Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Published in 2010.
The story is told from the point of view of Kimberly Chang, who as an eleven-year-old girl, emigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn. After they arrive, they find themselves indebted to Kimberly’s aunt and uncle for providing for the passage, living in an apartment building that should really be condemned and working in a sweatshop in Chinatown in New York City. Meanwhile, Kimberly starts school, tries to improve her English, and works hard to break the cycle of poverty she and her mother live in.
About the Author
Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong, and like the protagonist of this book, emigrated to Brooklyn as a child and worked in a sweatshop. She ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia. She currently lives in Holland. This is her debut novel.
My Initial Reactions
I found it interesting that the time period is never actually revealed in the book, and yet within the first 50 pages of the book, I knew she must have emigrated to Brooklyn during the 1980s. The giveaways for me were: (1) the “raise your hand if you’re sure” commercial playing on the television; (2) her school project on the Reagan administration; and (3) the panda bear clip-on pin her friend, Annette, gives her for Christmas. I too was a child of the 80s and had a panda bear clip-on pin.
The part of the book that stood out the most for me was the fact that Kimberly and her mother were basically forced to work in a sweatshop in order to pay off their debts to Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob. Although they had greencards to legally be in the United States, Kimberly was too young to qualify for true employment and her mom spoke very little English, so their options were limited.
I must admit my ignorance, because I was not aware that sweatshops of this kind still existed in the United States. Like the character Annette, my first reactions were — this is illegal, this must stop, we should boycott purchasing clothes made in the USA. But Kimberly shows us another side of this, the side where she and her mother will lose everything if we speak out in the wrong way.
I was also intrigued by the conflict between Kimberly/her mother and Aunt Paula. Kimberly’s mother could have had Paula’s more affluent life, but instead she chose to marry for love and became a widow at a young age. She gave up her life as a talented music teacher in Hong Kong, to come to America so her daughter could have a better life. In the end she succeeded, as Kimberly is awarded the full scholarship to Harrison Prep, and ultimately Yale University. The cycle continues, as Kimberly gives up her relationship with Matt so that she can accept her scholarship at Yale and go on to become a pediatric surgeon, ultimately so that her son, Jason, may have a better life and never have to know the poverty she lived in. I’m glad the book had a happy ending.
So what did you think of the book? Are there any particular stories or themes that stand out for you? Please post in the comments below.
Next Up: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody. Discussion begins November 4th.