By tenth grade, Kim is one of the best students at her school. One evening, Annette asks Kim on the phone how she manages to do so well, given that she does all her studying at the last minute. Kim suggests it's like being born with an extra head. However, Kim doesn't see it as particularly remarkable; she believes she's simply doing as she's told. What's more, she knows that doing well, securing a scholarship to a prestigious college, and getting a good job afterwards is the only way to get out of poverty. Though Kim receives top scores on her Advanced Placement tests, the other kids at school still don't want to be friends.
It's important to recognize that academics simply aren't that difficult for Kim. This is a clear leg up for her, and is one of the only reasons she's able to split herself so much between the factory and schoolwork. The mention that the other students still aren't friendly to her suggests that what Kim actually longs for is acceptance, which would certainly make her journey easier.
Ma finally allows Kim to grow out her hair, and since her body settles in a perfect size six, Kim is able to take samples from the factory and not stand out so much at school. Regardless, other kids view her as too serious. Even when Kim is invited places, she makes excuses and doesn't even ask Ma, as she knows she'd eventually have to invite them to her apartment.
For Kim, finally living in an adult's body offers her a very important way to fit in at school to some degree. While Kim's too-early sense of adult responsibility does have ill effects, physically coming of age actually has several important benefits.
Annette accepts Kim's limitations for the most part. As the year goes on, Annette develops an admiration for Mr. Jamali. Annette’s crushes continue to be more of a way to pass the time than actual feelings, and Kim enjoys pretending she's normal as she talks about crushes with Annette. She tells the reader that she gave up long ago that Aunt Paula would move them, and she knows there's little chance that anything will change.
Given the way that Kim describes Annette's crushes, it makes Annette sound exceptionally youthful, especially compared to Kim. This reinforces the economic and cultural differences between the two, and the way those differences influence how the girls come of age at different rates.
At the factory, Kim is tuned into Matt's every move. One afternoon, she mistakenly comments that his pants look different. He admits he's not wearing underwear, and Kim explains to the reader that she spends so much time staring at Matt's backside, she's sure he's telling the truth. One day, as Kim takes a break outside, she comes across Park fixing Matt's bike chain while Matt watches. Matt flirts with Kim, which she ignores. Kim's feelings for Matt are so intense that she avoids contact with him. She feels halfway as though giving into her emotions would make her lose everything she'd worked for academically. As an adult, she recognizes that she simply didn't know what love was, and should've taken Matt when she had the chance.
Kim's fears about Matt and the way she handles her crush show that she is indeed still very young, woman's body or not. However, it's also worth keeping in mind that given Kim's extremely busy schedule, she doesn't necessarily have time to dedicate herself to figuring out how to actually foster a healthy romantic relationship. Similarly, Kim's fear that voicing her feelings for Matt would jeopardize her academic progress suggests that she's beginning to see that he's very much on the opposite side of the work/education conflict, and that could pose problems for them both.
One afternoon, a girl named Vivian is waiting for Matt outside the factory. She's gorgeous, kind, and perfect in every way. Kim learns that Vivian's father is a tailor from Singapore who runs a shop near Matt's apartment. Though their relationship begins when she's taller than Matt, he soon grows tall and broad. Kim watches them together and aches with regret.
Kim's assessment of Vivian as being perfect suggests that Kim doesn't necessarily see her new, more adult body as being particularly helpful anymore, at least in this situation.
Curt breaks a leg skiing right after Kim turns sixteen. They haven't spoken at all since he defended her to Dr. Copeland in eighth grade. Because of this, Kim is surprised when he calls her late one night. He explains that he's stuck in bed for a month and will fail out of school if she doesn't help him. He admits that he's in trouble for all sorts of reasons and has to keep his grades up, and he insists that nobody at school is smarter than Kim. Kim agrees to let Curt borrow her notes and sends them home every day with his brother. Curt calls occasionally late at night and never asks why she's not home earlier. When he returns to school, he doesn't hide that Kim helped him. Because of this, the popular group finally accepts Kim.
Though Curt is likely not aware of Kim's poverty, his choice to never ask why she's not home shows him respecting her privacy just as Mr. Jamali and Mrs. Avery have in the past. In this way, he allows her to function as an independent adult and not call her poverty into question. It's also worth noting that Curt is able to get himself in such deep trouble, and then get help getting out of it, exactly because his family is wealthy. They have the means to ensure he stays in school whether or not he's truly trying to succeed.
