Girl in Translation: Surviving to Find the American Dream

BlogHer Review

Jean Kwok's book Girl in Translation made me lose a night’s sleep. I stayed up all night, despite exhaustion, to finish the story of Kimberly, a young immigrant who had to move mountains to survive this crazy place called the USA. While I realize this book is a work of fiction, I can’t help but wonder how much of it was based upon the author’s personal or firsthand experiences with immigration, assimilation and poverty. The story read like a journal article out of a news magazine. The depth of character development just sucked me in to the story and made me not able to put it down.

I am a second generation American. My grandparents, three out of four of them, immigrated to the United States from Germany. I often think about what they gave up, what they dealt with and how they had the courage to make such a drastic change in their lives, all in the hope of the American Dream. The lead character in Girl in Translation, Kimberly, leaves her life behind in Hong Kong to come to America with her mother with hopes of a brighter future. She is at a very transitional age and enters the sixth grade speaking basic English in Brooklyn, not knowing or understanding the colloquialisms of the region. Her transition into American culture, with so many roadblocks, was fascinating to me. Her teacher’s lack of empathy for her situation seemed plausible. Thankfully Kimberly met another girl, Annette, who helped her learn a bit about American culture and became her first non-Chinese friend.

Kimberly and her mother are helped by "mother’s sister," a woman who on the surface seems to care about them, but her underlying anger and eventual jealousy interfere with her ability to truly provide support for them. She leaves them to live in squalor conditions and working for pennies in a sweatshop. I was moved by the conditions of the factory within which Kimberly’s mother, along with Kimberly, dealt with at work. It made me think about the garment industry in America and wonder how true the conditions depicted in this story really are. Coincidentally, the day after I finished this book, I read an article about the Olsen twin’s high-end clothing line that is made predominantly in America, specifically in the New York garment district. Could conditions really still be as terrible as the author described them?

Kimberly manages to survive what seems to be impossible conditions, between earning outstanding grades in school, working late at night helping her mother finish her job and living in a condemned apartment. These extremes seemed almost implausible, yet I can’t help but wonder how true those hardships are for the many Americans living with poverty. Despite living with what most American children would consider horrible, Kimberly’s relationship with her mother remains strong and respectful. The bond they share throughout the story was beautiful.

Without spoiling the ending, which was a bit surprising to me, Kimberly is a survivor and an achiever. She overcomes tremendous hardships and becomes a successful adult. I finished this book feeling happy that it concluded the way it did, wrapping up the story nicely. Kimberly was able to live the American dream, and help her mother enjoy it too.

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