Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation is a Tale of Triumph
A bedroom crawling with cockroaches and rats, New York winters without heat, the early death of her father, the struggle to keep up in school in her second language, and nights spent bagging dresses in a sweatshop. The challenges facing Girl in Translation's Kimberly (“Ah-Kim”) Chang are overwhelmingly difficult and had me sneaking in a few minutes of reading whenever I could to see how she and her mother were holding up.
One of the key themes of the book is intense longing. We’re told: "There's a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time... I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have." Kimberly yearns for academic success so she can better her family’s situation, along with acceptance by her peers and the love of her attractive co-worker Matt.
When she and her mom dreamed of coming to America, the “Golden Mountain,” they pictured a place filled with amazing sights like the “Liberty Goddess” and wonderful opportunities for them. Instead, they’re living in disgusting conditions and working in an illegally-run dress shop owned by their relatives.
After a rocky start in the American school system, Kimberly’s principal helps her apply for a full scholarship to a prestigious school. During the day, she astounds the school with her gifts for math and science; at night, she goes back to helping her mom in the sweatshop.
And after years of loving him from afar, a tragedy brings her and Matt together in what seems to be an absolutely blissful romance. You can’t help rooting for Kimberly to get everything her heart desires. And in a way, she does. But the question of whether or not those dreams will last or be replaced with new dreams is what makes this book impossible to put down!
Ultimately, this story is one of triumph: the triumph of a mother’s sacrificial love for her daughter. In the face of what could have been insurmountable obstacles, Kimberly’s mom perseveres to provide a home for her daughter in a country whose language and customs were unknown to her. As “mother and cub,” they take on the world together. And what started as one woman’s longing to provide her daughter a better life in America turns into the story of her daughter’s dreams coming true.