Girl in Translation: Was She Selfish? (Major Spoilers!)

BlogHer Review

I enjoyed the book Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.

On the surface, this is a story about immigrants that arrive in the US in search of a better life.

But it goes much deeper than that.

It is about the intricate dance between two cultures -- Chinese and American.

It is about inner strength.

It is about choices.

***Spoiler Alert***

Kimberly (11 years old) and her widowed mother arrive in America due to the "goodwill" of her aunt -- Aunt Paula.

But her aunt is very jealous of her younger sister.

She finds them a roach and rat infested apartment in New York City in which to live. There is no heat.

And she sentences them to a laborious life working in her clothing factory.

The factory is an unethical sweatshop. It employs children and pays wages by piece completed -- not by the hour.

Quotas need to be met, no matter how long it takes.

Through some twisted reason, perhaps to save face -- her aunt enrolls Kimberly in a public school in a slightly better part of town.

At first Kimberly does not speak a word of English and has a very hard time adjusting. But she is a natural born scholar and as time passes her talent begins to shine through.

After school she would go to the factory and work late into the night helping her mother meet the quota so they could survive.

It is at the factory as a child that she meets the love of her life -- Matt.

The years pass.

Kimberly manages to win a full scholarship to an elite and private high school -- thus fueling more jealousy from Aunt Paula.

Throughout all of this Kimberly has more "growing pains" -- trouble adjusting and fitting in. All the while trying to keep their squalid home life a secret from her teachers and peers in deference to her mother's sense of honor, pride, and fear.

Upon graduation from high school -- Kimberly has scored a full scholarship at Yale University. Their future is set, secure.

But then, due to one tryst with Matt, Kimberly finds out that she is pregnant.

What will become of her future? What choices will she make?

In the end -- she doesn't tell Matt about the pregnancy. She cannot bear the thought of her child growing up in the factories like she did. And Kimberly is so bright -- she knows she would not be happy being "just" Matt's wife and mother of his children.

She leaves him.

She moves on to become a doctor -- but she has the baby -- a boy -- and raises him on her own, with her mother's help.

Twelve years later she sees Matt again. He is married to his girlfriend from the factory days -- with one child and one on the way.

They talk. They say goodbye.

He never learns of his son.

When I finished this book -- I felt a bit of disbelief and sadness.

Kimberly and her mother lived in inhumane conditions for seven years. During this time they never strongly attempted to free themselves of this situation. Kimberly's mother felt and owed (monetarily) a certain debt to Aunt Paula. And she honored her responsibility. Maybe I live in a gilded cage -- but it is almost unbelievable that anyone could endure those conditions for so long. I know that I wouldn't have lasted one night.

There was a beautiful passage in the beginning of the book that said:

"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. Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown."

You might argue that Kimberly is the strong one -- forging her way in America. And her mother the weak just following along. But you could also say that it takes more strength to endure and fulfill an unpleasant obligation than it does to move on.

And the sadness?

I couldn't help feeling that Kimberly was selfish in her decision to exclude Matt from her life.

I absolutely think she made the right and ONLY decision -- to attend Yale and use her incredible mind.

But she should have given him the choice to join her on the journey.

She should have told him about the baby.

Instead -- she condemned him to a life of hard labor. She condemned herself to a life without her love. And she condemned her son to a life without his father.

I love a happily ever after -- and this one was only bittersweet.

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