As Kim begins her senior year, she and Curt continue to fool around and rumors circulate that they're going out. Kim enjoys spending time with Curt, as he makes it easier to bear seeing Matt with Vivian. One fall day, Curt asks Kim why she doesn't love him. She insists that everyone's in love with him and admits that she's only in love with his body. Curt laughs.
Even if Kim won't tell Curt, it's likely that he's functioning in the same way her other dalliances did: as a distraction that allows her to feel, for once, like she’s in control of her life.
Soon, Dr. Weston calls Kim into her office to talk about where Kim wants to go to college. Kim wants to go to Yale based only on her knowledge that it's a top school and it's beautiful. Dr. Weston asks to look over Kim's application, and Kim asks if she actually has a chance. Dr. Weston insists that if Kim can't get in, nobody can. When Kim asks for the fee waiver, Dr. Copeland asks to see Kim and Ma's tax return to see if Kim qualifies. When she looks at the return, she gives Kim the waiver immediately. Later, Ma is appalled that Kim asked at all. Though they've finally paid off their debts to Aunt Paula, Kim knows they have to save every cent in order to move for school.
Ma's response to Kim asking for the waiver suggests that she puts a great deal of importance on looking as though they have the money to actually do things, much as Kim did when she first began at Harrison. The fact that Kim asked for the waiver at all suggests that she's learning to ask for help in times like these, as she understands that assistance like this is the only way she's going to be able to actually do well.
The next day, Ma brings home a stack of cheap china plates and tells Kim to break them, which is supposed to bring good luck. Kim breaks them even though she doesn't believe the superstition; she knows if she can't get admitted somewhere with a need-blind aid policy, she can't go to school at all. She becomes increasingly worried as she listens to her classmates talk about writing their application essays about picking grapes in Italy or winning gymnastics competitions. Kim feels even more like an outsider, as she thinks her only real skill is bagging skirts very fast. She feels she has no chance against kids who have been groomed since birth to attend prestigious colleges.
Kim's willingness to break the plates suggests that she's very interested in keeping Ma happy and doing things that let Ma feel better about their chances. At school, Kim still feels like an outsider and believes that her outsider status will negatively affect her chances at college. As she so often does, this shows her downplaying her academic achievements, which are truly extraordinary.
Mr. Jamali casts Annette as the lead in Our Town, and Kim promises to be there on opening night. However, Kim discovers she has to back out—her naturalization exam is that afternoon and she can't postpone it, as then she won't qualify for financial aid. Annette is hurt and asks if this is a real excuse or just another false excuse.
Annette's question betrays that Kim's secrecy and shame has taken a real toll on their relationship, even as they've remained friends regardless. Again, this illustrates the consequences of secrets kept because of shame.
Aunt Paula still receives Kim's score reports in the mail. Though Kim and Ma try to keep Kim's results a secret, Paula seems aware that they're very good. Because of this, she harasses them more than usual. One afternoon, Matt watches Paula say nasty things to Kim and Ma and when she leaves, he asks Kim what Paula's problem is. Kim explains that she's jealous because she's doing better in school than Nelson. To keep Matt around a moment more, Kim asks where Mrs. Wu and Park are, as she hasn't seen them recently. Matt explains that Mrs. Wu is often ill and keeps Park home with her. He proudly explains that he's able to take care of them, and tells Kim he misses her. Kim reminds him he has Vivian.
The fact that Paula continues to harass Kim and Ma because of Kim's grades shows that she is now turning to emotional abuse to make Kim's life more difficult and hopefully (for Paula) make Nelson look better in comparison. Matt's pride at being able to support his family properly shows that he believes his work helps him truly come of age and grow up. Further, this suggests that he believes supporting people is how one comes of age and gains independence.
One afternoon, Curt tells Kim about an "arrogant waiter" at a restaurant. The waiter wouldn't bring Curt his bill, so Curt and his friends walked out and laughed at the waiter's dismay as they did. Kim points out that the waiter likely had to pay for Curt's meal out of his tips, which is often all the waiters are paid. Curt seems somewhat ashamed. Other times, he's exceptionally sweet. One afternoon he brings her an umbrella skeleton twisted into the shape of a flower.
This insight into the food service industry shows that it's not just the factories that are utilizing illegal employment practices when they hire Chinese people. This suggests that this kind of discrimination and mistreatment is widespread, and is just a fact of life for many Chinese immigrants at this point in history.
On the day of Kim's naturalization test in January, she sits at home studying. She hears a knock at the door and is so surprised she opens it. Annette stands there and looks over Kim's shoulder at the apartment, taking in Kim's faux fur vest, the open oven, and the clouds from her breath. Rather than looking embarrassed, Annette is furious. She spits that nobody in America lives like this, and says that she's spent years telling herself that Kim likely had some interesting secret that kept her from inviting her over. Annette is the most upset that if she'd never come, Kim wouldn't have told her or asked for help. At the thought that Annette would help, Kim hugs her.
