Study Guide

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Themes

By Jamie Ford

  • Race

    Race plays a huge part in character relationships in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—especially because the story takes place during World War II, when prejudice against Japanese Americans is rampant. Even though Henry and Keiko look the same on the outside to many of their classmates—who (racistly… which should totally be a word) consider them both Japanese and traitors to America—there's even more racial tension in the mix because Henry's Chinese father hates the Japanese and doesn't want him to hang out with Keiko. Good times.

    These racial tensions, the internment of Japanese Americans, and Henry's father's meddling is what ends up keeping Henry and Keiko apart—even though they love each other.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why does Henry's father hate the Japanese so much? What feelings do you see driving his prejudice?
    2. Is Henry treated better than Keiko because he's Chinese? Why or why not?
    3. How are Keiko and Henry both treated as the "other" when they're at school?
    4. Do Henry's parents like Ethel more than Keiko simply because she's Chinese American? Why or why not? Give evidence from the text, please and thank you.

    Chew on This

    Time and again this book shows that racism is motivated by fear.

    Henry's father makes him wear an "I Am Chinese" pin because he wants his son to be more accepted than Japanese people are—but the pin backfires and only serves to make Henry's otherness stand out more.

  • Memory and the Past

    At the beginning of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, we meet Henry when he's an old man. But most of the story takes place in the past, when he's a young boy living in Seattle during the tumultuous years of World War II. The book revolves around Henry's memories of his childhood best friend and first love, a Japanese American girl named Keiko Okabe. Even though Henry hasn't seen Keiko in many decades, it's clear through his flashbacks and memories that she still means a lot to him and that he regrets the circumstances that have kept them apart.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why has Henry hunted for the Oscar Holden record all these years?
    2. What does Henry hope to find in the basement of the Panama Hotel?
    3. Why doesn't Henry want to go into Japantown now that he's an older man?
    4. How do Henry's memories of Ethel keep him from seeking out Keiko even after his wife dies?

    Chew on This

    Even though Henry gives up on finding and reuniting with Keiko so he can concentrate on his family, he still remembers all the times they shared together with great fondness—and this leads to their easy rapport when they finally meet again at the end.

    When Henry walks into the basement of the Panama Hotel, it's like entering a time capsule. Faced with all of these belongings that have been left untouched for decades, he can't help but be overcome by memories of Keiko and his childhood.

  • Language and Communication

    It isn't always easy to say what's in your heart, but the characters in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet sure make a solid attempt at it. In the beginning when we meet young Henry's family, we discover there's not a lot of real communication happening in their household; they're impeded by the fact that Henry's parents only speak Chinese while they insist he only speak English. And on top of that, Henry doesn't understand his parents and their motivations—especially his dad's.

    Later, when Henry finds himself falling into the same patterns of non-communication with his own son, Marty, he realizes has to try harder if he wants to have a good relationship with his son. Otherwise, he's building another disconnected generation.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why won't Henry's parents let him speak Chinese, even when he's at home? Be specific and give evidence from the text.
    2. How does Keiko react when Henry speaks Japanese to her? Why?
    3. Are Henry and Keiko able to carry on their relationship through letters? Why or why not? How does it change?
    4. How does Henry repair his relationship with his son, Marty? What's wrong with it to begin with?

    Chew on This

    Although Henry's parents insist he only speak English so he won't be outcast at school, it just ends up alienating him from his family at home since they don't speak the same language anymore.

    Henry tries hard to keep his connection with Keiko alive, but without that face-to-face interaction it becomes impossible for them to keep their relationship going.

  • Family

    Ah, the joys of family. Like plenty of other people, Henry loves his family a whole lot, but that doesn't mean he finds them easy to be around. In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry struggles with his family both in childhood and as an adult. As a kid, he has a lot of disagreements with his traditionalist father, to the point where they stop talking to each other. And as an adult, Henry struggles to connect with his only son, Marty, even though he loves him dearly. In the end, Henry manages to reconnect with Marty—and with Samantha, his new daughter-in-law—on a more personal level. Phew.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does the Okabe family welcome Henry into their arms? How do they make him feel like a part of their family? Give specific examples, please.
    2. Why doesn't Henry think of getting in touch with Keiko after he marries Ethel?
    3. Does Henry ever make peace with his father? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Even though Henry technically lives at home with his parents, he finds his "real" family in the outside world—through Keiko and her parents, and in Sheldon. They're the ones who truly support and love him.

    Now that Ethel has died, Henry has a hard time connecting with Marty. But when he talks to his son about his past and Keiko, they reconnect and build a stronger relationship based on trust and mutual understanding.

  • Isolation

    Even though Henry is technically "lucky" in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet because he's Chinese American instead of Japanese American, his Asian looks set him apart from the rest of the world. At school, he's made fun of and bullied because he's Asian and hangs out with Keiko. At home, he doesn't even speak the same language as his parents, so he spends much of his time in silence. And when Keiko's family moves to an internment camp, Henry has no one left—not at school, and not at home. He only has himself, and that's the loneliest existence ever.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Do Henry's parents want to get to know him? Why or why not? Bust out evidence from the text to support your answer.
    2. How does Henry's school life change when Keiko shows up? What happens when she leaves?
    3. How is Henry coping with Ethel's death when the book opens up? Does he enjoy living alone now? How does his relationship to losing Ethel change over the course of the book?

    Chew on This

    Henry's parents think that by sending him to an all-white school it'll be easier for him to assimilate, but it just ends up isolating him.

    The single most isolating thing that happens in Henry's life is his father's decision to disown him.

