Girl in Translation: An eye-opening immigrant experience

BlogHer Review

Reading Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation briefly took me back to high school, almost 20 years ago (!!), when it seemed like a large percentage of the top students in my multi-ethnic graduating class were Asian. I never understood why this was -- they seemed so much more focused than the rest of us, a lot of the time, so much more driven and determined to excel than almost everyone else. I had accelerated and advanced classes with many of these students, and sometimes our extracurricular activities would overlap, but this "why" wasn't something that came up in general conversation, and I never really got a chance to know many of them very well because they always seemed so busy.

Now after reading this novel, I wonder if this is because so much of their "spare" time was spent rescuing their parents from indentured servitude.

I know that Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation is a work of fiction, but I can't help wondering where the lines between the author and her narrator, Kimberly Chang, overlap. The author herself, as well as her character, emigrated from Hong Kong, lived in crummy roach-infested apartments, worked in sweatshops, excelled in school and used that to save their families and themselves from lives of certain misery. Kwok's story is very similar to Chang's -- where is the point where the real story ends and the fiction begins?

This is ultimately where I have my problem with the novel. It is extremely well written, but I kept finding myself wondering what was true and what was made up. It made the narrator seem unreliable, like the author was trying to change the truth about her own life, somehow. Kwok's actual life story seems interesting enough on its own, and I wonder about some of the fictionalized parts of the story -- I would have found stories about the assorted part-time jobs that Kimberly held to pay her way through school to be more interesting than the primary romantic entanglement and the end result of that relationship. I would have loved to have read more about Kimberly's evolving relationship with her relatives and developing relationship with her best friend and the friend's family.

Ultimately, though, I did find this to be an engaging novel, and it gave me a different perspective on what it might mean to be a Chinese in America, and what academic success might mean for so many emigrants. It also made me reconsider -- and even regret -- my relationship with Chinese students that I knew in high school, and I wish that I had known them better, because their stories might be more interesting than I ever considered them to be.

Where to Buy Girl in Translation


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