Park and Eleanor are both outsiders at high school, but in very different ways. Park is one of the few Asians at school, and kids often use racial slurs or talk about race in insensitive ways around him. But even when the other kids use insulting terms or get the facts wrong, they usually aren’t trying to be mean to Park. Most of their racism is born from ignorance, not from malice. The city of Omaha does have some diversity, but the town and school are very segregated, and since kids don’t get a lot of exposure to people from other cultures, they don’t have many opportunities to practice cultural sensitivity.
Even though Park is racially more of an outsider than Eleanor, Eleanor is also visibly an outsider at high school. Physically, Eleanor stands out because of her weight and her bright red hair. She also stands out because she does not dress like the other kids at school. Even though Eleanor dresses like she wants to be noticed and to stand out among the rest of the kids, she gets very embarrassed when people make fun of her. Unlike the rudeness that comes up in conversations about Asians, which is often unintentional, the other kids are intentionally rude to Eleanor because of her unusual appearance.
Park wears headphones and retreats into his own world so that he can stay insulated from other kids. The others’ conversations bore him, so he tunes them out. Park might feel like an outsider, but he fits into the culture of the high school more than Eleanor does. Park already has a place on the bus, both literally and metaphorically. Park knows where he can sit down physically on the bus, and he knows how he fits into the social dynamic with the other kids. He jokes with Steve and Tina, and he lets Steve’s potentially insulting remarks roll off his back, since he doesn’t want to pick a fight.
Eleanor’s difficult home life makes her feel even more uncomfortable and alone. Not only does Eleanor feel like an outsider at school, she feels like she doesn’t belong at home. She has just returned home after a long absence, and some of her siblings don’t even recognize her. She has no privacy and very few possessions to call her own.
When Eleanor and Park first meet, neither one of them shows a positive reaction to the other person. They don’t speak to each other, and each of the seethes in private resentment of the whole situation. Both of them realize that Park’s simple action of moving aside so that Eleanor can sit down, and Eleanor’s acceptance of the seat, is much more than a one-time interaction. Where people sit on the bus on the first day of school determines the seating pattern for the rest of the year. Rather than thinking about the opportunity to make a new friend, both Eleanor and Park resent the fact they have to be there, but for different reasons. Eleanor has to walk down the entire bus with no one making room for her, which emphasizes how much of an outsider and social outcast she is. She’s not grateful to Park for letting her sit down, because she knows that he’s only doing so out of a begrudging sense of duty. Park wants to travel through school as invisibly as possible, which involves minimizing all opportunities for other kids to make fun of him. But by opening himself up to sitting next to Eleanor, he realizes that he might become vulnerable to some of the teasing that she will receive.
However, symbolically, now that Park and Eleanor share a bus seat, their lives are intertwined. Park has just made room for another person in his life, and Eleanor has trusted another person enough to allow herself to enter. Even though Park is initially very reluctant to let Eleanor in, he can’t help but start to take notice of her as a factor in his life. He feels protective toward her in English class when the teacher makes her read a poem about eating, and instead of having the urge to make fun of her, he is angry at the teacher for putting her in an uncomfortable situation.