Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Summary
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) is a historical fiction novel written by Jamie Fox. The novel tells the story of Henry Lee, a Chinese American man, and Keiko a Japanese American girl who met and developed a close relationship during the 2nd world war. Henry is raised by a traditional Chinese family in Seattle, his father sends him to Rainer elementary school where he is expected to speak only in “his English”. At the school, Henry has to endure taunting, bullying and discrimination from his Caucasian classmates who constantly refer to him as Japanese even though he wears a button that clearly says he is Chinese. A Japanese girl arrives at the school and Henry and this new girl, Keiko slowly form a close bond. Meanwhile, tension and anxiety reigns after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the government is declaring plans to send all people of Japanese ancestry to containment camps. Keiko and Henry are almost apprehended once but Henry shows the police his button and they let them go.
Keiko and her family are later taken to Camp Harmony. Henry goes to visit Keiko, buys her paper, envelopes and stamps so they can communicate. However, when Keiko is moved to a concentration camp that is more inland, Henry’s father begins intercepting his letters so they do not reach Keiko. Henry is particularly frustrated when Keiko fails to show up at the Panama hotel as per the direction of his letter. While he is standing there, he meets Ethel, who would later become his wife. After the culmination of the war, Henry marries Ethel and has a son named Marty. Meanwhile, the story of an older Henry who has just become a widower is being told in parallel to this one. Henry had to quit his job to take care of his sick wife but she has since passed away leaving him alone in the house with a lot of time on his hands. Henry begins reflecting on how he could be a better father to his son. When his son shows up to introduce his fiancé Samantha, Henry quickly approves even though she is not Chinese. The two accompany Henry to the basement of the Panama hotel to look for the old Oscar Holden record that was so sentimental to Henry and Keiko. Marty learns of Keiko, resolves to reunite his father with his long lost love and is successful.
Thesis: This paper seeks to prove the thesis that Jamie Fox utilizes the characters of Keiko and Henry to show the individual and racial trauma that Asian Americans experienced during and after the 2nd world war.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government issued a directive that all individuals of Japanese ancestry would be sent to containment camps. This was followed by the removal of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West coast and their relocation to assembly centres where they lived in makeshift shelters inside horse stalls and race tracks. From there, they would be relocated to more permanent locations on the island. Keiko and her family are removed from their home in Seattle and sent to a place that used to be a fairground while the government worked to finish the incarceration camps in desolate areas of the country.
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Despite the fact that this move was mostly unnecessary from a military point of view, it was mainly fueled by the racially charged fears and the economic self-interest of a few individuals who wanted the Japanese removed so they could take over real-estate and land belonging to the Japanese Americans (Okihiro & Drummond, 1991). This clearly evident in the novel when Henry is required to translate a business negotiation between his father and Chaz’s father (a bully in his school). During the negotiation Henry’s father suggests that Chaz’s father buy the Japanese land right from under them since they would be removed anyway (Fox, 2009). The Chinese were incredibly prejudiced against the Japanese due to the history of turbulence and conflict between these two nations. The Chinese Americans helped advance the Japanese perception as untrustworthy by wearing pins labelled “I am Chinese”. These suspicions of disloyalty are evident when the shop attendant refuses to sell a record to Keiko simply because she is Japanese (Fox, 2009) and Henry has to step in and show the attendant his pin in order to get service.
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Thus the Japanese Americans living on the west coast were declared threats regardless of age or gender, and having no one to vouch for them, they surrendered to their fate and were sent to containment camps. Keiko’s parents are inconsolable when they find out that they too would be removed from their homes. Henry watches helplessly as they cry and when he returns home his Chinese father seems beside himself with joy that the Japanese are being removed. This kind of racial and individual trauma is further exemplified by the stress and anxiety that the Japanese community in Henry’s neighbourhood goes through while attempting to cut all ties with their Japanese ancestry. They burned and buried everything that could connect them to Japan including family heirlooms. In spite of these efforts, they are still subjected to the indignity of being removed from their homes. Keiko and her family took these developments much better than others. Some Japanese Americans became overwhelmed and opted to commit suicide to escape what would be a dark and traumatic period in their lives (Jensen, 1997).
It was not sufficient for the government to remove the Japanese Americans from their homes, they would later make them sign mandatory loyalty oaths in the concentration camps. Japanese Americans believed that pledging their allegiance to the United States and forswearing allegiance to the Japanese emperor would improve their condition. Instead, they are forced to go serve in the war while their families remain in the internment camps. Other Japanese Americans were so embittered by the conditions at the camps that they avoided the drafts or answered ‘No’ to all the questions. The former get locked up for up to three years in federal prison for draft evasion while the later were sent to more restrictive camps. There was no winning with the government and this further added to the psychological turmoil that the Japanese Americans had to go through.
The stay at the internment camps was indeed depressing. The trauma that arose from this period would continue to be evident in the behaviour of Japanese Americans for many years after the war. Many individuals would display symptoms of avoidance and silence such as those displayed by Henry. They would actively avoid their Japanese relations and any links to Japan that would exclude them from the label of model American citizens.
Moreover, the Japanese returning to the west coast faced rejection and discrimination, were met with verbal abuse and signs inscriptions such as “No Japs wanted” were ever so prevalent throughout the west coast (Loo, 1993). While the experience during the war was mostly negative, Japanese Americans engaged in individual activities such as artwork during their stay at the intermittent camps and after the war, many young Japanese went on to establish successful livelihoods as exemplified by Keiko and her sketches (Nakanishi, 1993) and would be recognized as a model minority who have successfully overcome the hardship and trauma that accompanied the 2nd world war.
From the discussion presented above, it is clear that Jamie fox presents an almost accurate depiction of the Japanese American experience through its embodiment in characters of Henry and Keiko. From the initial racial discrimination in the community, the reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the mistrust from the government, the experience at the internment camp and eventual integration back to the American society.
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