I feel no malice toward this girl. Watching, I am simply emptied, and in the dream I want to cry out, because she is something I can never be.
Jeanne shuns Papa’s Japanese ancestry and embraces her friendship with Radine. Radine’s parents are poor whites from Texas, and growing up together in an ethically mixed ghetto, Radine and Jeanne are almost socially equal and become best friends. Their relationship changes, however, when they move to Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Radine is asked to join sororities from which Jeanne is barred. Boys flirt with Jeanne but always ask Radine to the dances instead. The harshest blow is that Radine is promoted to song girl in the band, while the band teacher must fight with the administration even to name Jeanne majorette. Jeanne is demoralized by Radine’s success because she knows the two of them share so many qualities, even their taste in boys. Jeanne is ashamed that her Japanese face and Japanese father prevent her from dating the boys she likes, but she does not want to change her face. She wants to be accepted. She begins to have recurring dreams about a blonde, blue-eyed girl being admired in a room full of people as she, Jeanne, watches through a window. Jeanne loses interest in school, begins hanging out on the streets, and considers dropping out.
One day, Papa nearly kills himself when he gets drunk on whiskey and homemade wine, and he finally gives up drinking to begin farming again. In 1951 he moves the family to the Santa Clara Valley outside of San Jose and begins sharecropping a hundred acres for a strawberry farmer. Jeanne is a senior in high school, but she tries to start over in the new school. The following spring, her homeroom nominates her to be carnival queen. On election day, instead of dressing like a typical 1950s bobbysoxer, Jeanne dresses in an exotic sarong with her hair down and a hibiscus flower behind her ear. The applause and cheers indicate that she will win by a landslide, but her friend Leonard Rodriguez, who helps out in the office, reports that the teachers are trying to stuff the ballot box to prevent her from winning. Jeanne is afraid to confront them, but Leonard does it for her, exposing the teachers and saving Jeanne’s victory.
Papa is angry that Jeanne has won, and even angrier that she used her sexuality to entice white boys. He is worried about how American Jeanne has become and afraid that she will end up marrying a white boy, so he forces her to take Japanese dance lessons at a Buddhist temple in exchange for permitting her to be the carnival queen. She quits after only ten lessons, but as a compromise, she decides to wear a conservative dress for the coronation ceremony instead of one of the strapless dresses that other girls are wearing. On coronation night, the other girls compliment Jeanne on her dress, but when she enters the gym, the crowd begins to murmur. Jeanne feels uncomfortable in her dress and realizes her mistake in trying to be someone she is not. She understands that her Japanese face will still keep her from being invited to the white girls’ reception after the ceremony, and she begins to wonder who she really is.
That Jeanne is more hurt by Radine’s successes than by ethnic prejudice shows that she is searching for a deeper kind of acceptance. She is prepared for the prejudice that keeps her from being song girl but not prepared for how anti-Japanese prejudice drives a wedge between her and Radine, whom she thinks of as a social equal. Their common economic background and similar tastes make it painful for Jeanne to watch Radine’s rise, for she wants, but is denied, the same thing for herself. When the boys who flirt with Jeanne ask Radine to the dances instead, Jeanne is forced to admit that prejudice is more powerful even than love and friendship. After such a realization, it is not surprising that Jeanne withdraws from school life and considers dropping out. Her academic and extracurricular achievements are only a mask for her deeper need for acceptance on a human level, and when hope of such acceptance is removed, there is little hope at all.
Jeanne’s recurring dream of looking in at the carnival queen from outside symbolizes her inability to attain the ideal of acceptance to which she aspires. The blonde, beautiful, and adored girl in the dream is the stereotype of the American prom queen. Jeanne’s separation by a window from her ideal of beauty mirrors her situation in real life, where she is allowed to watch Radine’s successes but never allowed to achieve them herself. She does not envy the girl but says she is “simply emptied,” showing that the dream is less a remnant of hope than a symbol of her loss and disillusionment. That this dream haunts Wakatsuki even as she writes her memoir shows that even though she has come to terms with the internment, she still struggles to reconcile her Japanese heritage with the American culture in which she grew up.
Jeanne’s realization that she cannot define herself as only Japanese or only American marks the climax of her memoir. The main conflict of her story is her struggle to reconcile the Japanese and American aspects of her identity. She continually deceives herself into thinking that if she acts American, people will see past her Japanese face. She fails to understand, however, that her problem lies in defining herself not according to who she really is but according to how she wants other people to see her. It is not until she finally gains the acceptance she desires and is on display for everyone to see and judge that Jeanne finally realizes her error. The lukewarm reaction to her conservative dress at the carnival queen coronation ceremony makes her realize that neither the overly conservative version nor the overly sexualized version of herself is real. Rather, they are simply attempts to define herself according to other people’s standards. This realization marks the end of her childhood naïveté and leads her to conclude that the first step in being accepted by others is for her to accept who she really is: a Japanese American.