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Discussion Questions


Now that you, and other members of the community, have read House on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet how about starting a discussion about the impact of this story.

Here are some questions to get things started:

Father-son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences?

Why doesn't Henry's father want him to speak Cantonese at home? How does this square with his desire to send Henry back to China for school? Isn't he sending his son a mixed message?

If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henry's father deserve forgiveness?

From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the "I am Chinese" button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and how has Henry's understanding of that message changed by the end of the novel?

Why does Henry provide an inaccurate translation when he serves as the go-between in the business negotiations between his father and Mr. Preston? Is he wrong to betray his father's trust in this way?

The US has been called a nation of immigrants. In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience?

What is the bond between Henry and Sheldon, and how is it strengthened by jazz music?

If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice?

Henry's mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son?

Compare Marty's relationship with Samantha to Henry's relationship with Keiko. What other examples can you find in the novel of love that is forbidden or that crosses boundaries of one kind or another?

What struggles did your own ancestors have as immigrants to America, and to what extent did they incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?

Does Henry give up on Keiko too easily? What else could he have done to find her?

What about Keiko? Why didn't she make more of an effort to see Henry once she was released from the camp?

Do you think Ethel might have known what was happening with Henry's letters?

The novel ends with Henry and Keiko meeting again after more than forty years. Jump ahead a year and imagine what has happened to them in that time. Is there any evidence in the novel for this outcome?

What sacrifices do the characters in the novel make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?

Was the US government right or wrong to "relocate" Japanese-Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the US was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?

Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry rounded up by the US during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the US. What would you have done in their place?

Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry rounded up by the US during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the US. What would you have done in their place? What’s to prevent something like this from every happening again?

Courtesy of:

Some Other Questions to Discuss

Why doesn't Henry ever seek out Keiko after the Japanese American internment is over?

Why is Marty so convinced that his father is old-fashioned and won't approve of his non-Chinese fiancé?

What does the record of Oscar Holden represent for Henry? Why does he continue to look for it after all of these years?

How is Henry's relationship with Ethel different from his relationship with Keiko? How is it similar?

How does the memory of Keiko affect Henry over the years?

How does Henry's relationship with his own father differ from his relationship with Marty?

Why do other people consider Henry and Keiko to be non-Americans? Are they right?

Does the internment of Japanese American citizens seem fair to you? Why or why not?

How does the Panama Hotel excavate Henry's memories and emotions?

Why do you think Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was told in flashbacks? What perspective can an older Henry give?

Characterize Mrs. Beatty. Did she surprise you? What does this suggest about the assumptions that often guide our judgments of people?

Talk about Sheldon’s role and that of jazz throughout the story. How are they important?

How was Henry's relationship with Marty different than his relationship with his father? How was it the same? Even though tradition was important to both men, how did Henry and his father view tradition and heritage differently?

Was the information the novel presented about Japanese-American internment new to you? What did you learn?

Do you think Henry was right to stay with Ethel even after he found out about his father's deceit?

Should he have searched for Keiko?

Do you think Ethel knew what was happening to Henry's letters?

If you were Henry, could you forgive your father?

What do you think happened after the novel ended?

How does Ford characterize Henry and his Father, and what is the significance of their relationship?

Keiko and Henry like each other the moment they meet. What do you think makes them so compatible?

As we see later in the novel, Keiko and Henry's friendship evolve into something much bigger, love. When do you think Henry begins to love Keiko, and when do you think Keiko loves Henry back? What is the significance of this love?

Do you think Henry was right to defy his father and continue to spend time with Keiko? Why?

Do you think what Henry's father did was really in Henry's best interests, or was his father just being selfish? Why?

What is the difference between Keiko and Henry's families? What are the different pros and cons of each family?

A major theme throughout the novel is loyalty. Do you think it was right that Henry moved on and ended up marrying Ethel? Even though the letters from Keiko had stopped coming, do you think Henry should have kept his promise and continued to wait for Keiko?

In the novel, Henry goes to great lengths to try and visit Keiko. Why do you think he did this? If you were in Henry's shoes, would you have done the same?

What is the significance of Oscar Holding's record, both in the present and the past? What do you think the record means to Henry and Keiko? What might it symbolize about their relationship?

Ford left the end of the novel at a bit of a cliff hanger. What do you think happened after the ending? Do you think Henry married Keiko?