rude Chinese euphemism to call Park disabled, which annoys Kim.
Now that Kim is able to legally work (though not at the factory), she's able to become even more independent. Notably, this bank account is an important way that Kim can somewhat escape Aunt Paula's grasp. The way that the woman at the factory speaks about Park begins to add more evidence to the novel's quiet suggestions that Mrs. Wu and Matt are hiding something more serious about his condition—and that whatever is going on, it's something socially unacceptable.
Kim tells Park that she has an article on his motorcycle. The sewing ladies are shocked to see Park turn around eagerly. Kim reads him the article and when she's finished, Park slowly smiles at Kim. An hour later, Matt approaches Kim and offers to pay her for the magazine. She asks why he pretends that Park is deaf when he just doesn't talk. Matt sadly says that Park has never spoken, and Kim understands why they cover it up: in Chinese culture, a disability like that is feared like a contagion. After this, Kim and Park bond over motorcycles and Kim learns some of Park's signs. She continues to bring him magazines.
Forming this relationship with Park and with Matt shows Kim becoming more of an integrated part of their family, which suggests that Kim and Matt's budding romance may be able to take off soon. However, by choosing to befriend Park like this, Kim also opens herself up to possible abuse from the factory workers who are also mean to Park, showing that these sacrifices always have possible consequences.
The night before Kim's exam, a shipment is due at the factory. She and Ma get home after 2am and then Kim stays up the rest of the night studying. Kim is trembling the next morning as she stands on a stage in front of a blackboard. The math and science faculty fill the first two rows of the auditorium. An upper level chemistry teacher begins the questioning and when the exam is over, the faculty claps. The chairperson of the program congratulates Kim, and they allow her to skip two years ahead in the program.
Kim's stellar performance here (and the fact that she presumably understood the English just fine) shows that she absolutely has a talent for school that she doesn't give herself credit for. It also shows that her grasp of English is improving, which will in turn help her feel more integrated at school and in the English-speaking world.
Later, at the factory, Matt invites Kim to go with him to deliver something to his father. Kim is surprised, as she thought Matt's father was dead, but she's too interested in spending time with Matt to ask questions. He leads her downstairs to his bike, admits he has a second job as a delivery boy, and implies he's skipping school to work. Kim climbs onto the bike behind him and as they zip through the city, she refuses to put her arms around him. After they get out of the congested streets of Chinatown, Kim starts to relax and enjoy the ride.
The implication that Matt is skipping school to work does several things. First, it reminds the reader that in the conflict between work and education, Matt is clearly choosing to work. Second, it shows that Matt's family is possibly more impoverished even than Kim's is, as Matt is basically the only one working and must work two jobs to make ends meet for himself, his mother, and his brother.
Finally, they stop in an alleyway near an abandoned building. Matt raps on a doorway and after a minute, a man lets them in. They walk through a hallway into a room that had once been a bar. Chinese men sit around a card table piled with cash, and Matt looks at Kim as though to ask her if it's okay he brought her here. She gives him a little nod; she understands this means that he trusts her. Matt unfolds a chair and motions for Kim to sit down, and a man passes them two beers. Kim doesn't like it and only sips at it.
The amount of cash on the table suggests that Matt's family is extremely dysfunctional, given that Matt's father clearly has enough to gamble and isn't using it instead to support his very ill wife. The silent exchange between Matt and Kim shows them both accepting that Matt has a secret that's likely shameful for him; sharing it with Kim means he'll get some support.
Matt walks to one man who Kim assumes is Matt's father. The man seems annoyed to be interrupted but accepts Matt's proffered envelope. It contains cash. Matt's father nods and then pushes Matt backwards. Kim stands and squeezes Matt's arm, and then insists she wants to stand and watch to cover up her impulsiveness. She finds the game fascinating. A bit later, the phone rings for Matt's father. He tells a woman named Louisa that he'll be home soon and that he's not gambling. Matt quietly tells Kim that Louisa is his father's live-in girlfriend. Kim realizes that the money Matt gave his father is likely from his own salary to protect Mrs. Wu.
Kim's realization that Matt is working in order to protect his mother helps her to see just how grown-up Matt has to be in order to survive. For him, school would be a luxury if he were interested at all—work is the only way he can keep his family from outright dissolving. However, Matt's father's behavior towards Matt suggests that he may or may not even really think of Matt as family. This may explain why he's seemingly unwilling to help Mrs. Wu.
As Matt's father returns to the table, he notices Kim and asks her what cards she would play. Kim knows the game is about statistics, not luck, and she points to the two cards she'd choose. Matt's father wins the pile of cash after playing those cards. A few minutes later, he tells Matt that Kim is "a great girl" and the other gamblers invite Kim to play with them. Matt insists that Kim isn't going to leave his side and the men back down. Kim explains that Matt never took her back there, but that event had the effect of letting her in on his shameful secret. It could've been the start of their romance if "the girl" hadn't shown up.
Kim's knowledge of statistics would absolutely make her a great gambler, as gambling is essentially a matter of statistics and calculated risk. This shows Matt that Kim's focus on education isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it does offer her some practical skills for the “real world” even as it seems to keep her in an “ivory tower” for now.