Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Some of the best American literature tells the story of the immigrant experience. Numerous writers have written about the sense of loss both material and psychological that comes with leaving your country and everything that is familiar to start a new life. Many of the characters in these novels never seem completely at home in their new land, but they soldier on for economic reasons, or because they’re committed to making a life in this new world
Equally compelling is the story of first-generation Americans who have one foot in the modern world and one foot in the past. Henry, the protagonist and narrator of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is first introduced to us as a fifty-six-year old man who has recently lost his wife to cancer after caring for her for seven years. Henry has taken early retirement from his job at Boeing Field to care for his wife, Ethel, and now his life seems empty and purposeless. His college aged son disapproved of his decision to care for his wife at home rather than placing her in a nursing home that would have provided round-the-clock professional care givers and is emotionally distant from him, and Henry seems alone and disconnected in the world.
Henry, who is Chinese American finds himself pulled back into the past when he walks past a large crowd that is gathered at the Panama Hotel in what used to be known as Nihonmachi or Japantown. In the midst of a major renovation of the hotel, the belongings of twenty-seven Japanese families presumably interned during World War II have been discovered in the basement of the hotel. Until this time, Henry has managed to keep the memories of that difficult time at bay, but the discovery of these treasures leads him to begin searching for a rare jazz record that also symbolizes a lost childhood love.
As the novel effortlessly moves between the narrative voices of the older Henry and twelve-year-old Henry who came of age during World War II, we learn what life was like for a young Chinese American boy growing up in Chinatown. Henry’s father is a nationalist who hates the Japanese for their aggressive military incursions into China and is a respected elder member of an association in Chinatown that is actively supporting the war effort in China. Because he wants his son to become fully Americanized, Henry can speak only English at home although his parents can barely understand him. Henry also has to wear a “I am Chinese” button whenever he leaves the house so he won’t be taken for being Japanese. Henry looks Chinese, but thinks like an American, which only leads to a sense of double isolation. He is literally isolated from his parents because they won’t let him converse with them in their native language and he feels isolated at the all Caucasian school where he is “scholarshipping” because the children taunt him for looking different.
Enter Keiko, a Japanese American girl who begins scholarshipping at the school. Henry and Keiko have an almost instant bond. Suddenly, working in the cafeteria and serving meals to his fellow classmates isn’t such a trial. Henry’s parents don’t approve of his friendship with Keiko—in his father’s eyes, Henry is a traitor for befriending the enemy. Henry finds a welcome ally in his friendship with Sheldon, a saxophone player and street performer who Henry gives his lunch to every day on the way to school. In the midst of all of this, all persons of Japanese origin (including American citizens) are evacuated to internment camps and Keiko’s family is eventually relocated to a camp in Idaho.
Once I started reading this book, I found myself pulled into the story and the historical details of these events that are often glossed over in historical accounts. The author writes compassionately about the experiences of Japanese families during this time. His vivid descriptions of Japantown and Chinatown transport the reader back in time to a difficult period in American history. Henry’s lifelong friendship with Sheldon and his love of jazz are a continuous thread in the novel along with Henry’s undying love for Keiko. I especially liked the characters of Sheldon and Mrs. Beatty, the woman who manages the school cafeteria and becomes an unlikely friend to Henry. Does Henry find Keiko after all the years of separation? You’ll have to read the book to find out.