Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is the story of eleven year old Kimberly Chang, recent immigrant from China. It follows the lives of her and her mother as they find their place in America together. They come as sponsorees of their mother’s older sister and her husband, and as payment to Aunt and Uncle, Kimberly and her mom work in their sweatshop sewing factory for years. It turns out, too, that Kimberly has a knack for school, and despite her English language deficiences and an uncaring teacher, she manages to knock the top out of the science and math portions of the school’s standardized tests, thereby earning herself a scholarship to an elite private preparatory school. Life doesn’t get easier, though. She and her mom still live in the same roach-infested, freezing-in-winter-and-blazing-in-summer, run down apartment. They still work late, late hours just to make production, with Kimberly riding the subway to the factory immediately after school and staying there with her mother until late night to do the “finish work” on the garments at the sweatshop. Kimberly’s mom never masters English, so Kimberly takes on the parental role in many situations, too, so she is a young woman with lots and lots of responsibilities:
I grew into the space that Ma’s foreignness left vacant. She hadn’t learned any more English, so I took over everything that required any kind of interaction with the world outside of Chinatown. I pored over our income tax forms every year, using the documents from the factory provided for us. I read the fine print repeatedly, hoping I was doing it right. If Ma needed to buy something at a store or to make a complaint or a return, I had to do it for her. (156)
Even after Kimberly enters an Ivy League school on scholarship, their life doesn’t get appreciably easier. Kimberly still makes tough decisions based on both her ambition and talent and her need.
Have you ever had a book that you just loved for the first half and then grew increasingly annoyed with for the last half? While reading Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok I went from being intrigued and full of sympathy for Kimberly Chang and her mother to feeling annoyed that I was committed to reading a book that had gone south in a hurry with regards to Kimberly’s dalliances with members of the opposite sex. This, of course, is not to say that it is poorly written; in fact, on the contrary–Kwok‘s writing is so smooth that I literally flew through this book, reading it in a record two days. Someone with fewer
children distractions (or at least older ones 😉 ) would easily knock it out in a day. Really, I can’t think of the last book that I’ve read that is as seamless as this one. And Kimberly’s poor choices are at least believable; one of her relationships (the one that literally changes her life) is a long time in the making, and even I could see what happens in the story coming. While I can’t say that I agree with the choices Kimberly makes in the end, I at least think that her choices are true to character.
I am really interested in stories of the immigrant experience, and because this is an adult book based largely on the author’s life, I think it’s as true a picture as I have even seen of what life is really like for immigrants. My heart hurts for them. I give this book a Highly Recommended with a big, huge warning that it contains some sexual situations and references, all of which happen in the last 1/3 of the book. (Riverhead Books, 2010)
A coupel of juvenile books about immigrants that I’ve read and reviewed: