Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a story that explores the experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans during World War II with both insight and compassion. The story begins in 1986 with Henry, an elderly Chinese-American man walking past the Panama hotel in Seattle, which has been boarded up since the war. Memorabilia within the basement of the hotel take Henry back to 1942 and his fifth grade true love, a beautiful Japanese girl named Keiko. Henry and Keiko are the only Asians in their all white elementary school, to which they are “scholarshipping” and do not feel a sense of belonging or acceptance within the dominant culture.
Because Henry’s nationalistic father has a hatred for Japan, Henry keeps their friendship and his love a secret until all contact is lost when Keiko’s family is sent to an internment camp. Tension between Henrys father’s traditional Chinese values and Henry’s American perspective is a key theme when forty years after meeting Keiko, Henry, now a widow sits in the basement of the condemned hotel, holding long lost items which take him back to his childhood memories, thoughts and feelings.
Henry recalls his early days of being tormented by his peers, while wearing an “I am Chinese” button daily, as his father did not want anyone mistaken about Henry’s nationality. He also recalls risks taken to befriend Keiko, and their combined love for Jazz music, as well as times spent before the inevitable evacuation of her family and of a love lost. While reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, we learn that Henry shares his life story with his own son, in hopes of preventing the dysfunctional relationship that he had experienced many years ago with his own father.
This story teaches us to examine the present and think twice, so that we do not repeat injustices within our own families. Feelings Experienced from the Reading There were multiple emotions that were provoked in reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Disheartenment and anger were feelings provoked when Henry’s father enrolled his son into an all-white school. Henry was called derogatory names, pushed around and forced to do “chores” at school. Henry’s father gave him a pin that said, “I am Chinese” and told Henry he needed to wear it constantly.
Not only were kids at Henry’s school making fun of him for wearing the pin but other Chinese kids would tease him on his way to school. Henry’s father wanted Henry to be “Americanized” however, the pin labeling him Chinese and living in a household where he was the only one who spoke English triggered a combination of anger and Disheartenmen. There was realization of what Henry’s father was attempting to do but the anger was triggered from putting his son in a situation that he was bullied on a daily bases instead of sending him to a different school.
When Keiko enrolled in the school Henry attended the readers felt relief since Henry was able to relate with Keiko and develop a friendship with her. Henry was no longer the only non-Caucasian student at the school. This allowed Henry to bond with another student his age and relate to someone else that was dealing with similar situations. However, Henry and Keiko were assigned to serve in the cafeteria where it appeared that only kids who were in trouble were sent. The readers were upset that even the teachers and school staff were singling Henry and Keiko out.
One of the most heart wrenching scenarios was when the Japanese American families were forced to relocate to internment camps. Feelings of empathy and sadness for their displacement were expressed by these readers for the families. The families had less than two days to gather only things they could carry and leave their homes. Henry promised Keiko he would keep her family’s belongings they were not able to take with them that identified them as Japanese in a safe place in his house.
Terror set into the readers when Henrys father found Keiko’s items and disowned Henry. As Henry struggled to find himself he connected more with Sheldon who played Jazz music in the streets. This gave the reader a sense of comfort that after losing Keiko and his father he was able to connect with someone who respected him and supported who Henry was. Mrs. Beatty who was the cafeteria cook asked Henry to help her in the internment camps to serve the people living there. This scenario brought hope to the reader that Mrs.
Beatty understood and empathized with what Henry was feeling when Keiko was forced to leave. Each time Henry connected with Keiko at the internment camp it elicited happiness that Henry did not allow the difference in him and Keiko to impact his feelings. It was disappointing to read Keiko never returned from the internment camp. Henry’s decision to move on with Ethyl was shocking and somewhat disappointing. After being married and sharing a son, Ethyl passed away which was another gloomy experience in the book.
It was a surprise when Henry chose to look for Keiko’s items that she left behind. Henry’s reflection on his relationship with his son, Marty and the desire to improve it was heartwarming as was the relationship Henry developed with Samantha, Marty’s fiance. As the story came to an end and Henry was face to face again with Keiko it brought delight to the reader that after all these years and all the heart wrenching experience they were able to reconnect like they had never been apart.
Reactive Behaviors from the Cultural Proficiency Continuum There are three points on the Cultural Proficiency Continuum that describe cultural intolerance, which include cultural destructiveness, cultural incapacity, and cultural blindness (Corwin, 2010, p. 1). According to Cross, et. al. (1989), four barriers to cultural proficiency lead an organization or individual to intolerance, including unawareness of the need to adapt, resistance to change, presumption of entitlement, and systems of oppression (p. ). Ford (2009) provided many scenes that can illustrate both the three points on the continuum reflecting both the attitudes of cultural intolerance, as well as the four barriers to cultural proficiency in the novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. According to Cross, et. al. (1989), unawareness of the need to adapt is seen when people do not think an organization needs to accommodate diversity, but instead feel as though members of non-dominant groups need to adapt to the organization (p. 1).
Some illustrations Ford provided of an unawareness of the need to adapt took place in Rainier Elementary School and the United States government (Ford, 2009). The elementary school forced Henry and Keiko, the only students of color, to spend their lunch time serving all of the white students and cleaning the kitchen, and allowed them to be bullied mercilessly by classmates (Ford, 2009). Public Proclamation One, written by the United States president and the secretary of war, was distributed and executed (p. 124).
