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Eleanor wakes up on Friday feeling like it’s her birthday. She dresses up in a shirt and tie. Her dad picks her up, and they wait in his apartment for his fiancée to arrive. Eleanor covets all the groceries and small household luxuries. She uses one of her dad’s blank tapes and starts making a tape for Park from a Beatles record.
Park’s mom has converted their garage into a beauty salon. Even though her given name is Min-Dae, she goes by “Mindy.” When Park comes home, Tina is getting her hair done. Tina and Josh tease Park about dating “Big Red.” Park insists that she’s not his girlfriend. Finally, Eleanor calls, and they get to have their long-awaited phone date.
They eventually start to talk about their lives.
Eleanor manages to evade most of Park’s questions about her family life and background.
Eleanor tells Park that she can’t really be alone together with him because her stepfather will kill her. Park thinks that Eleanor is angry with him, but she’s just upset in general. Eleanor asks Park why he likes her.
Park tells Eleanor that he doesn’t like her, but rather, he needs her. Eleanor says that she doesn’t like him, but rather, she lives for him.
Eleanor thinks that Park is beautiful, but her compliments turn to mush in her mouth. She tries to explain that Richie turns anything good into something bad, and she tells Park about being kicked out of the house. Eleanor’s dad comes home, and just before Eleanor gets off the phone, Park tells Eleanor that he loves her.
When Eleanor’s dad drops her off, he takes the little kids for a ride. After he leaves, Richie insists that they all get in the car and go to a movie.
Park regrets telling Eleanor that he loved her because he feels embarrassed about blurting it out over the phone. He goes over to his grandparents’ house next door for Sunday dinner. The family talks about Park’s girlfriend, and Park’s grandmother feels sorry for her, because she knows how terrible Richie is.
Eleanor tells her mom that she might go over to her friend Tina’s house after school. This is a cover story to avoid getting in trouble, as she is actually going to Park’s house.
Eleanor gives Park the Beatles tape and tells him that she can come over after school.
Park is apprehensive about having his parents meet Eleanor, since Eleanor dresses strangely and isn’t conventionally nice and normal. Eleanor is nervous, which makes her look angry. Park and Eleanor sit on the couch together, but Eleanor is anxious, and she starts to cry because she thinks she’s embarrassed Park.
Eleanor is convinced that Park will break up with her because she doesn’t fit in with his family.
On the bus the next morning, Eleanor feels like Park didn’t want her at his house, and Park can’t quite disagree. Steve leads the kids on the bus in the chant, “Go. Big. Red.” When the bus stops, Park kicks Steve in the mouth and tells Steve to leave his girlfriend alone. Eleanor is left with Park’s coat and backpack.
Park is suspended for two days, and Steve is suspended for two weeks. Park’s dad is impressed, but Park’s mom is upset, both about the fight and the fact that Park calls Eleanor his “girlfriend.” She grounds Park.
Eleanor goes to Park’s house to drop off his backpack and coat. Park is more badly beaten up than she’d realized. They both apologize to each other, and Park reassures Eleanor, yet again, that he likes her. People continue to write lewd stuff on Eleanor’s books. When Eleanor gets home after school, she discovers that he mother has been to Goodwill and has presents for everyone, including new jeans for Eleanor and a box of semi-clothed Barbies for Maisie.
Park is quite proud of his fighting prowess.
Everyone knows that Park kicked Steve because of Eleanor. DeNice and Beebi are thrilled.
Park’s mother says he’s grounded forever, but Park’s dad says he’ll be ungrounded when he learns to drive a stick shift. Park’s mother doesn’t like Eleanor, because Eleanor dresses strangely and doesn’t conform to Park’s mother’s idea of conventional beauty standards. Park goes to his grandparents’ house, and when he returns, his father has convinced Park’s mother that Park shouldn’t be grounded anymore, and that Eleanor can come over for dinner.
When Eleanor’s dad takes her to his apartment, she feels almost overwhelmed by the apparently luxuries of a normal, middle-class lifestyle. Both Park’s house and her dad’s apartment have several open rooms and lots of goods stockpiled, while Richie’s house is tiny and her mom usually has to make do with whatever food is available. Eleanor is excited to talk to Park, but she is also excited by the chance to pretend that she’s in a normal household situation for an evening.
