Girl in Translation: What would I sacrifice for a better life?

BlogHer Review

The first time I read the summary of Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok, I knew immediately that it was a book that I wanted to read. Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly, an 11-year-old girl who emigrates from Hong Kong with her mother, in the hopes of finding a better life in the United States. Things in the United States aren’t quite what she and her mom dreamed of, however, and the two soon find themselves living in a horrible, vermin-infested apartment in a country where they barely speak the language, and working in a clothing sweatshop for an incredibly meager income. Their only hope of escape from this life of poverty is Kimberly's incredible intelligence and determination to work hard and succeed, whatever the cost.

My main reason for choosing to review Girl in Translation was because my husband’s family is actually from Hong Kong and immigrated to North America when he was young. Since the immigrant experience is such a different one than what I, as a middle class suburban kid experienced, I’m always interested in books that give me some insight into this very different world. In a strange bit of timing, Girl in Translation actually showed up on my doorstep the day before we left to visit Daniel’s family, so I found myself reading it while surrounded by his Cantonese-speaking immigrant family.

Jean Kwok is amazingly gifted at bringing the reader into the world that she is describing. Ms. Kwok herself is an immigrant who worked in a sweatshop as a child, and this makes the book and the situations that she describes seem very real. I loved this book and barely set it down from the time I started it until the time I was finished with it.

For me, there was one scene in the book that really summed up the whole story. It was an interaction between the main character, Kimberly, and her middle-class Caucasian best friend, Annette. Kimberly confesses to Annette that she works in a garment factory after school with her mother and Annette goes home and tells her father, who informs her that kids don’t work in factories in America. When I think of immigrants facing horrible living and work situations, I often immediately think about historical immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and forget that too often these tough situations are unfortunately still a reality.

The main thing that really struck me while I read Girl in Translation was the strong story of sacrifice for a better life. Both the mother in this story and Kimberly herself give up almost everything to fight for this “better life” through incredibly hard work and seizing every opportunity that is given to them. I found the message of sacrifice and determination in Girl in Translation to be very thought-provoking. While I was reading this book, I constantly found myself stopping to think about all the opportunities that I take for granted in my own life, and about what exactly I would be willing to sacrifice for my family to have a better life.

In addition to the main story of Kimberly’s adjustment to life in the United States and fight to escape poverty, there’s a sweet love story in this novel as well, between Kimberly and another factory worker named Matt. Although the ending of this book is very bittersweet, I thought it was very true to the characters and their stories. It’s not a Hollywood ending, but it’s a realistic and still pleasing one. This is an amazing book that I would recommend to anyone who loves great fiction, who wants a glimpse into a modern immigrant's experience, and who wants a good story of triumph over amazing odds.


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