Ma and Kim scrub the radiator in their apartment but no matter what they do, it refuses to work. They also discover that they're the only ones living in their trash-filled building. Later, Ma asks Aunt Paula about the heat, and Paula assures them that she's already asked Mr. N., the landlord, for permission to fix it. Kim's days spent at home are freezing cold. Their thin blanket from Hong Kong is nowhere near warm enough, so she and Ma sleep under coats and clothes to stay warm.
It's worth noting that it's long been illegal to rent an apartment that doesn't have heat in places that get cold. Again, when Ma and Kim don't push back on Paula to fix their heat sooner, it suggests that either they don't know this or don't feel as though they have the power to push back at all.
One afternoon, Kim peels back the garbage bag covering the broken kitchen window and looks out the back of her building. She can see into the neighboring apartment in Mr. Al's building. Inside, Kim can make out a sleeping black woman cradling a baby. The woman wears only a housedress, which tells Kim that they have heat. Kim longs for the better times she and Ma had in Hong Kong.
The mother and baby in Mr. Al's building represent, in Kim's eyes, a more ideal family and life than she currently leads. Though she and Ma love each other very much, their sacrifices for each other to stay afloat mean that they're unable to experience the kind of happiness Kim sees in this apartment.
When Kim gets to the factory the next afternoon, she sees Matt dragging a cart piled high with skirts. She helps him push the cart to the hemming station and learns that she made a mistake: today is Thanksgiving, all the schools are closed, and her absence all morning makes it obvious that she's skipping school. Matt assures her that Ma doesn't know, but he says she'll need to think of an excuse as to why she didn't come earlier. He suggests she say she didn't know, went to school, and then returned home to work on a project. He also says he regularly skips school and never does his homework. Kim feels as though she has to pay Matt back but has only tissues in her pocket. He tells her to forget about it.
This afternoon at the factory represents a major turning point for Kim in terms of how she thinks of her education. Here, Matt offers her one choice: to decide that school isn't all that important and to instead prioritize factory life, a choice that Kim has been making in some ways by skipping school. This begins to set up work and education as being in opposition to each other, given how Matt clearly prioritizes work over school.
Kim finds Ma and admits outright that there was no school, but she spent the day at home working on a project on current events. She hesitates a moment too long as she explains that she came at her usual time because she never takes the trains at any other time of day. Ma is quiet and then tells Kim to be careful with Matt and the other children, as spending time with them will make her grow up to be like them. Ma says that it's too late to do anything with her own life, but she's done everything she can to give Kim a better life. She reminds Kim of her intelligence and apologizes for bringing her to the U.S. Kim promises to get them out of this situation.
Ma's pep talk here shows Kim what her task is: to choose the opposite of what Matt chose and to use education to help her and Ma leave the factory. Though Kim appears to take on this responsibility, it's important to recognize that this is a great deal of pressure for such a young child. This then becomes one of the many ways that Kim is forced to grow up long before she's actually ready to, thereby depriving her of a real childhood.
Kim vows to go back to school on Monday, as she can't bear the thought of Ma cutting threads as an old lady. She thinks of Aunt Paula saying that Nelson will be a great lawyer someday. Though Kim has no idea what lawyers do, she does know they make lots of money, and she reasons that if Nelson can do it, so can she. Kim spends the weekend worrying about her return to school, but her first day back is surprisingly uneventful. Kim had the foresight to forge a letter from Ma explaining her absence, and Mr. Bogart accepts it without question.
It's worth noting that Kim decides to go back to school for Ma's sake, not necessarily her own. This places Kim's coming academic achievements and the work she does to succeed in school as being all in the service of Ma—it’s more of a sacrifice, not necessarily something Kim does for herself. The idea of sacrifice infiltrates many of Kim's thoughts.
Mr. Bogart hands out a test. It takes Kim a few minutes to realize that they're simple math problems in word form. She already knows how to solve them. However, she makes a mistake and, not wanting to look like a cheater again, she decides to ask Mr. Bogart himself for an eraser. She enunciates as she asks him for a “rubber,” which sends a titter through the class. Kim has no idea why everyone laughed and returns to her seat, burning with shame. Annette whispers to Kim that it's called an “eraser” in the U.S., and she pushes one to her.
Hong Kong was a British colony; this means that the English that Kim does know is British English, as evidenced by calling an eraser a “rubber” (which, especially in America, is also a slang word for condom, which is probably why the other students giggle). Kim is at even more of a disadvantage than she thought, as she'll also need to switch to the appropriate English dialect.
Kim does well on her test, though her method of solving the problems is slightly different and so Mr. Bogart takes off points. After the eraser incident, Kim and Annette become friends. Annette draws rude drawings of Mr. Bogart that Kim doesn't fully grasp but understands the intention, and writes answers in her notebook and shows them to Kim. School becomes bearable for Kim because of her friendship.
Mr. Bogart's choice to take off points casts him as being very picky and not at all confident in Kim's abilities. Kim and Annette's friendship helps to make Kim’s horrible situation easier to bear.
