The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Being an Outcast in a Homogenous Culture

Daniel notices that he's identified as an outcast more in the country than in the city. The city is such a large mix of people that he doesn't seem so different to those around him; they're used to seeing people of different races and cultures. When he moves with his foster family to upstate New York, though, he's in a homogenous white society. The kids at school identify him as different and treat him poorly because of that. His foster parents are well-meaning but don't address his problems in a way that's effective. They want him to change; for example, they have him change his name from Deming to Daniel.

Parental Abandonment and Emotional Scars

Daniel can't entirely forgive his mother for leaving him for much of the novel. Even though he doesn't understand why she left, he feels that she must have gone to get the freedom she always wanted. With his mother gone, he feels alone a lot of the time. Because of it, as well, he's unable to connect with his culture both because he's been separated from it and because he is angry with his mother. For example, a woman who speaks Mandarin needs help finding directions, and he pretends not to speak the language. But seeing her makes him feel lonely because he's separated from people like him due to his mother's actions and forced to be someone else entirely.

The Difficult Cycle of Poverty

Daniel's mother, Polly, is stuck as a pregnant woman alone in a cycle of poverty that seems unbreakable. Her jobs are lonely and difficult. She doesn't see a way to create a positive lifestyle for herself and her son. For Polly, staying with her son is something she chooses to do even when she has doubts. It is the American immigration system that sends her back to China. Her poverty, however, is one thing that allows that to happen and that leads Daniel to be adopted. This shows how poverty gives people fewer options and less freedom than those with resources.

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