The Beauty and the Heartbreak in Girl in Translation

BlogHer Review

Ah-Kim lives a life that most of us cannot even begin to comprehend in the book, Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok. As I read the story of a young girl and her mother that immigrate to the United States, my eyes were opened to the horror of their lives in our country. They came to America for freedom and a better life. I’m not sure that they received either of those things. The poverty they found stripped their freedoms and led to a lifestyle no one would dare call “better.”

Kimberly Chang, as her American friends begin to call her, came to the U.S. as a young girl with her mother; her father had already passed away a few years before. This young, fragile family came to America with such hope that they could find a better life for themselves. Ah-Kim’s aunt, her mother’s sister, promised to house them and find them jobs and help as they came to the country. As the story unfolds, “Aunt Paula” does not have their best interest at heart and ends up being cruel to them in so many aspects.

Their living conditions in Chinatown were astounding. Horrible. Unbelievable. And yet, Aunt Paula insisted that they live a life of gratitude to her for finding them a place of their own. I found my anger towards Aunt Paula growing and growing by the end of this book. I knew that Ah-Kim’s mother felt helpless to get them away from her, she did not even speak English. But, I also found it so sad that there weren’t people around them that noticed the horror of what was happening in the factories and lives of immigrants here on our soil. Did no one notice how bad things were? Did no one care?

There are several things that I took away from this book… first of all, the fact that so many of us are truly BLESSED and take that for granted on a daily basis! I think this story challenges us to open our eyes to those living all around us who may be living very sad and broken lives. Sometimes we are so caught up in our own lives and our own “stuff” that we neglect to see that so many have it much worse than we do. And these people may not live halfway around the world in third world countries, they are likely in our own communities!

Another thing that I loved about this book was that it drew me into the mind and heart of someone with a completely different cultural perspective. So many of the things that Ah-Kim’s schoolmates, as Americans, found important just did not matter to her. Things like boys, make-up, and clothes were just not as valued to her as the education she was receiving. I know for myself, when I look back on high school, I see a bunch of kids trying to fit in, finding the most “in” clothing, trying to catch the attention of boys…and Kimberly teaches us that school doesn’t have to be about those things. It’s not that Kimberly didn’t care, it’s just that she was not raised in a country that placed so much emphasis on these things – so when she came to America, she was often puzzled by the importance that her classmates put on such things.

One of my favorite passages from this book goes like this:

“I had mostly lost my interest in make-up. It wasn’t that my looks didn’t concern me, because they did, but I just couldn’t fathom ever being popular or beautiful. I didn’t understand how all that worked. No matter what colors Annette put on my face, I realized I was still the same underneath.” p.190

Oh, if all of us could realize this as young adults!!

While this story was heartbreaking and hard to read in places because of the tragic lives Ah-Kim and her mother led, I really enjoyed this book. The story caught my attention and held it til the end…I kept reading and reading hoping for Ah-Kim and her mother to get out of the hole of poverty they lived in. I read on with hope…and realized that as much hope as I was feeling for this family in a fictional story, how much more hope we can be giving to those around us who are hurting.

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