Girl in Translation: No Ordinary Coming of Age Story

BlogHer Review

I so enjoyed reading Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation, even though the book twisted my heartstrings at nearly every turn. It’s the story of a young girl who moves with her mother from Hong Kong to New York on the promise of a new life. When things don’t pan out as expected, Kimberly and her mother are forced into what I’m pretty sure qualifies as indentured servitude at a sweatshop.

Kimberly’s grasp of English when she arrives in the United States is functional but limited. It’s enough for her to navigate her daily existence -- which forces her into looking after her mother's interests in many situations -- but it isn’t really enough for the girl to fully integrate into her new surroundings immediately. Kwok expresses Kimberly’s frustration and confusion by using the language as Kimberly understands it rather than what’s actually being said. For example:

After lunch, Mr. Bogart gave out pieces of paper with a drawing of a map.

“This is a pop quick,” he said. “Fill in allde capital see T’s.”

I read things like that, and I think "Oh! So this is what your friendly neighborhood writing instructors mean by that 'show, don't tell' thing. It's simple and elegant and so effective. It was the first of many places where Kwok made me feel how disorienting and uncomfortable life can be for an immigrant.

But poor Kimberly's “translation” troubles don’t end with language. Think about all those things that made being a teenager difficult. Things like navigating friendships, knowing just what to wear (or what not to wear) and figuring out how to talk to boys. Now multiply that by My Clothes Are Made Out of Scrap Fabric and add My Apartment is Frigid and Infested With Rats. That is the life young Kimberly faces.

And despite all of the injury and injustice life heaps on her, she keeps her head down and moves right along. Kwok has created such a sympathetic and inspiring character in Kimberly. I couldn’t stop cheering for the kid, and I can't wait to see what Kwok will write next.


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