This Girl in Translation is an Immigrant Superhero
Jean Kwok's debut novel, Girl in Translation, offers a hard and heart-breaking look at an immigrant experience. When a young Chinese girl and her mother come to America hoping for a better life, they're dismayed by the conditions that greet them, but are determined and resourceful enough to make the best of their terrible situation. That this work of fiction is somewhat based on the author's own first years in this country makes the story even more personal and emotional.
The young protagonist, 11-year-old Kimberly Chang, and her mother move to New York under the wing of Mrs. Chang's older sister. Financially obligated to Aunt Paula and her husband, Kim and her mother work at one of the New York sweatshops managed by Uncle Bob -- the environment is hot, loud, and dangerous -- not to mention illegally employing dozens of workers.
Their home life is no more comfortable; Mrs. Chang and Kim live in a condemned building, sharing the two tiny rooms with mice and cockroaches, bereft of heat in the winter and of fresh cool air in the summer.
Kim is smart -- super smart -- able to grasp complex math concepts almost immediately. She soon learns that being smart isn't enough; she needs the right language, the right clothes, and the right address in order to avoid teasing and outright bullying by classmates and teachers.
I was so angry at Aunt Paula, Kim's classmates, and, in general at a society that would allow this kind of suffering. Due to the emotion it evokes, Girl in Translation would make a great book club pick; possible discussion topics include the immigrant experience, language and cultural barriers, bullying, and the gap between the "have's and the “have not's."
Kwok's personal experience as a immigrant from Hong Kong working in a New York sweatshop certainly added believable and shockingly accurate detail to the story. In addition, she uses two clever styling conventions to bring the reader into the Changs' world via language. In the first half of the book Kim gives an italicized phonetic spelling for words or phrases that she hears but does not understand. “I presume” becomes “eye-prezoom” and “ghetto” becomes “get dough.” This really underscores the struggles a non-native speaker has with our language -- even someone as smart and quick as Kim falters with our many idioms and inflections.
Later in the book, Kwok reverses this trend by peppering the Chinese speakers' dialogue with their native idioms, which Kim translates for the reader. Her mother says “I wouldn't want to be a lightbulb” when invited to take a walk with a courting couple. This, Kim explains, means that she would be a chaperone illuminating the couple's intention, like a lightbulb in a dark room. I appreciated both the smooth way these Chinese expressions were inserted into the text, and that I learned some interesting phrases.
Kwok magnificently balances the two worlds that Kim inhabits -- she's like a super-hero, straddling the Chinatown sweatshop world she lives in with her mother, alongside the high-achieving student environment. It's a delicate dance Kim performs, trying to meet her obligations in both worlds while making sure that these two selves don't collide. It was only toward the end of the book that I felt the dance a little rushed; compressing a dozen years into 20 pages, the epilogue lacked those details which made the rest of the novel so strong. Overall, I enjoyed Girl in Translation and will recommend it, with the caveat that I wasn't completely satisfied with the ending … perhaps another good topic for a book group discussion!