In school the teacher introduces a new girl named Tina, who has just arrived from China. Tina has studied English but has little experience communicating with native speakers. Sarah is Chinese-American but can't speak Chinese. She feels completely American and can't understand why the teacher wants to pair her up with Tina. Both girls hate how teachers frequently call them by the other's name, as if they can't tell them apart.
The story is written on about a third grade reading level so the sentences and vocabulary are simple and clear. I am impressed with the depth of the portrayal of the racism the girls encounter. They both struggle with name calling and taunting on the playground as well as adults the dismiss them and have no cultural understanding. On school picture day Sarah forgot to dress up. Her mother came to school to bring her a blouse embroidered by one of her relatives in China. She doesn't like the special attention she receives in the school office when her mother shows it to her, and she doesn't want to change out of her tee shirt.
"Sarah, please," Mom says in a loud whisper. "Why are you making such an issue out of a simple picture?"
Mom is the one making the issue, not me. I don't have any issue at all. The secretary is looking at us. She sees the embroidered blouse. "That's a very pretty blouse," she says. "Is it from Japan?"
"From China," Mom says.
China, Japan, Africa, they're all the same to the secretary. Faraway places with funny-looking people. I fold my arms across my chest. Mom puts the blouse back in the bag and goes toward the door. I want to change my mind and take the Chinese blouse, but Mom is already out the door. I watch her through the glass, small and thin like Sam. I want to run after her and say, Sorry, Mom, I'll change my shirt, but my feet are stuck to the brown-and-white tiles on the floor.
Sarah feels the tension of growing up and finding independence from her parents. Her dad is often away on business trips and she misses him but doesn't know how to talk about it. She is afraid she is a bad Chinese girl because she gets her clothes dirty, causes her mother extra work, and accidentally breaks a vase. She feels guilty when she lies to the teacher by writing what she thinks the teacher wants to hear about celebrating Christmas instead of what she really enjoys about celebrating Chinese New Year.
As time goes on she begins to make friends with Tina in spite of herself. She still misses Victoria but she feels a bit more hopeful that her old friend is doing well in her new life when she receives a few notes from her left in their old honeysuckle house. Communication starts to open up between her and her parents as well.
I like this story very much. I found it a bit too simple and abrupt in the phrasing and sentence structure, but I think that is because it is aimed at young readers. The themes addressed give credit to children's intelligence. I think many children deal with loss and separation of friends and family as well as cross cultural misunderstandings and racism. It's nice to read a book that recognizes children's real experience.