Unlike Josh, who looks more physically Irish, Park physically resembles his Korean mother. Park identifies as Korean and embraces the way in which both his looks and his background give him another way of being different from the other kids at school. However, Park’s mom wants to erase the past and become what she thinks of as a normal American. Park’s mom still has a Korean accent and her English is imperfect, but she wants to assimilate into her perception of traditional American life. She adopts a Westernized-sounding version of her name, “Mindy,” instead of her Korean name, “Min-Dae,” because she wants to fit in. Park’s mom rarely talks about her life growing up in Korea. She wants to leave the hardships of her past behind and concentrate on the present. Part of the reason that Park’s mom doesn’t talk about her past is because she wants to assimilate, but part of the reason that Park emphasizes his Korean heritage sometimes is because he wants to feel like he’s not like everyone else.
People’s looks and societal beauty conventions are very important to Park’s mother. She is kind, but she tends to judge people, at least initially, based on how they look. Park’s mom has a very difficult time accepting Eleanor at first, because Eleanor seems to represent everything that Park’s mother is not. Park’s mother is tiny, neat, and precise. Eleanor is larger, dresses with unusual clothing and accessories, and often finds herself doing or saying something clumsy. When Eleanor gets nervous, she becomes flustered and even more awkward. Park’s mom knows how to interact with Tina, because Tina likes getting her hair done. Before Park’s mom gets to know Eleanor, she doesn’t understand her, and so she rejects her as unsuitable company for Park.
Both Eleanor and Park demonstrate some range of gender expression in how they choose to dress. When Eleanor dresses up, she wears a man’s dress shirt and tie, which, at the time, were very traditional markers of independence, adulthood, and power. Eleanor wants to feel in control and grown-up when she finally has the ability to call Park and be alone with him. Eleanor feels most comfortable with herself and powerful in her independence in more masculine clothes, which might partly come from the fact that she doesn’t have powerful female role models in her life. Eleanor’s mom is in an abusive relationship with Richie, and she Richie dominates her every move. Part of Eleanor’s rejection of traditionally feminine clothes might be due to her rejection of her mom’s relationship with men. Eleanor asserts her independence by claiming her own power in her identity.
The fact that Park tells Eleanor that he loves her before she says that she loves him also upends conventional gender norms. Typically, men are expected to be more taciturn in relationships, whereas women are expected to display emotions. However, this dynamic is the opposite between Eleanor and Park. Park feels much more comfortable expressing his emotions to Eleanor, and he is more vulnerable and open to her. Eleanor, on the other hand, is hesitant to express her feelings to herself, let alone to Park. Eleanor has not had much experience in her life with being able to trust people and be emotionally open with them, so her connection with Park is a whole new way of relating both to someone else and to herself.
Park’s dad, like Park’s mom, is more comfortable with traditional gender conventions than with more ambiguous gender expression. Park’s dad wants Park to be more masculine. When Park kicks Steve in the face to defend Eleanor, his dad is proud of him, rather than chastising him. Park’s dad can connect more easily with Park’s brother, Josh, because Josh is much more conventionally masculine, both in his physique and his interests. Park’s dad has a hard time relating to Park’s softer, more artistic side. So when Park displays a tougher, competitive side, Park’s dad is very pleased, and he wants to encourage these aspects in his son. Park’s dad is able to accept Eleanor more easily than Park’s mom can, and he convinces her that Park’s feelings are more important than Eleanor’s looks.
Eleanor seeks constant reassurance that Park likes her, and that he continues to like her, because of her troubled relationship with her family. The primary male figures in Eleanor’s life have been unstable or absent, and rejection formed the backbone of her adolescence. Richie kicked her out of the house, which categorically confirmed that he did not like her. Her father also rejected her family. And even the safe havens that Eleanor has found have been pulled out from underneath her. The family friends who took Eleanor in eventually became cold and began to mutter about how long she would stay, which made Eleanor feel extremely jumpy and uncomfortable throughout the entire year.
When Eleanor goes over to Park’s house, she cannot help but feel waves of anxiety that are related to being a perpetually unwanted houseguest for the entire previous year. She expects to feel unwanted, since she is unwanted both at her own house and at others’ houses. Park takes for granted that he is accepted and loved, not only at his own house but also at his grandparents’ house next door. Eleanor has never felt like she’s been able to assume that she’s wanted anywhere.