Study Guide

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson Foreignness and "The Other"

By Bette Bao Lord

Foreignness and "The Other"

There was something more foreign about the principal than about any other foreigner she had seen so far. What was it? It was not the blue eyes. Many others had them too. It was not the high nose. All foreign noses were higher than Chinese ones. It was not the blue hair. Hair came in all colors in America. (3.2)

When Shirley meets the principal of P.S. 8, Shirley compares her to other Americans she's met so far. The important thing is that Americans come in all different shapes, colors, and sizes, which isn't like what she's known in China. Each person she meets receives an interesting comparison—like a water jug or white like a powdered baby—that's characteristic of Shirley's imagination. She is the outsider looking in at the strangeness of others.

"Be extra good. Upon your shoulders rests the reputation of all Chinese." (3.13)

No pressure… Shirley's mom tells her she has to be good because she's representing every single Chinese person. Not only is that a lot of weight for Shirley to carry, it also helps set her out, in her own mind, as "the other." How can she ever fit in with her new American classmates if she's always setting herself apart as a Chinese ambassador?

Not the silvery catches that swam and somersaulted in the wooden basins that lined the market at the foot of the Mountain of Ten Thousand Steps. Dead fish. So long dead that Cook would probably not even throw them out to the cats. (4.7)

Americans do so much differently than the Chinese, including food. They pickle some yucky fish, Shirley observes. As she ducks away from the kids who ignore her, everything seems different to her…. even the food.

Her happiness did not last. No sooner had she learned to smack the ball smartly on the steps, angling it right or left, than the other players revolted. Nobody wanted the Chinese on his team. (4.17)

Shirley gets into a game of stickball, but the other kids don't keep her in the loop for long. She might not be a good player quite yet—after all, she's just learned how to play—so everyone else shuns her. Ugh. Fitting in is hard.

Shirley blushed. She could not get used to the American custom of receiving compliments with a simple thank you. It seemed so… impolite. But the Chinese way only confused people. (5.4)

Even such simple things as common courtesies are really different from culture to culture. Shirley's had a few "lost in translation" moments since moving to America, but she's becoming more conscious of what's acceptable in which culture. She's embodying both cultural definitions of compliment reception.

Shirley considered fleeing. But emperors do not flee, and had a teacher not stepped through the school door at exactly that moment, one puny Chinese surely would have died right there and crossed over the Yellow Springs to greet her ancestors. (5.14)

When Mabel beats Shirley up, Shirley considers running away, but doesn't do so because a teacher breaks up the fight. Besides, she has the honor of her family to consider. That Chinese tradition of courage keeps her in good stead and convinces her to not tattle on Mabel, which earns her the other girl's respect and friendship. Yay for universal values earning American friendship.

At Mr. P's Tommy O'Brien had snuck up from behind to tug a braid. "Hey, Chop Suey, how are you doey?" Grinning, he then bowed deeply. She thought it rather wonderful that he remembered something she had done so long ago. (9.30)

Tommy makes fun of Shirley's behaviors and Chinese nationality, but does so in a manner that is affectionate and cutesy. Shirley isn't offended; it's just Tommy's teasing way. He does this to all his pals, showing Shirley that she's just one of the guys.

Their friendship began at lunch, when Shirley showed Emily where to buy tickets and took her through the line, whispering who among the counter ladies gave generous portions and what was good to eat and what should be avoided at all costs. (9.35)

Finally Shirley isn't the new kid on the block anymore. She's a bit less of the stranger around P.S. 8 and is taking it upon herself to do what nobody else did for her—help the new girl fit in. She's an old hand around the school now and clues Emily in on all the details.

By suppertime, Shirley looked like the beggars who waited by the servants' gate for scraps from the clan table. (4.85)

Shirley tries to learn to roller skate—she feels like she's the only one that doesn't know how, and she's desperate to learn to fit in and become one of the regular kids, even though she's really bad at skating. She perseveres despite her failure, but her mother ultimately takes the skates away. Shirley's back to being on the outside. Sigh.

"What ya want to bring the midget for?"

"Oh no, ya don't. Not on my team."

"Are you kidding me?"

"Yeah. She'd bow first and then ask permission to copy a fly."

"Send her back to the laundry."

"The only way she can get in this game is to lie down and be the plate." (5.64-69)

Mabel invites Shirley to play stickball, but none of the other kids are having it. They make fun of her, think that Shirley's no good and will drag their team down, or should "go back to the laundry." That racial stereotype refers to Asian-Americans working in laundromats and is a really mean thing to say. Thankfully, Mabel sets them straight and Shirley scores.

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