Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

He'd learned long ago: perfection isn't what families are all about.

The bitterness expressed in this statement stems from Henry’s difficult relationship with his family, especially with his father, whose intervention ruined his relationship with Keiko. It might also be taken to have a broader cultural implication, functioning as a rebuff to the idea of racial “perfection” (i.e., whiteness) that, for many Americans, both during World War II and in 1986, constituted the ideal family.

A young nurse, someone new whom he didn't recognize, came up to Henry and patted him on the arm.

”Are you a friend or a family member?"

She whispered the question in his ear, trying not to disturb Sheldon. The question hung there like a beautiful chord, ringing in the air. Henry was Chinese, Sheldon obviously wasn't. They looked nothing alike. Nothing at all.

"I'm distant family," Henry said.

This enquiry from the nurse indicates American social progress since the days of internment. Henry realizes here that, for this nurse—as well as for Marty, Samantha, and their entire generation—the idea of an American family is no longer intrinsically bound to race and ethnicity. The musical imagery here employed in “beautiful chord,” in addition to having significance for Sheldon the musician, suggests the new "harmony" possible in American society as a result of this evolution of ideas.

The waitress brought a fresh pot of tea, and Marty refilled his father’s cup and poured a cup for Samantha. Henry in turn filled Marty’s. It was a tradition Henry cherished—never filling your own cup, always filling that of someone else, who would return the favor.

This seemingly small tradition Henry has passed down to his son has real meaning for him. It enables him to maintain his dual identity as a Chinese American, one who lives in America and adheres to American laws while honoring the Chinese customs passed down to him by his parents.

Henry looked up and down the empty avenue—no cars or trucks anywhere. No bicycles. No paperboys. No fruit sellers or fish buyers. No flower carts or noodle stands. The streets were vacant, empty—the way he felt inside. There was no one left.

This empty street in this quote acts as a microcosm for America as a whole. The implication is that, without the trappings of various cultures to lend it vibrancy and color, America itself would be empty.

I think I get it now. It doesn't matter how nice home is—it just matters that it feels like home.

No amount of welcome or hostility on America’s part toward its Japanese and Chinese communities can, according to this statement, influence those communities' opinions toward America as a nation. America is home simply because it is home, not because of how "nice" it is. This feeling of "home" appears to be deeply spiritual and cannot be consciously controlled or developed by an individual.

“Good Morning, Henry. How's it feel to be a prisoner for a day?"

Henry looked at Keiko. "Best day of my life."

Keiko found her smile all over again.

Here Henry breaks with American identity, in which freedom is the most important goal, in favor of an interpersonal relationship. Pathos is evoked in the mind of the reader, not only by the brief amount of time ("a day") Henry and Keiko are together but also by their knowledge that this will likely remain the best day of Henry’s life, even as he grows old.

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