Girl in Translation Earned My Admiration

BlogHer Review

I am just about the same age as is Jean Kwok, the author of Girl in Translation. And she and I both spent our preteen and teen years in New York City. But every day after school I came home to a comfortable apartment, where I did homework in my own bedroom, a room filled with books and toys and all manner of school supplies, and where at six or so every evening I was called to dinner, at which there was always enough food. More than enough. My mother always prepared for twice the number of people dining as there actually were. Jean Kwok? Or Kimberly, the name of her alter in Girl in Translation? After school every day she travels by subway to Chinatown to join her mother in her never-ending work at a sweatshop.

A sweatshop? Yes, you read that correctly. In an industrial building on Canal Street, Kimberly’s mother and Kimberly herself spend hours at a finishing station, taking garments just pressed by other workers and sorting, tagging, bagging, and hanging them. Kimberly’s mother is paid, shockingly little, by the piece. (Illegal? Yes.) So for years Kimberly uses the measure ‘number of skirts finished’ as a way to calculate the cost of common items: “…the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts.” (p. 61)

Kimberly and her mother (or Kwok and her mother; Girl in Translation is semi-autobiographical) are poorer than poor when they immigrate to New York City from Hong Kong. Kimberly’s mother believes that she and her daughter are going to live with Kimberly’s aunt in the suburbs but is quickly disabused of that notion. The aunt instead places them in a tenement in Brooklyn, an abandoned building without heat, and sends her own sister to work at a sweatshop she runs. Why? Because she can? Because she hates her younger sister, whom her own husband had originally chosen to be his bride? Her motivations are never entirely clear, but it seems that both of these reasons play parts.

The tenement’s windowpanes are broken, and mice, rats, and cockroaches are its only other tenants. One day Kimberly and her mother, who have endured a particularly brutal winter in New York City without any source of heat except the tiny bit generated by their oven, the door of which they’ve cracked open, spy a factory dumpster filled with plush fabric discards, the unused material in the making of stuffed animals. The fake fur fabric is lime green and scratchy. But it is warm, and they collect it up and bring it home. They sleep under it and make clothing and curtains from it. It is better than nothing. “We must have been a funny sight,” Kimberly says, “dressed up at home as two large stuffed animals, but we didn’t have the luxury of minding.” (p. 81)

In these unbearable living conditions, and working at the sweatshop every afternoon and evening, Kimberly, who had been first in her class in Hong Kong, manages to learn English and, surprisingly quickly, to excel in school. Eventually she is offered a full scholarship to a prestigious private school in Brooklyn, and then to Yale. Along the way she befriends Matt, a Chinese boy who works at the same sweatshop as she does, and Annette, a classmate of hers in public school. Annette is kind and makes school bearable for Kimberly. Matt is protective of her and, towards the end of the book, figures as a love interest.

The story is noteworthy as a tale of triumph over unbelievably challenging circumstances. Kwok tells it simply and honestly. Her writing is at its best when she details the perceived oddities and linguistic misinterpretations that define the experience of an immigrant child in Brooklyn. For example, as Kimberly learns English, she is mystified by certain words in the language, especially as pronounced by heavily accented Brooklyn natives. On her first day of school in America, the security guard stationed inside the entrance to the building tells her, “Go downda hall, two fights up, classroom’s firsdur left.” (p. 24) At least that’s what Kimberly hears the woman say.

Girl in Translation is an incredibly poignant read. Throughout I marveled at Kimberly’s/Kwok’s strength and resilience in the face of such trying environmental surroundings. Kwok’s prose is not always the most elegant, but it never gets in the way of the story, which is consistently riveting. Near the end of the book there is a plot twist that I found unnecessary and distracting, but this is a minor complaint. Girl in Translation is a compelling story, one well worth your time.



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