Ever wondered what it's like to live in China? Just ask Shirley. When In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson starts off, Shirley is living in China with her family. She resides in one giant house with all of her extended relatives, and until she moves, this close familial environment is all she's ever known in her young life. She hangs out with her cousins and listens to her grandparents' stories in the courtyards of their elegant home.
This is super different from her move to Brooklyn. There, Shirley and her family don't have any other relatives around in their home—everyone else in their clan stayed in China. Their apartment is tiny, unlike the spacious Wong home in China, and Shirley doesn't even get a bed of her own at first. Moreover, Brooklyn is full of new buildings and cultural traditions that Shirley doesn't understand yet. As she becomes more familiar with Brooklyn and begins to fit in at school, Shirley becomes a true American.
Perhaps more important than the cultural differences that these two super different settings set up, though, is what this makes possible for us as readers. It really highlights Shirley's struggle to come into her own, a struggle pretty much everyone goes through but that isn't always so pronounced when it isn't inspired by having to suddenly navigate a completely foreign culture. Shirley's a stranger in a strange land in this book, and in being so, we get to fully appreciate just how hard she works to sort out who and how she wants to be.