Girl in Translation: An American Immigrant's Story

BlogHer Review

Having recently finished reading Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, I find myself wondering, What did I do after school when I was 11 years old?

We weren't rich, but we had a good home, and I had the luxury of a mom picking me up from school every day. I ate a snack and did homework. I might have watched a little TV. I read books. I enjoyed relaxing with my family.

The world of Kimberly Chang, the main character and narrator of Girl in Translation, is completely foreign to me. When she and her mother immigrated from Hong Kong to New York's Chinatown in the 1980s, 11-year-old Kimberly immediately began working in a sweatshop with her mother after school. As miserable as that was, it wasn't much better when they went home at night, to a drafty apartment with no heat and plenty of other residents (of the insect and rodent varieties.)

It might be easy to assume that since this is a work of fiction, it's not accurate. But according to her website Jean Kwok, "immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood." I'd say that's pretty reliable research.

At the beginning of Girl in Translation, I was worried that the book would be too depressing. It's genuinely sad to read about a small child going through these things. 

But as Kimberly grew, I ended up thoroughly enjoying reading about her friendships, her first love, and her scholastic pursuits. This isn't a comedy, but it certainly isn't a tragedy either. The terrible parts of Kimberly's childhood make each success sweeter. There's even a villain to root against as Kimberly and her mother fight to create a better life.

One part of the book did bother me. Reading the prologue (which takes place near the end of the book's timeline), I thought I knew how the book would end. This annoyed me -- I don't want to know the ending in advance! As I finished the book, I realized I'd drawn the wrong conclusions from the prologue. Again, I found myself annoyed, this time because of my inaccurate expectations. In my opinion, the book would be stronger without the prologue.

I stayed up late more than one night reading this book. I think the clock was almost at 1 a.m. as I finished it (over a week before my review deadline!) The reading was compelling, but my enjoyment went deeper than that. In being introduced to a world so totally different than my own, I developed a greater appreciation for the opportunities--and the disturbing realities--of America. For those reasons, I wholeheartedly recommend Girl in Translation.


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