Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

Asian Americans have stereotypically been labeled the “model minority.” Many Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II feel too ashamed and embarrassed to talk about that part of history. Except for books such John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957) and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar (1973), there are not many history or literary books providing honest portrayals of Japanese Americans’ experiences in the relocation camps. Hongo is a Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American), and “Stepchild” is apparently based on his personal experience. It portrays a person’s anger at finding out about the discrimination and mistreatment his parents and grandparents have experienced.

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The title of the poem has a strong bearing on Hongo’s thematic preoccupations. Following along the same line as Okada’s No-No Boy, it reveals the confusion many Japanese Americans experienced during and after the relocation camps. According to Chinese American scholar and writer Frank Chin, the experience of the narrator in No-No Boy, Ichiro, is based on that of Hajiime Akutsu, a Nisei who participated in the resistance movement in the relocation camps and who demanded constitutional and legal rights for Japanese American internees during World War II. In Japanese, both Ichiro and Hajiime mean “firstborn.” The name is appropriate for a whole generation of people who struggle with the confusion about their relationship with both the mainstream culture and their ethnic culture.

What is also interesting about the title “Stepchild” is that it reveals the narrator’s ambivalent relationship with his parents. The narrator grows up in a house where people believe that Japanese American internment is “to laugh at,/ its lesson best told/ in a fairy tale/ about the Nisei/ emerging full-grown/ Americans at birth.” Eventually, however, the narrator learns of the bitterness of Japanese American history, and no one knows that part of history better than the grandfather “who spent the years/ of his internment/ sealed in the adobes/ at Leuppe in Arizona,/ sleeping on packed earth floors/ under sheepskin blankets,/ and twisting the iron bars/ of his cell.”

“Stepchild” represents an effort to search for a connection with history and to reclaim a person’s sense of identity. The narrator’s discovery in his search for truth can very easily lead him into outrage and hatred. Revenge, however, “blisters” the narrator’s tongue and “works in these words, says,/ Teach a Blessingway.’” By reclaiming the past, the narrator has reached peace with himself and with the world. He revels in a scenery where “the sun blonds nothing/ but the sands outside [his] window/ and melons ripening on the sill,/ the yellow ones [they] call bitter.”

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