It's most telling that Kim is so shocked and touched that Annette would help her. Kim's desire to be independent and keep Annette out rendered her unable or unwilling to ask for help from people who would actually be able to do something. Notably, this is also something that Paula actively fostered. She led Ma and Kim to believe that she was the only one capable of helping them; Annette's offer here shows that that's incorrect.
Kim explains that she'll be able to get out of the apartment soon as Annette looks around. She shrieks when she notices Kim's iced-over soy sauce and a roach drinking from the dish. Kim washes the dishes while Annette walks around and explains that the stage lights blew out, so Our Town is temporarily canceled. Annette insists that the apartment isn't legal and says they have to tell Mrs. Avery so she can help. Kim, ashamed, says she doesn't want Mrs. Avery to know about the depths of her poverty. Annette promises to not share details.
Again, though Annette is technically right—unheated apartments in New York City are illegal—Kim is well aware that those who could help her may be less willing to because she's not white. When Annette continues to insist on involving her mom against Kim's wishes, it shows that Kim has reached the end of being able to hide and ask people to respect her shameful privacy.
At a tutoring session with Curt a week later, Curt tells Kim that life in the suburbs is hell on earth. Kim thinks that life in the factory is actually hell and says that she thinks the suburbs sound satisfying and extraordinary to her. Curt says he wants to be great and free, and promises to visit Kim in the suburbs.
Just as Matt and Kim appear to be going different directions with school and work, Kim and Curt will also go different directions because of what they want out of their lives. Curt could easily have a “normal” life in the suburbs, so it seems unappealing to him, while this sounds like a distant ideal for Kim.
A month later, Mrs. Avery invites Kim to her office. She explains that she found an apartment in Queens, though it's not in great condition. This worries Kim, so she asks if it has heat. The question shocks Mrs. Avery. She explains the apartment is heated, furnished, and has appliances including a washer and dryer. Kim asks if there are insects, and when Mrs. Avery says there aren't, Kim suspiciously asks why the apartment isn't in optimal condition. Mrs. Avery says the carpet is worn and there's some peeling paint. She writes the rent down on a piece of paper, and it's not that much more than Kim and Ma had been paying Aunt Paula for their debts.
This exchange illustrates the world of difference between what Kim considers a sub-par living situation and what Mrs. Avery considers to be sub-par. Mrs. Avery's idea of a "not great" apartment is certainly on the right side of legal matters, and it's also a result of her privilege compared to Kim. The price of this apartment suggests that Paula has also been lying to Ma and Kim about what's possible for them, given that it doesn't cost that much more to have heat.
Mrs. Avery notices Kim's hopeful look and mentions that she'll need a deposit, paperwork, proof of employment, and salary slips. Kim thinks that she and Ma will be able to manage the deposit with a bit more time, though she has no idea where Ma would get a character reference. Mrs. Avery reassures Kim and suggests she include her salary slip from the library as well. Later, when Kim tells Ma, Ma's face glows.
The character reference becomes one place where Paula's attempts to isolate Ma and Kim have been successful, as she's really the only person able to write such a reference. This means that Ma and Kim once again find themselves in a situation where they'll either be alone or dependent on her.
In March, Kim and Curt are leaving a school building together one afternoon when Kim notices Matt watching. His eyes show shock, pain, and jealousy, and he turns and strides away. Kim chases after him and doesn't look back at Curt. Finally, she reaches Matt. He yells and asks if Curt is Kim's boyfriend, to which she screams back that Matt has a girlfriend too. Suddenly, Matt deflates and admits that Mrs. Wu died. Kim holds Matt while he cries and then leads him onto the subway and home to her apartment.
Concerning as Matt's jealousy may be, it's likely that his desire to have his romantic interests all to himself is rooted in his fear of not being able to provide for them. Essentially, he likely sees that Kim's ability to make her own choices about romantic partners means that she won't need him to care for her, which is how he feels valuable.
When Kim and Matt arrive, they're too emotional to think clearly. Kim offers Matt a towel and he begins to dry Kim's face. They begin kissing and Matt leads Kimberly to the mattress. After a few minutes, Kim says they have to use a condom and suggests they use two. Kim feels as though Matt is more beautiful than she'd imagined as they have sex. Matt cries again when it's over.
Kim comes of age sexually with Matt. Their choice to take this step together reinforces the novel's suggestions that Matt and Kim are able to connect because of their shared backgrounds and the tragic system that traps them.
A while later, Matt talks about having to care for Park and admits that he's never even told Vivian that his father is alive. Matt admits that the moment Mrs. Wu died, he knew he didn't want Vivian. He declares that he's stupid and not a hero out to save Kim, and Kim replies that she's going to be the one to save them anyway. Kim promises she's not going to see Curt again and finally, Matt leaves. As Kim tries to clean the blankets, she discovers the condoms. Both of them are torn, and Kim feels extremely stupid.
Kim's comment that she's going to save them suggests that she's not willing to let Matt be the sole provider for the family they might have together. The broken condoms remind the reader that choosing to take this adult step has the potential to bring all manner of adult consequences.