“In the Kindergarten” by Ha Jin explores a mature approach of character development and his fictional kindergarten setting conditions through eyes of elementary protagonist Shoana. The story shows through Shoana that this atypical kindergarten contains deeper problems than blatantly presented: lies, forced labor, extreme forms of punishment, and more. While these might not be all the problems that the “boarding school” seems to face, they are the ones that Shoana realizes and attempts to comprehend.
Shoana is a lonely kindergartener who longs to be back home with her parents and new baby brother. Adjusting to kindergarten life has been hard, having to conform to iron beds, disgusting meals, and new authority. One day her teacher, recently going through divorce and abortion, has the kids pick purslanes: something they’ll get to eat for dinner if they work hard. While picking, one of Shoana’s classmates – Dabin – boasts about having more purslanes and ends up in a fight with another one of their classmates. The result of this fight has the teacher punishing him: banishing him to a cupboard where he may or may not be forgotten about. In the end, the children don’t get to eat the purslanes; only Shoana is the one who sees the teacher heading away keeping the purslanes to herself. Later that day, Shoana and Dabin make up. She gives him some peanuts – collateral collected when she saw her parents outside of the kindergarten. The next day, Shoana spends her time on the rainy field playing court with her classmates, getting muddy. The mud on all the children’s clothes causes the teacher to wash all their clothes, confiscating Shoana’s peanuts as she does, leaving the toddler devastated. The next day, the teacher sets the kids out to pick out more purslanes, saying that they will get to eat them for dinner tonight for sure. As they do so, a rabbit breaks out from the area and the teacher commands everyone to chase after it. As they chase for the animal, Shoana pees in the duffel bag where the purslanes have been being accumulated in. With new confidence, she joins the rabbit chase. That evening, Shoana happily eats the gruel given to her and even plays the boys “as if she had become a big girl”. Her new mindset hints that she’ll adjust to the kindergarten, exposing her to a new level of maturity.
Regarding chronic tension, it would be Shoana’s adversity adjusting to kindergarten. For acute tension, it would be Shoana noticing her teacher taking their harvest for herself (or, debatably, the beginning of the rabbit chase).
The first technique that I tracked was “descriptions and conditions of the kindergarten” because the reader easily gets enamored by the elementary setting. We must adjust, just like Shoana, as the setting forces our perspective to go through a distortion of understanding (from having gone through (a presumably) normal kindergarten experience ourselves).
Through the setting, we see that the students don’t have lots of freedom. They are trapped inside the kindergarten through cases of physical barriers set by authority.
The children were excited, because they were seldom allowed to go out of the stone wall.
The rules didn’t allow her to eat anything after she had brushed her teeth for bed.
However, their freedom is sometimes literally stripped from them too. When we see Dabin go through punishment, it is a jarring description that the reader can be glad is fictional.
The boy would be “jailed”, and he might get even with her after he was released. On the second floor of their building was a room, the kitchen is only for storage, in a corner of which that three bedside cupboards. Sometimes a troublesome boy will be locked in one of them for hours.
Lastly, the nutritional conditions in the kindergarten are questionable. The food is gross enough to challenge prison food, serving as one of the reasons the children are eager to pick purslanes. It’s because their regular food is bad enough that they’re willing to work for anything else. Later, as we see this food has a spandrel effect on Shoana’s attitude, it turns out the school’s horrible gruel serves to be tolerable after all.
For the first time in the kindergarten she ate a hearty meal – three sweet potatoes, two bowls of corn glue, and many spoonfuls of fried eggplant.
The conditions of the kindergarten make the story surreal but tangible. It helps ground the story to something that the reader can access, but still have somewhat of a distance from. Shoana is the overall connecting piece for the setting as her perception and preexisting knowledge of the place helps fill the reader in on details that would have normally slipped by.
Transitioning into the second technique I tracked, “character development and changes” was something I ended up expanding to a range of changes. I realized just how many changes there were in the story, minor and major, that added to the core of the plot. At first, it was “internal/external” changes. I then realized that the story’s kinetic called for “emotional” changes too. Finally, I gave into the and added in “physical” changes because the debate of whether character actions were as important as their emotions arose. Jin masters this technique through expanding development to every single character mentioned (mainly Shoana, of course, but most of hers is near the end). Ones that are more initial, like the teacher’s, required events that already happened (such as her divorce, abortion, accumulating debt, etc.). However, the ones that focused on the students would all have to take place later after an incident has already happened. For examples…
Shoana, at first hating the desolate kindergarten, changes the most when she gathers the courage to not conform into the rabbit chase and take on her own desired course of action.
Shoana was not with them because she wanted to pee. Looking around, she saw nobody nearby, so she squatted down over the duffel, making sure to conceal her little bottom with her skirt, and peed on the purslanes laying inside the bag. Then with a kicking heart, she ran away to join the chasers.
We also see this technique through character disputes that are flippant and can be solved, such as interactions Shoana has with minor characters, like Dabin. After she gives him the peanuts as a peace offering, he demands…
“You must be nice to me from now on. Remember to save lots of goodies for me, got it?”
Stemming off emotional changes, this extends to Shoana’s realizations throughout the story. Most likely the most heartbreaking example coming from Shoana being the sole witness to her teacher’s flight with the purslanes.
Now she understood, their teacher took their harvest home.
Lastly, there were physical changes too. As mentioned above with Shoana’s taste changing through her adrenaline, examples of physical changes would often lead to different perceptions and outlooks. For dinner, it was for the better. However, in less cheerful examples, we see how physical changes can lead to emotional changes too.
They elected her the queen…she had to sit on the wet ground all the time. She got up from the ground, shouting, “I quit!”
He went up to her, grabbed her shoulder, pushed her to the ground, and kicked her buttocks. She burst out crying.
Some crafts I would like to take from this story would be Jin’s descriptions and skillful use of dialogue. He, like Antonya Nelson, use dialogue to enhance the story instead of fuel it. It’s not excessive to the point where it’s filler, but where it’s a piece you must pay attention to in order to have a further familiarity with their story. Jin’s descriptions can be subtle revelations (i.e. Aunt Chef), while others are jarringly blatant (i.e. the iron beds the kids must sleep on). Both, when used to their full potential, will help escalate the reader’s attention the whole readthrough. If I were to come up with a writing exercise for this story, it would be to write a story where a character is presented with several dilemmas that seem insolvable. It will be up to the author or not as to whether these dilemmas are solved, unsolved, or like Shoana, solved through one decision that has a later domino effect.
- How does the rabbit scene affect the chronic tension?
- How does the teacher’s problems affect the kids? Physically? Emotionally?
- How do you think, according to the snip-it descriptions, the kindergarten affects the adults?