In the locker room, Kim's classmates begin changing. They all have store-bought underwear and some have bras. Kim is envious; she's begun growing breasts, but doesn't yet have a bra. Her underwear was poorly handmade by Ma. She notices toilet stalls and changes in one. Kim is almost happy to have been working in the factory, as she's able to do fairly well on her physical strength evaluation. By the end of the day, Kim has learned the names of several classmates: the bully's name is Greg, his partner in crime is Curt, the popular girl's name is Sheryl, and the Indian girl is Tammy.
Here Kim realizes that even something as private and personal as her underwear is going to set her apart negatively from her classmates, indicating that there's no way for her to entirely escape markers of her poverty. In short, there's no way for her to hide, even when it comes to intimate garments that should be the one thing her classmates can't use to figure out how poor she is.
After school, Kim is scheduled to work in the library three days per week and have an English tutoring session on the fourth day. The library is small and used mostly for studying. Kim approaches the librarian, Mr. Jamali, who is dressed in a maroon tunic with beautiful embroidery. He explains that he's Pakistani and refuses to wear a suit. Then he shows Kim her tasks. For the most part, Kim has free time to study. She asks Mr. Jamali if she may be able to shift her hours at all so that she can help Ma after school, and Mr. Jamali promises to help.
Mr. Jamali's promise to help suggests that he's going to become a friendly and understanding person for Kim, as he's clearly respecting her privacy by not asking why or how she has to help Ma. Though Kim sees this as a good thing, it's also important to recognize that by keeping all of this a secret, Kim is still trying to hide her poverty--which in turn, means that she's not asking for more concrete (and useful) help.
When Kim arrives at the factory, Matt comments on Kim's new clothes and says she looks pretty. Though she relishes the compliment from him, she understands that she needs to not show up to the factory in school clothes. When Ma asks Kim about her day, Kim says first that she needs new underwear. Ma insists that no decent girl would look at her underwear and Kim feels unspeakably angry. She calms down when she remembers that Ma hasn't bought anything for herself since arriving in the U.S. Kim tries to remove the rhinestones from her skirt during a break, but settles for finding a fabric scrap to use as a sash and cover them.
Ma's insistence that nobody is looking at Kim's underwear demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the American culture that Kim is part of at school. This begins to create a gulf between Ma and Kim and allows Kim to feel even more alone, as now it's obvious to her that she's not going to get much sympathy at home or at school. But after her flash of anger, Kim again shows her maturity in empathizing with Ma and recognizing all the sacrifices she has made for her.
Kim has her first tutoring session the next day. She meets her tutor, Kerry, and Kerry promptly asks what would help Kim to work on the most. Kim is surprised; she didn't expect to get a say. She says that speaking would be helpful, so she and Kerry talk their entire session. Kim learns that Kerry is a scholarship student too. Kerry suggests that Kim get involved in afterschool activities, but Kim knows she can't.
The shock of getting to dictate her own course of study in her tutoring sessions reminds Kim again that she's no longer in Hong Kong and the customs are different. However, the fact that she finds being able to dictate their activities helpful suggests that this difference is truly a good thing and will help her adjust.
Greg has several bullying targets and is merciless and cruel. In classes, Kim still struggles to keep up, especially in Mr. Scoggins's class. He doesn't understand why Kim can't watch the news every night or read her parents' newspaper. Kim tries to keep the radio on while she's at the factory, but between the hissing boiler, the unfamiliar vocabulary, and her spotty background on current events, it's nearly impossible to keep up. The only subjects Kim does well in are Life Science and Math. She has to spend hours poring over her textbooks for her other subjects and often goes to bed long after Ma.
Though Kim never really explains what kind of a teacher Mr. Scoggins is aside from his lack of understanding of her poverty, it is possible that if Kim were willing or able to tell him the truth about her situation, he'd be happy to help. Again, this shows how the shame that Kim feels about her poverty keeps her from doing well and in turn, will make it even harder for her to do well enough to escape the poverty at all.
