Love, Sacrifice and Faith in Girl in Translation

BlogHer Review

What started off as one of those “pick-it-up-and-just-read-the-prologue-to-get-a-feel-for-this-new-author” cursory glance, very easily morphed into this “can’t-read-just-the-prologue; can't-put-it-down; forget-everything-else" kind of reads.


I dropped everything to finish this book and the review wasn't even due for another two weeks.

It was that good.

At age five, the author of Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok moved with her family from Hong Kong to a New York City slum. Now a Harvard-educated mom, she has beautifully woven some of her experiences into this part fairy tale, part autobiography.

Kwok is a natural storyteller and cleverly places you right inside 12-year-old Kimberly Chang’s shoes. Instantly you are transformed into experiencing this young girl’s struggle - making a place for herself in America while having to tame the clash of two very different cultures.

As a second generation Korean-American, I really appreciate the way Kwok is able to easily portray the social mores of the Asian culture and how it is so difficult to, as a young girl growing up in America, live in both worlds.

When Kimberly cannot tell her best and only friend, Annette, where she lives in fear that one day she will show up ...I get that.

And when Kimberly makes up excuses as to why she can’t attend something that she’s been invited to because she already knows her mother will say, ‘no’ ...I get that.

One of the lines that most resonated with the teenager within me (who just so happened to find a way to wiggle out of her cave via this story) was this one:

“We were assigned to work in pairs to build a diorama depicting ‘some of the basic skills of conflict resolution.’ Of course, Annette and I decided to work together, and this meant I had to go to her house one day. Ma didn’t want me to socialize too much, but any sort of school assignment was sacrosanct, and so I was given permission to go.”

For Kim, education works as a double escape from both the restrictive social rules of a strict Asian culture and from the ghetto that she is so tragically bound to. Kim is determined to survive and to succeed and to help her mother escape the oppressive control that Aunt Paula seems to have on their lives. She realizes that her talent - her knack for learning - is the key to their freedom.

I really love and appreciate how this book allowed me to reflect on my very own coming of age story. It allowed me to see and understand more completely my own Asian-American translation. To come to terms with it, and to embrace it.

Perhaps the hardest part of the novel to understand is how Kim and her Ma were able to live in such squalor for such a long period of time. At times I found myself wondering how much of this part fairy tale, part autobiography was REAL? How much did Kwok embellish and how much of it was true? It's hard to imagine anyone living amongst roaches and rats... in conditions that basically render them homeless, yet lucky enough to have a roof over their heads. Is there really a scorned enough sister out there who could be vindictive enough to relegate her own sister to such conditions? Does she exist?

The light that shines in this darkened tale of endless struggle is that underneath all the complexity? There lies a simple and beauty full love story.

One certainly doesn't have to be Asian (or part Asian) to appreciate the story's themes of love, sacrifice and faith. Kimberly Chang’s hard choices and determination will resonate with anyone who has sacrificed for a dream. The lesson that every choice comes at the expense of something else is a universal one that reverberates in any language.

You'll fall in love with Kim's intelligence, simplicity and honesty and admire her sense of honor and duty. The best part of the novel is that it will make you cheer (out loud) for her triumph. And triumph she does!

A beautifully woven together tapestry on American immigration - tragic, yet delightful. Desolate, yet uplifting. Profoundly effective.


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