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[548] Girl in Translation – Jean Kwok


” It was also in the eighth grade that we finally got a phone at home. I knew the monthly payments pained Ma, but I was too ashamed to be the one omission in the staple school telephone directory everyone received. It seemed to be a public declaration of poverty that came too close to showing everyone the truth about the way we really lived. ” (Ch.8, p.155)

Girl in Translation is the coming-of-age story of 11-year-old Kimberly Chang who emigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to America in what appears to me as the late 1960s. References to rationed water and lack of telephone in Hong Kong give that period away, although panic sentiment about the colony’s handover to China in 1997 had yet to penetrate the public. Recently widowed and laden with debts, Kimberly’s mother hopes for a better life in New York, where she will start afresh and yet the culture is totally incomprehensible. They find themselves in a squalid, dilapidated apartment in Brooklyn lacking heat and real furniture. Like many young immigrants who yet to develop the ear for English (myself included when I arrived 26 years ago) Kimberly finds herself in a tough position adjusting in school and taking over everything that requires any kind of interaction with the world outside of Chinatown.

A shipment needed to go out at the factory the night before my oral exam, so we didn’t go home until past two a.m. I stayed up the rest of the night studying and didn’t sleep at all. Wrapped over many layers of clothing, I wore a robe made of the stuffed animal material, which Ma continued to recycle as I grew. There was only Ma’s sleeping body to give me comfort and the night was damp, filled with the taste of my own fear. (Ch.9, p.187)

Despite her cultural barrier and constant fear, Kimberly realizes the only way to rescue her mother (and herself) from her parsimonious,jealous aunt’s sweatshop where her mother is paid pittance doe long, barebacking labor is to achieve academic success. The struggle from being an underachiever to the star student only seems easy compared to the physical miasma and emotional stress to which staggering poverty subject her. It’s typical Chinese to disguise poverty let alone to accept benevolence. In time, Kimberly learns to translate back and forth between the two worlds that she strives to separate. The private school where white kids from privileged background surround her by day seems worlds away from the claustrophobic Chinatown sweatshop that breaks labor law and pays workers by the piece.

All I wanted was to have a break from the exhausting cycle of my life, to flee from the constant anxiety that haunted me: fear of my teachers, fear at every assignment, fear of Aunt Paula, fear that we’d never escape. (Ch.9, p.184)

Although the writing of Girl in Translation is sophomoric at best, Jean Kwok has found the right voice for her underage narrator who is coerced to mature quickly in order to negotiate the adversity in her face. I disagree with reviewers who call the book lacking in depth and complain that all Kimberly talks about is the horrifying condition of her apartment at the long hours at the factory. For the teenage girl who has no financial resource and has to live hand-to-mouth this is her only reality. In order to disguise her poverty she has to hide from her best friend where she lives. The financial strait means she cannot afford social ambitions. She has been constricted to her daily routine that consists of going to school and working to cover the living costs. It was not until years after their arrival that they visited the Statue of Liberty. The book has some twists at the end although it’s rather rushed. But overall it conveys the harsh reality that faces many immigrants.

293 pp. Riverhead Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


6 Responses

  1. I like a good coming of age story and this sounds like one. This reminds me in some small way of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

    • You’re right on. The staggering poverty Kimberly and her mother experienced and the unfair treatment meted out by her aunt make this book a quick read. Poor working condition at the sweatshop also raises alarm.

  2. I have it, and I’ll get to it. Sounds like I shouldn’t rush.

  3. I am actually really interested in this novel. I don’t think that every book you read needs to be complicated and deep. Why can’t we enjoy books for both the story and their lightness occasionally?

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