On a Monday a few weeks after the start of school, Kim hears a noise above after she changes in the bathroom stall for gym. A girl shrieks that boys were up there, though Kim notes that most of the girls don't seem upset. The next day, Greg yells at Kim and asks about her boxer shorts. Finally, Kim has the evidence she needs to convince Ma she needs real underwear. She spends the rest of the week trying to hide while she changes, as Sheryl takes to peeking into the stall and laughing. On Friday, Kim decides to wear her swimsuit, reasoning that it's more underwear-like than her homemade underwear. Greg still teases her for it.
When the girls aren't really upset that the boys peeked, it implies that Kim was—another marker of her outsider status as it clearly differentiates her from her American classmates. Sheryl and Greg's cruelty makes Kim's desire to hide her poverty in other places more understandable, as their actions make it seem as though Kim has no reason to expect that anyone would do anything but ridicule her for being poor.
Ma and Kim buy a package of underwear at Woolworth's, but they have to go to Macy's to find a bra. None of the salespeople acknowledge Ma and Kim, so Kim looks through the bra displays for anything her size. Finally, Kim picks up a bra, approaches a saleslady, and asks if they have anything for her. The woman laughs, says that Kim needs a training bra, and asks Kim if she knows her size. Kim makes a wild guess based on European measurements: 70. This makes the woman laugh again, but she measures Kim and hands her a bra. Though Kim feels better with her new undergarments, Greg continues to tease her.
To individuals used to American bra sizing, European bra measurements sound as though they're far larger. This is why the saleslady laughs; in American bra sizing, Kim's guess is way too big for a tiny twelve-year-old. Despite Greg's continued teasing, the fact that Kim does feel better wearing American undergarments illustrates the power of clothing to make someone look and feel more at home and more like part of a group.
Kim and Annette sit together for lunch every day, where Annette talks at length about her classes and boys. Kim doesn't want to share how much of a hard time she's having, so she asks Kerry what she should do about Greg. Kerry insists that Kim needs to tell a teacher. Kim, remembering that in Hong Kong, the parents of fighting children are required to talk to each other, refuses to do so. Instead, she asks Matt for help. She tells Matt about her fight with Luke and he suggests that maybe Greg also has a crush on her. Kim waits until her next gym class and then walks right up to Greg. She apologizes, saying that she doesn't like him like that. Then, she kisses him on the cheek. This shocks Greg and the other kids take the opportunity to tease him. He stops teasing Kim.
Even though only approximately six months have passed since Kim misread Luke's meaning about the fights, it's telling that she's able to get the better of Greg here. Though she's well aware that she's pretending to misread the situation, she's now able to figure out how to work the social system so it does things for her, not just acts against her. At the same time, Kim's cultural background (and fear of teachers) isolates her again, as she refuses to ask a teacher for help.
Kim does her best to avoid Aunt Paula at the factory. One afternoon, Paula invites Ma and Kim to her house for dinner and suggests that Kim wear her school outfit. When Paula leaves, Ma cautions Kim to be careful. Kim asks if Paula is still upset about Harrison, and Ma reprimands Kim for being so direct—but explains that Paula is surely going to figure out how to use Kim's education to her own advantage. Kim realizes that Paula wants her to set a good example for Nelson.
Again, Kim's directness is another indicator that she's becoming more “American” in her values, much to Ma's consternation. However, Kim's understanding that she's supposed to set a good example for Nelson suggests that she's still engaging with more polite Chinese thought patterns, as her belief is one that's far more generous to Aunt Paula and Nelson than it likely should be.
At Aunt Paula's house, Kim notices that Nelson is wearing his school uniform too. She realizes that Paula wants to show off that Nelson is also in private school. She and Nelson insult each other in Chinese and then go to the table for dinner. Paula has prepared a true feast. Over dinner, Paula asks about Kim's test scores, how she got into Harrison, and her current grades. Kim admits that her classes are hard, and Nelson baits her into admitting she only got 67% on her last English test. Ma is dismayed to learn this, but Kim meets Paula's eyes and says she doesn't have much time to study. Ma tells Paula she doesn't need to worry, which silences Kim.
As expected, Aunt Paula and Nelson are actually hoping to make Kim feel like an outsider and undeserving of her education, especially when compared to Nelson himself. Ma is dismayed to learn about Kim's grades but doesn't push, suggesting that even though she feels she has to be loyal to Aunt Paula, she's loyal to her daughter first and foremost—and that means changing the subject so that Paula cannot continue to make Kim feel bad.
