It can be hard to be different in high school. Whether you’re different because of how you look, how you speak, where you’re from, how you dress or who you date, the sad truth is that there’s always some jerk who’s gonna make fun of you for being unique. For a lot of kids, the easiest way to avoid bullies is to try blending in instead of standing out.
That’s what Patty Ho wants to do, but blending in is impossible for her. With her first-generation Taiwanese mom and her absentee white father, she’s convinced she has the worst of both worlds. She’s not white enough for the kids at school (like bully Steve Kosanko, who taunts her with racist insults and spits in her face), and she’s not Asian enough for the “China Doll” daughters of her mom’s friends. Unlike the other girls, Patty isn’t short, her hair isn’t jet black and her feet aren’t tiny. Instead, she’s tall, gangly and in-between.
What she wants more than anything is to “whitewash” her life, to finally fit in with her classmates and to make her well-meaning but ignorant friend Janie stop wrinkling her nose as she asks if Patty’s doing something “Chinesey” again. Basically, she just wants to be like everyone else, but that’s hard when she has a mom who organizes their lives according to feng shui, makes her drink toxic smelling Tonic Soup and is prone to giving her embarrassing lectures in public (“You have it so easy. When I was little…we were so poor sometimes my mother grind up cockroaches for us to eat. If you starving, you hold your hand out for cockroach. You say, please don’t grind up. I eat whole.”)
When Mama ships her off to math camp at Stanford, Patty is heartbroken. She knows this is part of Mama’s plan for her (“Go to good college. Get good job. Take care of self. Then find Good One and marry”), a plan she’s not necessarily interested in following in that exact order. She’s also not particularly thrilled with fulfilling another Asian stereotype: math geek.
Math camp may be full of geeks, but it turns out these geeks are the fun kind. Patty meets people, like hunky Asian math whiz Stu and her surfer-dude big-brother counselor Brian, who help her see that being different is actually sort of cool. But it’s her building-climbing and boy-chasing roommate Jasmine who teaches Patty the word “hapa.” “Hapa,” Patty’s new call to arms, is a Hawaiian term for someone who’s half-Asian and half-white. When Jasmine tells her she’s lucky to be hapa because she’s so “exotic,” Patty starts to realize that maybe she’s not such a freak after all.
Over the course of the summer, Patty gets kissed, heartbroken, chased by a security guard and lectured many, many times by her mother. She also learns painful truths about her family and gains a new respect for Mama. Most importantly, Patty Ho learns that she’s perfect just the way she is; half-Asian, half-white and 100% awesome. Turns out being hapa isn’t half-bad.
-Patty Ho is another badass literary chick, in the tradition of Norah from Nick and Norah and Jo March from Little Women. She’s funny, smart and sarcastic. She’s also so awkward and real that it’s impossible not to relate to her. If you’ve ever felt out-of-place, not-good-enough or just different, you’ll understand Patty Ho.
-Have you ever heard of buildering? I hadn’t, but Patty learns this weird-but-awesome skill from Jasmine. It’s like rock climbing, but instead of climbing rocks, you’re climbing…buildings. I’m about 98% (okay, 100%) sure I’ll never do this, but if you’re so inclined, read up on it here.
-Patty, closet math geek that she is, works out her problems with theorems. Like her Patty Ho Truth Theorem, which has the given “Hapas are hybrids,” and proves “I am a strange hybrid.”
-Of course, Patty doesn’t just learn about math at camp. She also learns that the guys worth falling for aren’t shallow jerks. As Jasmine explains to her, “God, you big doofus-brain. Didn’t anyone tell you? Smart is sexy. And any guy who doesn’t think so is too stupid to waste a single brain cell on.”
-At the end of the book, Patty writes this lovely sentiment: “We are all hapas, in one way or another. Not necessarily half-Asian, but trust me, we are all half-something. Half-good, half-bad. Book smart, street stupid. Math guru, beach bum. Class geek, closet romantic. Student body president, school coward. Boyfriend, jerk. Couldn’t we all be in the ‘check all of the above’ category?”
Justina Chen Headley is also the author of North of Beautiful and Girl Overboard. Have you read any of Justina Chen Headley’s books? Are you going to try buildering? Have you ever had a summer camp experience like Patty’s? Let me know in the comments! And as always, if there are any books you’d like to see in Young Adult Education, leave a comment, e-mail me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter at @kerryann. I love checking out your suggestions!
Also, thanks to all of you who entered the giveaway on last week’s post! A big congratulations goes out to the winner of the Wentworth Hall prize package: Angela Schroeder! Please e-mail me your contact information at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can get your prizes shipped to you!
Image via Hachette Book Group