As Kim's popularity rises, boys begin to take interest in her. She feels liberated now that Matt is no longer available. She spends most of her weekend evenings on the phone with boys, which drives Ma crazy. Kim recognizes that she's not pretty, funny, or a good listener—all the things girls think boys want—but she understands that the boys really want freedom from their parents and expectations. This is exactly what Kim wants too. This makes her extremely attractive to them, and she spends most of her free periods kissing them. Kim relishes the freedom she has with her body, as it's the only place in her life she has such freedom. Kim remains detached emotionally from these dalliances, as she recognizes that they're just a dream. Her reality is poverty, cold, the factory, and Matt.
Kim finds a sense of freedom in becoming physically and romantically involved with boys, suggesting that this is the only way Kim gets to come of age on her own terms, when she's ready—unlike the rest of her life, where she's been filling out tax returns and working in a factory since she was a child. The recognition that these boys are just a dream for her shows that Kim still thinks of herself as fundamentally different from her peers, even as she recognizes the ways in which their desires are similar.
Kim begins tutoring Curt once per week, which she's initially happy to do. However, as Curt's grades recover, he stops taking it seriously. He often forgets appointments altogether or comes with marijuana. Kim learns that he forgets about time when he's working on a sculpture. Finally, she confronts him and insists that he should do his homework and possibly, get a different tutor. This improves things somewhat, and things get even better when they begin holding their sessions in Curt's studio.
Again, Curt's desire to not take his tutoring sessions seriously can be read as a symptom of his privilege: his family's wealth means that he'll likely not have to work too hard to do well in life, even if he does squander his educational opportunities.
Curt makes polished woodcarvings, all of which are abstract. Kim studies one that looks almost like the Chinese character for water and asks why he never sculpts things from real life. Curt cracks a joke about Kim modeling for him, but then seriously says that the abstract shapes can mean or be anything the viewer wants. Kim doesn't like having so much choice; she insists that she needs purpose. Curt laughs that Kim doesn't care about superficial things. Kim insists she does—she wishes she could look like the other girls but doesn't know how. Curt declares she's too busy saving the world to care, and Kim insists that she's not a "paragon of virtue."
Kim's dislike of so many choices is something she's learned from living in poverty, where she sees that she truly has few choices: either remain in the factory system and remain impoverished, or do well in school and get out of the factory system. The fact that this makes her uncomfortable even in art that's comparatively nonthreatening shows just how much her experiences of poverty color how she sees the rest of the world.
Curt asks about her phrasing, and Kim asks if Curt's parents don't talk that way. He explains that his parents are editors and they absolutely talk that way, and Kim admits that she doesn't speak like that at home. She returns the subject to Curt's sculpture. The next week he brings a small carving of a swallow. Kim compliments it but refuses to take it when Curt offers.
This conversation had the potential to allow Curt to see some of how Kim lives. Her decision to not let him in reinforces how independent she is, but that choice to remain independent also makes her lonelier and more isolated.
Annette gets involved in theater in eleventh grade. Mr. Jamali comments on her love of the dramatic and convinces her to try out. Kim loves to watch Annette during rehearsals, as she never gets to see the evening performances.
It's important that Kim does choose to watch Annette after school; she understands that this support is necessary to maintain their close friendship.
Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob invite Kim and Ma to accompany them to see Nelson's debate competition. Apparently, he's very good. In Bob and Paula's minivan, Ma and Kim sit in the very back and listen as Nelson and Godfrey make fun of Bob's Chinese silk shirt. They turn around so Bob can change and Nelson also makes Paula take off her "tacky" gold jewelry. Paula makes a point to ask Kim about her extracurriculars and remind her how important they are to colleges. Kim continues to let Paula think that she's still doing poorly in school, as it seems to make Paula abuse her less. Nelson starts to shame Ma for her simple clothes, but Kim stops him. His debate team loses.
Even though the novel very much associates prioritizing education with being appropriately Chinese (and in turn, associates Nelson with being Chinese), Nelson and Godfrey's rudeness to the adults here betrays that they're actually very American—something that Paula is surely not very pleased about. Another factor motivating Paula to be so cruel to Kim and Ma might be that she's losing control of everyone in her life, even her own sons.
That winter, Ma and Kim's stove finally breaks. After a few nights huddled together under blankets, Ma calls a man recommended by a lady at the factory. The man doesn't have certifications to work in the U.S. After a while, he deems the stove unfixable and asks for $100. Kim accuses the man of taking advantage of them and ignores Ma's pleading for her to stop. She notes that she had the confidence that comes from having to act like an adult for too long. Kim asks the man for his passport and papers and when he attempts to intimidate her, she dials Annette's phone number but says to the man that she's calling the police. The man races away.
Kim's behavior and the manner in which she scares this man away show that she is truly becoming American in fundamental ways, as she clearly has no intention of letting Ma barter with him or get cheated. When she links this boldness to having to act like an adult long before she's ready, it suggests that this isn't always a bad thing. At the very least, it means that Kim and Ma won't lose $100 they don't have.