This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What is the code switching meaning, and is there code switching in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?
The meaning of code switching is a survival technique where a person changes personalities to allow them to fit into different social situations. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Spokane Indian teenager, Arnold Spirit Jr., decides to leave his reservation to attend a white high school nearby. Junior relies on the code switching meaning of changes to your personality to fit your circumstances in order to get by.
Keep reading to find out more about the code switching meaning, and how Junior does it during his time on the reservation and at Reardan, including code switching in the classroom.
Code Switching Meaning: Junior’s Two Lives
14-year-old Junior lives in Wellpinit, Washington, a small town on the Spokane Indian Reservation, known to residents as “the rez.” Junior describes the rez as “located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.” Reservations like Spokane’s were created in the image of death camps. Junior speculates that the government hoped Indians would go there, die out, and disappear. But the Spokane tribe didn’t disappear, and now tribe members stay of their own free will. They’re born on the rez and they die on the rez. No one ever leaves.
The rez is characterized by the poverty and alcoholism of its residents. But the rez is also an extended family—everyone knows each other and comes together in times of need.
This doesn’t mean that life on the rez is always peaceful. As happens in communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, disagreements are frequent, and there are unofficial rules for handling conflict and defending your honor.
Spokane Rules of Fisticuffs
1. You have to fight anyone who insults you.
2. You have to fight anyone you think is going to insult you.
3. You have to fight anyone you think is thinking about insulting you.
4. You have to fight anyone who insults your family, anyone you think is going to insult your family, or anyone you think is thinking about insulting your family.
5. You shouldn’t fight a girl unless she insults you or someone in your family.
6. If an adult beats up your mom or dad, you have to fight that person’s son or daughter.
7. If one of your parents beats someone up, that person’s child has to fight you.
8. You have to fight the kids of people who work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
9. You have to fight any white kids who live on the reservation.
10. You have to throw the first punch if you’re in a fight with someone stronger than you. (It’s the only punch you’ll have the chance to throw.)
11. The person who cries first is always the loser.
Code Switching Meaning at Reardan
Life at Reardan means that Junior has to employ code switching, including code switching in the classroom. Junior dresses as a homeless person for Halloween, mostly because it’s an easy costume for him, seeing as most of his clothes are pretty ratty anyway.
Penelope also comes to school dressed as a homeless person. She compliments Junior on how truly homeless he looks, and Junior returns the compliment by telling her she looks cute, which annoys Penelope. She’s not trying to look cute. She tells Junior she’s protesting the country’s treatment of homeless people. She’s planning on collecting money instead of candy and donating it to the homeless.
Junior decides to impress Penelope by saying that his costume is also a political statement: He’s protesting the treatment of homeless Native Americans. He suggests they pool their money in the morning and send it to the charity together. Penelope isn’t sure Junior’s suggestion is sincere, but she agrees.
Back on the rez that evening, Junior collects a little spare change as he goes house to house in his homeless-man costume, and he even gets some encouragement from a few grandmothers who think he’s brave for leaving the reservation to go to a white school. But more often, he gets called names by his neighbors, who slam the door in his face. Many Spokane residents resent Junior for leaving the rez, seeing this as a betrayal of his Indian culture.
As he heads home around 10 o’clock, three kids in Frankenstein masks jump Junior, knocking him over, kicking him, spitting on him, and stealing his money. After they’ve left, Junior reflects that they didn’t beat him up too badly. Their goal wasn’t to put him in the hospital. They just wanted to remind him that everyone on the rez thinks he’s a traitor.
The next morning at Reardan, Junior apologizes to Penelope for not having the money. He tells her about the attack, and Penelope shows concern, asking where they kicked him. When Junior lifts his shirt to show her the bruises, she touches one and comments on how painful they look. Junior almost faints at her touch. Penelope feels sorry for Junior and promises to include his name when she sends in the donation.
After this intimate moment, Junior thinks he and Penelope will become close and that this will make him the most popular kid in school. But nothing really changes. Penelope continues to ignore him, but Junior’s ability to employ the code switching meaning is clear.
Back on the Reservation
Junior’s family doesn’t have money for presents at Christmas, so his father does what he always does when there isn’t enough money for something: He takes what they do have and gets drunk. He’s gone from Christmas Eve until January 2nd.
When he gets back, he’s so hungover that he can’t get out of bed. Junior goes into his room to say hello, and his dad apologizes about there being no presents at Christmas. Junior tells him it’s okay, but it isn’t. He realizes that he’s once again trying to protect the man who repeatedly breaks his heart.
Junior’s dad tells Junior that he has a present for him now, which he’s been storing in his boot. Under the foot pad, Junior finds a wrinkled five dollar bill. He can’t believe that his father was able to keep himself from spending his last $5 on a bottle of whiskey and two more days of drunken bliss. Junior turns to thank his father for saving the money for him, but his father has already fallen back asleep.
Since being at Reardan, Junior has come to understand what good parents he has. Yes, his dad is an alcoholic and his mom is an “ex-drunk,” but they show how much they care about Junior with the sacrifices they make and the way they talk to him honestly and listen to him sincerely. This is more than many of Junior’s white peers can say. Junior notices that the parents, especially the fathers, of many of his classmates ignore their kids.
Conversely, on the rez, everyone knows everyone else. There might be problems on the rez, but everyone is close. It’s like a big family, and Junior can be himself instead of employing the code switching meaning.
Understanding His Tribe
As the school year comes to a close, Junior and his parents go to the cemetery to clean the graves. Junior’s mom tells him how proud she is of him, which is the greatest thing she could have said, as far as he’s concerned. He understands that he can be happy while still missing his sister.
Junior cries thinking about how amazing his sister was. She pursued her dreams. She never reached them, but it was the bravery of the attempt that mattered. Junior sees that, like his sister, he’s also making the attempt, and it also might kill him, but staying on the rez also would have killed him. Leaving will be difficult, particularly since he knows the code switching meaning, but he believes he can do it.
Junior cries for:
- His sister and her premature death
- Himself and the fact that he’s the only one who’s been brave and arrogant enough to leave the rez and find a “better life out in the white world”
- His tribe, many of whom will die in the coming year due to the effects of alcohol
But Junior’s not alone in his grief, or his bravery. He’s in the company of millions of Americans who’ve “left their birthplaces in search of a dream.” He’s a member of the Spokane tribe, but he’s also a member of many other tribes, including:
- The basketball tribe
- The bookworm tribe
- The cartoonist tribe
- The teenage-boy tribe
- The poverty tribe
- The funeral-goers tribe
- The American immigrants tribe
- The tortilla-chip-lovers tribe
- The boys-who-miss-their-best-friends tribe
Understanding that his world is bigger than the Spokane and that he’s a member of many different tribes, Junior knows that even through his grief, he’s going to be okay. But he also worries about the people he loves who may not be okay, like Rowdy.
Now that you know the code switching meaning, you can consider all the instances in which Junior uses code switching, including code switching in the classroom when he switches schools.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian summary:
- How Junior gets split between two worlds when he goes to a mostly white school
- How Junior overcomes being an outsider to being part of welcoming social circles
- The tragedies of alcoholism and poverty that leave Junior with renewed strength