Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

I am always attracted to stories about immigrants moving to a new country and trying to fit in, so I am surprised that I somehow missed this book when it was first released.  I was really intrigued when a friend recommended it and it did not disappoint!

When Kimberly Chang and her mother arrive in New York City after the death of her father, they are grateful for the help given to them by her mother’s sister. Kim’s aunt and uncle paid for the trip from Hong Kong and gave them money to pay Kim’s mother’s medical bills. They had also promised to help them find an apartment and give her mother a job.  What happened when they arrived was shocking, however.  The apartment they were given was in a building that had been condemned.  It was full of roaches, mice, and had no working heat.  Her mother was put to work in her sister’s sewing factory, but was paid only pennies for each piece of work completed.  Money was taken out to pay back her sister for their trip out of Hong Kong and for rent.  Kim had to help her work after school and evenings every day just so her mother would make her quota and have a little money left for them to eat on.

At the same time, Kim was working very hard to make it through school.  In Hong Kong she had always been top of her class. Now she struggled to understand enough English to pass.  Over the next few years, Kim managed to not only pass, but to get accepted at an exclusive Prep school in the city. Every day she is amazed at the privileged lives of her classmates and struggles to hide her living conditions from her teachers and her friends.

Kwok’s description of a modern day sweatshop is both shocking and familiar.  The hard part is realizing that she is talking about modern day, not 100 years ago.  The author does a wonderful job of conveying Kimberly’s initial struggles to understand the language by writing what Kimberly thinks she hears, instead of what the person actually says.  As the book goes on, the translations become less frequent because her English has improved.   The book also gives an accurate portrayal of what many immigrant children go through, living a duel life between school and home, and frequently being responsible for all of the paperwork necessary for life.   It is hard on the child to be the only person who speaks English. In this book, it sometimes feels like Kim is protecting her mother, while other times she seems to manipulate her. In spite of all that, the book is not depressing.  It is a wonderful story about a little girl of amazing personal strength.

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One Response to “Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok”

  1. Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok | Wake County Libraries "Book a Day" Staff Pick Says:

    […] Jean Kwok’s novel is an enjoyable tale of finding your true calling, and how every “ugly duckling” has a swan inside them. Charlie’s life begins anew because of a new job, but also because she finds her confidence. As her life away from home improves, Charlie finds the strength to face her personal problems. If you like this novel, try Kwok’s first book: Girl in Translation. […]

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