Ma and Kim begin leaving their oven on and open all the time. Kim is used to the heat of Hong Kong and so the bitter cold of New York is especially jarring. She doesn't have underwear like the other girls, and so wears two layers of pajamas under her pants. She has one sweater that was once pretty, but is now shrunken and pilled. Despite the layers and the oven, Kim is never warm. Ma often brings clothing home from the factory and never goes to bed before Kim. She tries to play her violin, but it's too cold for her to properly move her fingers.
Even at this early stage, Kim is extremely attuned to all the ways in which she's different from her classmates. The fact that she fixates on her undergarments shows that she's extremely interested in fitting in, as she doesn't really acknowledge the fact that her pajamas keep her far warmer than American underwear would.
Kim begins to look forward to school because of the heat and because of Annette. Annette wears braces, which is a new concept for Kim, and brings cold snacks to school, which she delights in sharing. Kim is also secretly fascinated by Annette's paleness. Annette constantly admires Kim's black hair and loves learning Chinese insults, though her pronunciation is horrendous. She also teaches Kim American slang.
Annette provides Kim a window into American culture in a way that's relatively non-judgmental and friendly, something invaluable as Kim does her best to transition to life in American school. Their curiosity about the other's skin color suggests that these racial differences don’t have to be a cause for prejudice or stereotyping—they can be interesting when shared between people who treat each other as equals.
Kim soon learns that her school is in a middle-class black neighborhood, though white kids from the nearby wealthier neighborhood also attend. Kim thinks of herself as one of the black kids, as they all get free hot lunch. However, Kim has no friends aside from Annette, and she doesn't fit in at all. Her clothing is homemade, and Ma keeps her hair chopped short, insisting that it takes less time to dry in the freezing apartment. Sometimes, fights break out that leave kids bleeding. The students are beginning to become romantically interested in each other and play games in which they "transmit cooties" to each other. Kim often ends up losing, as she'd been taught not to touch people without permission and therefore can’t pass the “cooties” on.
Just as Ma suffers because she relies on Chinese cultural norms and feels unable to push back on Aunt Paula because of them, Kim "loses" at the cootie games because she also is unwilling to step outside of Chinese cultural norms in a way that would actually help her fit in. When she says that she feels like the black kids, it suggests that Kim divides people more by economic standing than she does by skin color. In turn, this implies that she believes there could be some sense of community with those kids who are poor like she is. Unfortunately, the nature of poverty is often isolating, as shown by how ashamed Kim is and how she tries to hide it from others.
That winter, Kim is sick most of the time. Ma cooks traditional Chinese remedies for her but continues to send Kim to school, as she's too afraid to leave Kim in the freezing apartment. Mr. Bogart remains unimpressed with Kim, even as she proves herself a whiz at math and science. He constantly makes jokes about "the fairer sex" and acts as though his female students are incompetent. Kim continues to do poorly in any subject that relies too much on words. She buys a dictionary to study with, which costs her $2.99—200 skirts. She begins thinking of any cost as being in skirts rather than in dollars.
The shift to thinking of costs as being in skirts rather than dollars illustrates how the factory system fundamentally warps Kim's perception of the world, and normalizes beliefs, thought patterns, and practices that are decidedly not normal. Mr. Bogart's sexism offers some explanation as to why he punishes Kim for little things; she's disadvantaged twice for being female and not speaking English well.
Kim tells Ma that in the U.S., students don't get to keep their homework or tests, so she doesn't have to show Ma her poor grades. She continues to struggle with Mr. Bogart's assignments, as he assigns things that are nearly impossible for her—collages out of old magazines and writing assignments about one's treasured objects pose problems, as Kim doesn't have treasured possessions or a collection of magazines. These issues plague other students too, but Kim feels as though she's the only one who truly tries.
When Kim hides her struggles from Ma, she may be right that it's shielding her from Ma's disappointment—but it's also true that keeping this a secret is making Kim feel even more alone. Mr. Bogart's assignments suggest that he either has no idea that some of his students lead difficult lives or simply doesn't want to do the work to help them succeed by meeting them where they are.
Mr. Bogart's favorite student is Tyrone Marshall, a poor black student. His grades are exceptional and Kim nurses a secret crush on him. Mr. Bogart often speaks about how wonderful Tyrone is, which embarrasses Tyrone to no end. Kim secretly leaves Tyrone candy when Annette gives her some.
Kim's crush on Tyrone likely has to do with the fact that he fills the student archetype that she did in Hong Kong; this suggests that Kim desperately wants to regain her star student status.
Kim notes that in Hong Kong, her best friend had been the second-smartest student at school. She'd been envious when Kim mentioned she was leaving, but Kim believes she was happy to finally take Kim's spot as the best student. With Annette, Kim revels in how kind she is: she gives Kim whatever she has, whether it's candy, drawings, or information. She once asks Kim what she does after school. The next day, Annette informs Kim that she asked Mr. Avery about kids working in factories and he said that that doesn't happen anymore. Kim understands that she needs to keep that part of her life hidden from Annette.
Annette's response to Kim admitting that she works in a factory betrays that Annette's privilege blinds her to the harsh realities of lives that differ significantly from her own. Remember that Kim said that piecework (being paid by the piece, not the hour) is really only illegal for white people; this is one of the places where this is shown to hold true. For Annette, piecework and child labor are illegal, and her viewpoint is understandable.