Girl in Translation: Exploring a New Culture

BlogHer Review

When I read the description of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, I was instantly intrigued and eagerly anticipated its arrival at my house.

Girl in Translation landed on my doorstep on a Friday and I finished reading it, while entertaining house guests, on Saturday evening. Girl in Translation sucked me in. And wouldn't let me go. I love books like that.

Girl in Translation tells the story of a girl and her mother who immigrate to the US from Hong Kong. Kimberly's aunt arranges a job for her mother and an apartment for the two of them to stay in. When they arrive in the US, they have a few meager possessions and a mountain of debt owed to Kimberly's aunt, who arranged for their immigration.

Kimberly's aunt sets them up in an apartment that turns out to be barely livable. The job that has been arranged for Kimberly's mother is in a sweatshop run by Kimberly's aunt and uncle. The work is intense and demanding, so much so that Kimberly takes to helping her mother after school to ensure the work is completed in a timely manner.

And so it goes, Kimberly struggling to learn in a foreign country and a foreign language and then after school, helping her mother eke a living under the most dire of circumstances.

But, for as horrible as their situation was, the story still manages to be upbeat and positive. Kimberly begins to succeed in school, overcoming the language and cultural barriers and slowly makes a few friends. But she never shares with them the difficulties of her home life, and brushes off their requests for her phone number with excuses as to why she's not allowed to use the phone, instead of admitting that her family is too poor to afford a phone.

There were so many things about this book that fascinated me. I come from an upper-middle class family and the idea that some people are immigrating to the US and working in sweatshops is completely foreign to me. I had never even considered that such a thing might still occur, especially given the labor laws enacted here.

Another interesting aspect of Girl in Translation was Kimberly's description of some of her cultural mores. Things like she was taught never to touch someone without their permission, or that food should always be hot. Her description of her struggles and concerns about gym class were another one. She was taught that she should always keep her legs together and not run around. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what her gym teachers were encouraging. I really enjoyed the glimpse into the teachings and beliefs of another culture.

As the book drew to a close, I was really rooting for Kimberly's success. She seemed to have made it through the worst of her trials and I was so hopeful that she would be truly successful in her new life in the US.

I've frequently heard that writers should write what they know and clearly Jean Kwok, who immigrated to the US from Hong Kong as a child and worked in a sweatshop with her family, knows this story. The writing rang very true with me. I could very much sense that Kimberly was a real person with real hopes and dreams. I think that's a large part of what made this book so enjoyable for me to read.

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