Annette also struggles to fit in at Harrison, as she looks funny and is outspoken. Tammy occasionally sits with Kim, but after Kim makes excuses as to why she doesn't have a phone, Tammy stops trying. By the second semester of school, Kim understands her teachers just fine—but her classmates' slang and her lack of cultural context make them extremely difficult to understand. One afternoon, Kim believes she's going to learn something about her classmates' religious beliefs when she overhears a discussion about nuns. She soon realizes that the "discussion" is actually a joke that she doesn't understand. Regardless, Kim is happy to be at Harrison Prep, not least because she no longer has "fun" assignments like Mr. Bogart assigned. Her tests and papers only require paper and pens.
Kim continues to lie and make excuses for why she doesn't live like her classmates do, and in doing so actively pushes them away and removes any chance she may have had to make friends. It's also important to recognize that her lack of cultural context comes jointly from her immigrant status and her poverty.
Kim's teachers grade her on how much her English improves, and it does improve. During her shifts at the library, Kim tries to read as much as she can. Mr. Jamali begins to bring her old books and magazines to help her improve her English, and by the end of the year, Kim is doing well in every class but Social Studies. Mr. Scoggins allows her to write a paper to make up her failed current events quizzes. As the eighth-grade school year begins, the school decides that Kim no longer needs an English tutor. She takes it as a compliment.
Just as when Mr. Jamali agreed to shift Kim's schedule so that she could help Ma, bringing Kim books and magazines is another way that he can show her he wants to help her and may understand what she's going through—while still respecting her desire for privacy. Kim's choice to see not getting a tutor as a compliment suggests that her habit of seeing teachers as terrifying is possibly lessening.
Kim watches her classmates develop social lives and notices them starting to go out as a group in the evenings. She's especially struck that they all seem relaxed and happy together. She keeps her distance, as she knows that Ma wouldn't allow her to go out with them, even if she didn't have to be at the factory. One afternoon, Kim is shocked when Tammy invites her to see Rocky Horror. Kim pretends that it might be a possibility, but ultimately passes on the invitation.
Kim chooses to decline these invitations without even asking Ma, illustrating another way that Kim has to grow up and manage herself far earlier than her peers do. In other words, this is another instance when Ma doesn't have the luxury of monitoring Kim's behavior.
Kim's classmates are extremely stressed about an upcoming science test, though Kim is thrilled to have a test on something that requires math. One afternoon, Kim overhears them complaining that they'll all fail, but Sheryl looks at Kim and drily points out that not everyone will fail. On the day of the test, Tammy asks Kim for a pencil. As Tammy takes the pencil, a folded piece of paper falls out of her sleeve. Kim picks it up, hoping that it's a note for her. Mrs. Reynolds takes it from her before she can even open it. Kim believes it must be something private; instead, the paper is filled with notes on the test material. Tammy stares straight ahead.
Sheryl's comment suggests that Kim isn't just excluded in the group because she's poor and separates herself; she's likely actively excluded because her classmates are jealous of her. This shows how Kim's academic skills may be her one ticket out of poverty, though they're also one of the many reasons her classmates (wrongfully) choose to exclude her and make fun of her.
Kim realizes what happened and Tammy catches her eye, silently pleading for her not to tell. Mrs. Reynolds leads Kim to the office of Dr. Copeland, who is the head of the math and science department. Dr. Copeland is furious but calm as Kim insists the note isn't hers. Kim is so flustered she can't even bring herself to tell on Tammy, and she's ashamed that she wanted to be liked badly enough to pick up a note during a test. Curt knocks on the door, enters, and tells the adults that he saw Kim pick up the paper. Kim insists that Curt isn't her friend and therefore isn't covering for her. Finally, Kim mumbles that she's too smart to cheat. Dr. Copeland smiles wryly and sends Kim and Curt back to class.
Though Kim gets in trouble precisely because she wants so badly to be liked, it's worth noting that she chooses to not tell on Tammy so that she'll be able to maintain her low-level and precarious social status, since telling on Tammy would likely lead to her classmates ostracizing her even more. It’s clear that despite her academic successes, Kim feels extremely alone, and even more than she wants to do well in school, she just wants to be accepted.