Partnered with Radine, a poor white Texas girl attempting to rise in society, Jeanne enters Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where Radine outdistances her by being invited to join a sorority, while Jeanne is rejected as high school majorette. The two girls, similar in values, are attracted to similar boys, but it is Radine who is asked to dances. Jeanne, even before she might be invited by a likeable Caucasian, makes sure that classmates know that she is unavailable — lest she have to reject a date that would involve a meeting at the project between the white boy and her virulent, judgmental Japanese father.
In their senior year, as competition with Radine extinguishes Jeanne's hopes of popularity, Ko, forced into sobriety by a bout of vomiting blood, moves the family to the Santa Clara Valley, outside San Jose, to raise strawberries. Jeanne's longing for attention comes to fruition with the election of the annual carnival queen. Barefoot and dressed in an exotic sarong, she defeats blond, blue-eyed, monied Lois Carson for the title, but only through the intervention of Leonard Rodriguez, who uncovers the teachers and secretaries' plot to stuff the ballot box to avoid having a Japanese queen. The victory infuriates Ko, who criticizes bold American females and insists that Jeanne display traditional Japanese propriety. He arrives at a compromise: Jeanne can be carnival queen if she signs up for odori lessons. After ten lessons, the odori teacher rejects her because she smiles too much.
The internal monologue which Jeanne conducts with herself delineates the complex issues which she carries into adulthood. Philosophically, Jeanne remarks that she feels less discouraged by racist exclusion than by "watching Radine's success." Either refusing to envy Radine or denying envy, Jeanne accepts her Oriental face, which contrasts with the "young, beautifully blond and blue-eyed high school girl moving through a room full of others her own age, much admired by everyone, men and women both, myself included." The experience "empties" Jeanne, short-circuiting her dreams of fulfillment.
Ironically, in victory, Jeanne knows no contentment. Mama, who is sensitive to her youngest's trials, helps with the selection of a dress without actually identifying with Jeanne's predicament. The binding force between mother and daughter is love and mutual respect of feminine needs to be admired and accepted. Whereas Ko refuses Jeanne the opportunity to blossom, Mama takes the diplomatic road by accompanying her on a shopping trip and helping her to perceive herself as beautiful in a "frilly ball gown that covered almost everything and buried my legs under layers of ruffles."
The night of the ball is more dismaying than the Wakatsukis realize. Jeanne's decision to wear an ante-bellum gown settles the matter of immodest display, but the voluminous skirts contrast with the more up-to-date styles worn by her maids of honor. The attendants exacerbate Jeanne's isolation by making inane comments about how much they love Chinese food. The music, selected to honor the "girl of my dreams," succeeds in setting Jeanne outside the circle of girls who fulfill Caucasian male fantasies.
As the center of attention, Jeanne treads a bride's gait across a bedsheet carpet to a plywood throne. Mental torment over her Gone with the Wind dress destroys the moment and forces the real issue "Who had they voted for? Somebody I wanted to be. And wasn't. Who was I then?" Returning to the bewildered Alice-in-Wonderland figure, Jeanne confronts the challenge of adulthood, a stage of life when she can no longer "believe in princesses and queens." Pathless in the stuffy gym, she makes her way through adolescent quandary to the end of a wretched charade.
bobbysoxer a typical American teen in the 40s.
Jean Harlow a movie star and platinum blond sex symbol of the 1930s.