Book review: ‘Girl In Translation’ by Jean Kwok

Kimberly Chang is just 11 years old when she journeys from Hong Kong to New York City with her mother, a tired single parent. Knowing little English and finding themselves completely at the mercy of Ma’s older sister, Aunt Paula, Kim and Ma are sequestered in a rat- and roach-infested apartment in a part of the city that is all but abandoned, and the pair are “graciously” given jobs at the sweatshop Aunt Paula manages.

The days are long and the work is endless. Once a stellar student in Hong Kong, the English/Chinese language barrier prevents Kim from following lessons in school. She muddles through classes, trying to ignore the remarks of racist teachers and classroom bullies — all the while barely holding her head above a sea of loneliness. Ma can’t possibly keep up with her work at the factory alone, so Kim shuffles between middle school and the sweatshop, helping as much as she can. But it never feels like enough.

The only bright spot in her otherwise isolated existence is Matt, the son of another factory worker. The two form a bond as they grow and work side by side, both dreaming of a better world. And Kim slowly makes friends with Annette, a red-haired and freckled classmate who is as much of an outcast as she. With time, hard work and perseverance, the Chang women slowly begin to emerge from their hardscrabble world. And maybe Mrs. Chang’s dream of a better life for Kimberly can still come true.

Jean Kwok’s Girl In Translation is a tender, heart wrenching and exquisitely detailed look at the immigrant experience for two Chinese women in the 1980s. Though Kim begins the novel as a preteen, we pass through years of the Changs’ life as they struggle with family dramas, prejudice and love.

Kim is an incredibly likable narrator — someone I cared for from the beginning. Her meddle is tested time and again, and I was shocked at how resilient she was. Despite setbacks and fear, she didn’t let teachers or students keep her from school. Though her English was poor in the beginning, Kim realizes she can only unlock her prison cell of a sub par education, terrible living conditions and loneliness by learning English. So she throws herself completely into the attempt and becomes her mother’s translator, too.

What struck me most about Kim was the seamless way in which she seems to become her mother’s caretaker. As Ma is exhausted from the factory work that barely supports them, Kim steps in to handle large projects. She becomes adept at bagging the garments on which her mother works, finding ways to create shortcuts and complete the tasks quickly. As Ma struggles to communicate in New York, her daughter handles tax bills, forms, school paperwork. She learns to sign her mother’s name before she can ever sign her own.

But the pressure gets to our heroine sometimes, of course, though it never breaks her. Kim’s successes felt like my successes, and I burst into tears after a breakthrough at school elevates her beyond her meager circumstances. Though hard to read at points, Kwok handles the Changs’ living situation realistically while still saving us the gruesome details lurking in the corners. Any mention of a rat scurrying in a darkened room is enough to get me shivering, but these were things that I felt I needed to know.

I guess I really related to Kim, too, because her story felt familiar. When I was in fourth grade, a young girl appeared at the desk next to mine. Her name was Ivy, my teacher told us, and she was from China; she was still learning English, and we were going to help her as much as we could. Though I grew up in a racially diverse area, I’d never met a Chinese kid before — and Ivy was a complete enigma. As I was teacher’s pet (sure, I’ll admit it), I was tapped to be Ivy’s assistant. Mrs. Aiken asked me to personally work with her on assignments and projects, always sure to include Ivy in whatever we were working on.

This position gave me serious clout in my fourth-grade classroom. Ivy was far from an outcast at our elementary school — she was a star. Everyone wanted to know about China and her family, and Ivy would exchange puzzled looks with me as the kids peppered her with questions. I couldn’t translate, of course, knowing no Chinese; but I could give her the universal look of, “Yeah, I’m just as confused as you are.” She seemed to appreciate that.

Over time, my bond with Ivy strengthened. She was 13, we finally learned, which shocked our class of 9-year-olds. Mrs. Aiken and I would sit with Ivy in our quiet classroom at lunch, working with her on English phrases. One special afternoon, we switched things up: Ivy worked with us on our Chinese. Another classmate and I were invited to sit with our teacher and Ivy during lunch and learn to use chopsticks, which seemed like the height of sophistication. I was in heaven.

I think about Ivy sometimes and wonder what happened to her. Like Kim, she was a bright girl who just needed a hand getting over the culture shock of being transplanted to a foreign land. Reading Girl In Translation, I felt like Annette — the buoyant girl who immediately befriends Kim, drawing her under her wing. And as the story progressed, I was glad that Annette didn’t eventually abandon our narrator when they reached high school and couldn’t be seen as “uncool.”

There wasn’t much to dislike about this book, which kept me reading at all hours. Kwok’s writing is subtle but beautiful, and it completely drew me into the Changs’ world. There were so many times that my heart hurt as the women faced dangerous or scary situations, armed only with their verve; so many things that could have wrecked them didn’t, and I marveled at that. By the final chapter, it felt like an epic saga to arrive where we did. And though Kim’s happy ending wasn’t what I expected, I still felt great peace.

Readers of literary fiction, contemporary fiction and immigrant stories will find much to love in the beautiful Girl In Translation, published in 2009 and still receiving accolades. Kimberly isn’t a character I’ll soon forget, and certain passages will stay with me for a long while.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594485151 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher