Girl in Translation: Learning to Live in Our New Countries

BlogHer Review

I wasn't sure what I was in for when I first opened the cover of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, a fictional coming-of-age account of a young Chinese girl who immigrates to America with her widowed mother.

I had a very basic understanding of Ms. Kwok's own personal background and once I started reading her book, I caught myself several times, having to remind myself that this wasn't Ms. Kwok's autobiography. However, I am left wondering, after reading such a beautiful and at times emotional account of young Kimberly's journey, how much of this book is art imitating life?

Ironically, I'm married to an immigrant. My husband, Gareth, is British and immigrated to the states in 2005. I myself immigrated to the United Kingdom after we were married in October of 2003. I am often ashamed to admit that I found the transition to life in the UK difficult at times. The United States had immersed itself in a war in Iraq and people in the UK and Europe either loved us or hated us. Most of the time I found myself running into people who hated Americans. As I read deeper and deeper into Girl in Translation I found myself able to empathize on a number of small points.

While young Kimberly had to learn an entirely new language, there were times during the years I lived in the UK when I felt like I was trying to adjust to a different type of English. Little did I know, all of those years I had been speaking "American English" while the British were speaking The Queen's English! I certainly found myself saying "Pardon me?" several times throughout the course of every day.

Where Kimberly and my own immigrant paths diverge is when it comes to family. My British in-laws embraced me and did everything within their power to help make my own "translation" into English life easier and more comfortable. However Kimberly's aunt Paula brought her sister and niece to to the United States from China with the promise of life spent with her caring for her children, while living in their comfortable apartment.

Instead, the self-interested aunt Paula moves them into a roach and rat infested apartment, where Kimberly and her mother spend a lot of time devising ways to keep the non-human inhabitants of their squalid apartment at bay.

Aunt Paula employs Kimberly and her mother, not in her own home, but at the sweatshop in Brooklyn, New York, that she manages.

Ms. Kwok deftly weaves the story of how Kimberly shines in school and excels, albeit with a bit of difficulty in the beginning, at everything academic, while still trying to help her mother complete her quota of work at the factory, often very late into the night. There were several times while I read the book that I felt foolish for ever crying onto my new husband's shoulder back in the early days of our marriage. The main source of my frustration was that I didn't think I'd ever master learning how to drive on the left side of the road in the UK, much less master the operation of a motor vehicle where everything inside the car was on the opposite side to how I was raised and had been accustomed to for the last 34 years.

Kimberly has to learn an entirely new language and try to make her own rigid Chinese culture mesh with the looser more liberal American culture in order to fit in. Her mother, while very strict and centered on family and honor, is not the typical "Tiger Mother" I was expecting. She does at times bend enough to allow Kimberly the freedom to fit in with her peers.

Throughout the book Kimberly forms a close friendship -- what most young American girls would term a "bestie" with young Annette, which allows her interesting glimpses into the life of privileged and wealthy Americans. She continues to excel through her high school years which are spent in a prestigious private school in New York City, all the while spending many a late night spent helping her mother in the dusty, hot and humid sweatshop. Kimberly forgoes many typical American teenage social events so that she can help her mother put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

While the book moves swiftly through the lives of Kimberly and her mother, shedding light on life spent working on a sweatshop factory, Kimberly's academic pursuits and wins, then Kimberly's minor and major romances, I was a bit disappointed that there was not more of a compare and contrast between life here in the United States versus that of life in China.

I would have appreciated a more in depth look at life in China and what would have made Kimberly and her mother jump at the chance to move to the United States? I don't think I quite understood the impetus to move, aside from Kimberly's mother feeling like it was her duty to help her sister, Paula. Their life in China seemed to hold more comfort and honor. Although, at the end of the book, without spoiling the end for you, Kimberly travels a long and at times very difficult road to honor her mother, despite the hardship and heartbreak she goes through, to do so. In the end, most of all, she honors her own vision of herself.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Girl in Translation if you're looking for a quick, but compelling and emotionally satisfying read. It offers a unique view into the lives of immigrants who come to this country with the expectation of easily making their way into the largess of American society but find the reality of what awaits them quite different.

Where to Buy Girl in Translation