Girl In Translation Translates Well

BlogHer Review

I first read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok back in June last year. When I read it then, it wasn't for a book review, and it really made me focus on some of the struggles I had fitting in as a child, something Kim - the main character - struggles with daily, often not knowing why she isn't fitting in but just knowing she isn't.

The book focuses on Kim beginning at eleven years old as she immigrates to New York with her mother to live with her aunt's family. She quickly discovers that the life isn't quite what she'd expected, nor is her aunt. She struggles in school and out with fitting in and finding her place, as well as trying to help her mom work in the factory.

I really enjoyed Kwok's writing style, as I actually had to go look at her biography to ensure this book wasn't her biography. It was written in such an authentic voice, and the details fit so well. They tend to be things that I wouldn't think of myself but really add a lot to the story and characters, from Mrs. Chang bringing a Chinese specialty for Christmas to Kim's sixth grade teacher to the way dirt and grime build up on the bodies and machines in the garment factory where they work.

In the beginning, the book shows some of the conversations with words listed as "something" or putting the misunderstood words (for example, "get dough" instead of "ghetto") where Kim doesn't quite catch or understand them, helping me better feel the frustration she does of not fully knowing what's going on. Including this, along with the Chinese metaphors in the language -- fortunately with explanation each time -- immersed me into the book, so that I read 172 of the 307 pages without realizing it. Some of them make me giggle like describing Aunt Paula's real feelings and personality as her "black face" that she shows periodically when she loses control.

It's an interesting study in family dynamics, as Paula is the older sister of Kim's mother by 13 years, who moved to the United States after marrying an American-Chinese. She now manages a garment factory with her husband in addition to rental properties, and she's determined to always be the best, jealous of any who she feels threaten her. Needless to say, Kim quickly does. She -- and especially her mother -- are forced to deal with trying to achieve the American Dream while being held down by Aunt Paula as best she can.

The book feels to me as though it should have been written decades ago. It talks of people living illegally in tenements. It shows plainly children working in illegal factories for per piece wages (two cents per skirt until Kim works too quickly and the wage is reduced to one penny per finished skirt). And it shows the frustration and difficulty of learning the American system that comes so naturally to me because I was born here. None of it is done in a whining or pitying way. To her, it is what it is, and she's simply going to struggle to find a better way. And this takes place in the 1990s. It was really hard to wrap my head around that.

Life isn't always perfect, and early on she tries skipping school because of her inability to fit in with either the teacher or the students. Parts of the book make me cry for joy and in pain through various parts, and in an effort to not ruin the plot for you, I won't disclose why. I cheer for Kim's every struggle and triumph, and I want to shake her when I see her making a poor choice or misunderstanding a situation.

This is a book I thoroughly enjoyed the first time around. Reading it again, I was once again transported to a world of a girl struggling to fit into a new world where she has no control and is alien to all those around her. I enjoyed watching her grow and learn and seeing her figure things out, while always having a unique perspective about how some people's skin looks as though it's so thin it will tear to calculating the cost of everything in terms of the number of skirts it costs. It's a stark world and one I'm so glad I wasn't born to, though it frightens me to believe that it still exists here in America.

It's one that I am certain I will read again and will encourage my wee ones to read as they grow older and are able to digest it. It's a wonderfully written story, though not light beach reading by any stretch of the imagination! This is one that is definitely going on my bookshelf to stay.


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