It demanded immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry (p. 124). This proclamation illustrates that the United States government was apparently unaware that it is wrong to imprison people based on their status as members of a non-dominant group. According to Cross, et. al. (1989), resistance to change is seen when organization members stick to methods that do not work for people (p. 1). Ford (2009) provided illustrations of resistance to change within the following organizations: Rhodes Department Store (pp. 12-4), and Henry’s family (pp. 125-9). Primarily, in Ford’s novel, Keiko was overjoyed to buy a special record for Henry, but the Rhodes Department Store clerk did not want to sell it to her as she appeared to be of Japanese heritage (p. 113-4). The clerk eventually begrudgingly sold the record to Henry when he showed her his, ‘I am Chinese’ button (p. 114). The clerk showed a resistance to change in that she did not want to do business with people who appeared to be of Asian descent.
Secondly, Ford (2009) described Henry’s exchange with his family once Public Proclamation One was posted, in which his father stated, “better them than us” (p. 125). Henry’s mother went on to explain the trouble the family could encounter if they attempted to help Japanese American families, and explained Henry’s father’s background of war between China and Japan (p. 126-7). Taken together, the comments of the parents do not deny that it is wrong to force members of the non-dominant group to evacuate their homes and be imprisoned, but rather resist the idea that anything should be done about it at the current time.
Ford weaves illustrations of another barrier to cultural proficiency, systems of oppression and privilege, throughout the novel. Examples of this include the way that Keiko and Henry are singled out to serve in the cafeteria, the way that Henry is bullied by his classmates, and that those of Japanese ancestry are forced to go to concentration camps. A thematic element that ties many of these scenes together is that of the “I am Chinese” button.
Henry’s disdain for the button because of it hurtful meaning with his father who sends him mixed messages that he must be both “Americanized”, yet declare his Chinese ancestry through the wearing of the button is contrasted by his use of the button at times to gain privilege, such as when he was allowed to purchase the album at the store, while Keiko was not. Despite this small gain in privilege from wearing the button, it also served to foster oppression by his classmate, Chaz, who bullied him for his non-membership in the dominant culture, even ripping the pin off Henry (location 339 of 4683).
The button can further be used to illustrate a final barrier to cultural proficiency: entitlement. While Henry clearly hated the button, there were also times when he used it or attempted to use it to his advantage and to the advantage of Keiko and her family, whom he cared about. For example, when the police raided the jazz hall that he and Keiko were at and arrested several Japanese couples in attendance, he used it to protect him and Keiko because there was a level of entitlement to civil rights that was inherent to being Chinese rather than Japanese (location 896 of 4683).
Another clear sense of entitlement at the government level was documented by the taking away and selling of property that was owned by Japanese people. (location 1372 of 4683). Proactive Behaviors from the Cultural Proficiency Continuum The following three points on the left side of the Cultural Proficiency Continuum are proactive behaviors, shaped by principals; culture is a predominant force, people are served in varying degrees by the dominant culture, and people have individual and group identities. According to Cross et al, (1989) culture is a predominant force.
It is the essence of the societal existence and cannot be over looked. In the book, Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ford, 2009) Henry relates to other Chinese notables like Bruce Lee and His own son Brandon because he is of Chinese decent. Incidentally, the place was lonely because people did not talk to their neighbors due to some cultural differences. The life of Henry was lonely like a grave; this displays a cultural aspect of burying the dead which is not common in the Chinese culture. According to Cross et al, (1989) people are served in varying degrees by the dominant culture.
Ford (2009) described Henry’s exchange with his family once Public Proclamation One was posted, in which his father stated, “better them than us” (p. 125). His father had participated in the war between the Chinese and the Japanese. The Americans helped the Japanese American families and this made Henry’s father feel inferior to others due to the treatment such families had. Even in schools, the treatment of people was predominantly dictated by the dominant culture and teachers turned a blind eye to mischief.
In a society people have individual and group identities that define their ways and behavior (Cross et al, 1989). A good example from the book is described when Henry follows a news crew to the hotel that seems to stand between life-times just like him. The news crew members form group while the camera-shy onlookers walked away to form a clear path have individual identities (Ford, 2009). Henry himself forms his own individual identity as a man in a place full of strangers (Ford, 2009).
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, evokes the feelings that are described in the title throughout the telling of the incredible story of one of the most conflicted and volatile times during American history (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Reading Group Guides, 2013)The story is told from the point of view of a young Chinese boy and simultaneously from his observations and reflections years later of the time period in which Henry witnessed and experienced the internment of Japanese Americans in his neighborhood and prejudices toward himself from being of Chinese heritage.
The story elicits feelings of bitterness and sweetness: Bitterness toward unfairness, injustice, discrimination and how the experience of fear can lead to irrational actions and the inhumane treatment of others, sweetness of innocence, understanding, kindness and sympathetic responses to those same conditions. The novel inherently addresses The Tools of Cultural Proficiency (Corwin, 2010) and demonstrates examples from the continuum of destruction, incapacity, blindness, precompetence, competence, and proficiency.
The author covers these phases of cultural proficiency while the reader is at the same time experiencing the conflicting emotions of bitter and sweet, hope and disappointment, and witnessing acts of fear and courage. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has a lasting impression on the reader. While telling the lifelong personal story of Henry it incorporates many lessons that would be difficult to forget.
The reader gains knowledge of the historical account of the Japanese Americans internment during World War II, the personal effects of discrimination on individuals and the greater culture, and insight as to examples of how kindness, empathy and knowledge can be powerful forces for society to use in overcoming the result of fear, judgment and discrimination.
The social work profession can gain a better understanding of generational trauma that has had a lasting result of the survivors and family members of Japanese Americans that lived this experience as well as cultural proficiency vs. the effects of prejudice and discrimination can be gained by reading this novel. The most important “take away” from this book would be incorporating the knowledge gained regarding cultural competency and utilizing it in the field of social work as well as in developing personal relationships with others.
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