Brains are Beautiful! I Wish I'd Read Girl in Translation When I was 12

BlogHer Review
Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation really put life in perspective for me. There is so much we take for granted in our lives that others cannot achieve without major hardship and labor.

The main character, a young Chinese girl named Kimberly from Hong Kong, immigrates to America with her musician mother and finds herself living in a condemned project building and working with her mother in a Chinatown sweatshop in order to eek out a meager living. Desperate to use her brain to make life better, she works hard at her studies while also leading a secret life, unable to share or relate to friends at school.

If I’d read this as a pre-teen or even a teenager, I think it would have helped remind me to appreciate what I had and to work even harder for what I didn’t.

What really stood out about Kimberly’s story was how much she was stuck in the middle. She was a child but treated as an adult having to help her mother support the family. Stuck in the middle, leading a secret life in squalor and backbreaking child labor, unable to stand up for herself and her mother against inhumane conditions. She was in the middle of two cultures, often having trouble making her mother understand the differences in this country compared to the traditions in Hong Kong. Understanding her teachers’ English is a huge challenge as she begins education in America. This child, young and foreign, had so much to overcome and yet she did -- with incredible attitude and perseverance. And, she uses her brains and heart to do it all.

One of my favorite parts of the story? The Chinese colloquialisms scattered throughout that Kimberly translated for us. I learned that someone who has to “find the rice” is someone who “earns the money.” In other words, someone who has to find the rice brings home the bacon, so to speak. She also measured everything in how many skirts she had to finish to make up the cost. The subway to and from the factory cost “100 skirts” and a hot dog was “50 skirts.” Those figures really put the heart-breaking 125 skirts an hour (1.2 cents a skirt) her mother was paid to complete into perspective. That’s a level of poverty most of us aren’t familiar with, and it made me want to jump through the pages and swoop her out of that situation.

This was a fabulous read. The biggest message I took away from Girl in Translation? “Brains are beautiful” and it pays to have “one big gall bladder.”


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