  • Love

    There are many different types of love on display in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: romantic love, familial love, love of music, and even love of country (or the lack thereof). But the biggest story of all, of course, is Henry's love for Keiko. Even after decades spent apart, Henry still feels a pull toward his first love, and in the end, his son Marty tracks her down so Henry can see her again. He senses how much this woman means to his father, and he finds her so Henry can be happy again. It's an act of love on Marty's part, and as the book ends, it looks like Henry and Keiko are ready to let love flow freely between them once more, too.

    Questions About Love

    1. When does Henry tell Keiko he loves her for the first time? Why does he choose this moment? Are there ways in which he shows her prior to this time?
    2. Do you think Henry's mother still loves and cares for him after his father disowns him? Why or why not?
    3. How do you think Henry's love for Ethel is like his love for Keiko? How are they different?
    4. Does Henry show his love for Marty in a real, visible way? And does Marty show his love for Henry?

    Chew on This

    Henry is just a thirteen-year-old kid when he visits Keiko at the camp in Idaho, but they've been through enough trials and tribulations together for him to know he loves her for real—not in just a puppy love kind of way.

    Although Henry loves his son Marty, it isn't until they start talking more openly with each other after Ethel's death that father and son truly connect and come to understand one another.

  • Warfare

    In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, World War II looms in the background and informs much of what the characters do and how their lives play out. Henry falls in love with Keiko, a Japanese American girl, but their relationship is complicated by the war, particularly the internment of Japanese Americans. When Keiko and her family are taken away from their home, Henry is heartbroken over losing the girl of his dreams. On top of that, the war impacts how people treat Henry. Even though he's Chinese American, the kids at school still call him racial slurs and bully him ferociously. It's certainly not the best of times.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How long do Henry and Keiko assume the war is going to last at first? How does this inform their friendship?
    2. Did you know about the U.S. government forcing all Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II before you read this book? If so, do you think the book accurately portrays this era in U.S. history? If not, how does knowing a bit about this part of the country's past affect your understanding of World War II and the United States? Use quotes from the text to support your answer.
    3. How does Henry's father react to the internment of Japanese Americans? How does Henry react? What does this reveal about their respective characters?
    4. How are the internment camps described? Do they seem like nice places to live?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, this book argues that there are some things war can't truly destroy—things like love.

    Ultimately, this book is really a history lesson dressed-up as a love story.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Although Henry is just a little boy in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he takes on a lot of adult responsibilities, even going so far as to blame himself when things go wrong, as though he actually were an adult. In particular, Henry blames himself for losing touch with Keiko, even though his father's totally the one who engineers the demise of their relationship. And speaking of his father, Henry also blames himself for his dad's decline; he can't help but feel that his father has a stroke because he's so disappointed in his son. And finally, Henry feels guilty for still having feelings for Keiko even after he marries Ethel. Such a heavy load to shoulder, right?

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    Do you think Henry's father feels guilty for intercepting his letters to Keiko? Why or why not? Why does Marty get mad at Henry for refusing to move Ethel from their house in her last weeks? Is he right to do so? Why or why not? How does Henry fix things between him and Keiko at the end of the book? Can they truly be fixed? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Henry's father keeps him from getting Keiko's letters and vice versa, but in the end, Henry still feels guilty for not trying even harder to get in touch with Keiko in order to keep their relationship alive.

    Even though Henry's father hasn't treated him very well in the years before his death, Henry still feels responsible for his stroke and agrees to finish his studying in China in order to make his father happy. In this way, guilt literally impacts the path Henry's life follows. Whoa.

  • Perseverance

    Even though hanging out with Keiko doesn't make life easier for Henry in plenty of ways, he continues to care for her in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet despite the obstacles and naysayers in his path. He doesn't even flinch when his father threatens to disown him, and later he makes the long trek to Idaho to find her, even though he's just a kid. Although Henry loses touch with Keiko over time, he still pines after her, and his son Marty recognizes this persistent loss. So just like his dad, Marty exercises some serious perseverance and goes hunting for Keiko.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Does Henry fail at waiting for Keiko? Why or why not? Turn to the text to support your answer.
    2. Why does Ethel agree to wait for Henry when he goes off to complete his schooling in China?
    3. How does Henry's father continue to meddle in his son's life even after Henry disobeys him outright?
    4. Why do you think Marty decides to go searching for Keiko?

    Chew on This

    It would be easier for Henry to stop being friends with Keiko because it complicates his relationship with his parents, but he refuses not to follow his heart.

    Keiko's optimism is the greatest demonstration of persistence in the text. Nobody gets Keiko down, no matter what.

  • Principles

    Henry is able to slog through the toughest of times in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet because he is firm in his principles and moral code. Even though he's young, he knows what he believes in. Henry is adamant that the internment of Japanese Americans is super wrong, and he sticks to his guns even when his father threatens to disown him. That's some serious conviction for you.

    When Henry meets Ethel and falls in love with her, he leaves behind the memory of Keiko because he doesn't want to dishonor Ethel by keeping a flame for another woman alive, again dutifully adhering to his principles. It's hard for him to leave Keiko in the past, but he does so anyway because as far as he's concerned, it's the right thing to do. And Henry always does what he thinks is right.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Do you think Henry fails to keep his promise to wait for Keiko? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Henry decide to go to China for his schooling even though he's angry with his father for meddling in his life?
    3. Why does Henry wait until after Ethel dies to seek out Keiko? How does he see this as honoring both women? Does he see it at all as a way of honoring himself?

    Chew on This

    Henry's father's prejudices might seem completely arbitrary and unfair, but they're rooted in his own childhood of growing up while China and Japan were warring—and he's developed his own (flawed) moral compass accordingly.

    Henry waits until after Ethel's death and receiving his son's blessing to reconnect with Keiko because he doesn't want to be disrespectful to his wife, her memory, or his son.