Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Read: Jan. 2018
YES! Finally, a good read in 2018! I was off to a rough start before this gem!
Girl in Translation has been on my TBR forever and I finally decided to give it a read as part of my January Reading Challenge to read 3 books about immigration. This is a beautiful, beautiful book and I’m so glad I finally took the time to read it.
Girl in Translation tells the semi-autobiographical story of Kimberly Chang and her mother as they try to survive in New York City as new immigrants from Hong Kong. I’m not entirely sure when this book is set, but from a few of the pop culture references it seems to take place in the 1980’s. Kim and her Ma are sponsored into America by her Aunt Paula, who puts them up in an apartment in Brooklyn and gives Ma a job at her husband’s clothing factory. Kim and Ma are dismayed at the state of the apartment, which has broken windows, no heat, and a lot of roaches and rats.
Back in Hong Kong, Kimberly was always top of her class, and knowing hardly any english, she struggles at school. Ma is working as a finisher at the clothing factory along with many other Chinese-Americans. The factory is actually a sweat shop that illegally pays its workers by the garment (as opposed to an hourly wage) and Kim must help Ma every day after school until late in the night to get the clothes ready for each shipment. When Kimberly is teased at school and harassed by her teacher, she wants to skip school, but quickly realizes that she is her and Ma’s only chance at ever getting out of poverty. She’s throws herself wholeheartedly into learning English and works hard to get back to the top of the class again.
This is such a heartbreaking and inspiring story and I really like Kwok’s writing. It reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a huge compliment because it is one of my all time favourite books. It’s not a plot driven book, it’s simply the story of a young girl growing up in very tough circumstances and working incredibly hard to better herself and her family. I loved that Kimberly was tenacious and ambitious, but that she was also very real and had flaws. She takes the weight of the world upon her shoulders and she refuses to ever ask for help. She struggles to make friends, but she is so lucky to have Annette and I wish she’d confided in her and shared herself with Annette. Kim always declined help and was reluctant to let anyone into her life. I feel like may be a symptom of her Chinese culture as Ma was always reluctant to build any relationship that couldn’t be reciprocated and reverently believed in the idea that a debt must always be repaid. Sadly they both seemed to confuse kindness as a debt sometimes.
The ending is pretty abrupt, which caught me off guard. I actually think this story could have used another 50 pages to do the ending justice, but I still really liked it. It’s a heartbreaking ending, but I really appreciated it because it was real. When I saw where things were going at the end, I immediately knew how Kim was going to react because Kwok has breathed such life into this character that she took on a life of her own and acting any other way would have been contrary to her character. Kwok is very perceptive and I loved all of her characters because they were so real and so flawed. I was worried she might take the easy way out to create a happier ending, but I’m glad she stayed true to her characters and gave us this very bittersweet ending.