Review of “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

I loved this story about 11-year-old Kimberly Chang and her “Ma” who came from Hong Kong to Brooklyn in search of a better life.

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Kim’s wealthy Aunt Paula paid for their passage to America, and set them up in a roach and rat infested apartment in Brooklyn without heat. Ma went to work in the filthy garment factory owned by Aunt Paula’s husband, where Ma, like the others, was secretly paid by the piece, an illegal practice. Kim soon began helping her mother out after school, along with other children there illegally, who came to help their parents make their work quotas.

In spite of all the challenges, including no knowledge at first of the English language, Kim managed to excel in school, and soon got a full scholarship to a private school. But she kept up her friendship with a girl she met at her first school, Annette Avery, who also changed to the private school, and a boy she got to know in the factory, Matt Wu. She didn’t understand her feelings for Matt until they were older, and he started dating someone else: a beautiful Chinese girl named Vivian. But there was always something between them.

Kim decided that to get her and Ma out of their bad situation, she would simply have to work harder and longer than anyone else in school so she could get a good job someday. But she also had to learn to navigate the tricky waters of jealousy from the other kids, and from Aunt Paula. Her aunt not only held their immediate fate in her hands, but she resented that Kim did better than her own similarly-aged son Godfrey.

The very end of the book is an epilogue that begins twelve years after the first part ends, when Kim is in her senior year in high school.

Discussion: There is so much that is good about this book. The story of Kim and her ma is told with such affection and compassion for the characters by the author that you can’t help feeling the same. The other characters are drawn with an excellent eye, such as Kim’s first public school teacher – he is not such a good person, but unfortunately very typical of tired and frustrated teachers in poor public schools. Even the evil Aunt Paula is portrayed in a sufficiently nuanced manner that you understand why she acts the way she does, and you can feel sympathy for her, which is not easily accomplished with a character that nasty.

The author is so clever at helping us understand the threads that connected all the parts of Kim’s life. For example, at the factory, Kim and Ma were paid 1.5 cents per skirt bagged, and Kim started to calculate whether or not they could afford something by how many skirts it cost:

“In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts.”

The author also rendered dialogue in a manner that showed in italics the words Kim didn’t understand at first, with the sentences gradually having less and less of these italicized words. As one example, when the principal of her public school talked to Kim about getting accepted at the better private school and the need for recommendations:

“‘I know of several good schools, if you should need some names,’ she said. . . . Do you want some recordy shunts?” [meaning recommendations].

We not only see what words Kim still didn’t know, but how they sounded to her. We also learn that often, she does not understand a word or concept because in her previous culture, practices were different. Illustrating this, there are a number of Chinese customs and sayings included in the story, all explained by our narrator Kim.

What was most interesting to me was that the biggest cultural conflict in the book is not between the Chinese and non-Chinese, but between two of the main Chinese protagonists, one of whom believes in the “old ways” and the other who is looking to the future.

Evaluation: I hope readers will not eschew reading this book because of reluctance to read about another culture they think may not be relevant to their own experiences. This book is first and foremost about the human condition and human emotions which we all share – love, hope, despair, jealousy, determination, and perseverance. The story is engaging and engrossing, and the experiences so seemingly true-to-life that I wasn’t too surprised to learn that a good bit of it was autobiographical.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2010

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5 Responses to Review of “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

  1. Diane says:

    I still remember some of this one even though I read it several years ago. Glad u enjoyed it too.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I do love a good immigrant story and this one sounds fabulous. I’m pretty sure I have it somewhere and will pull it out if I do.

  3. Michelle says:

    I have heard great things about this one but never got around to reading it. Your review makes me reconsider that choice!

  4. Heather says:

    I loooved this book as well as the author’s second novel, Mambo in Chinatown. Definitely pick up that one if you haven’t already.

  5. Rachel says:

    I love reading books about other cultures. This sounds like a great one. The way the author writes the words Kim doesn’t know is original – I think I would like it. Isn’t there a movie of this book? The title sounds familiar to me.

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