Girl In Translation: We Have Much to Learn
The first three sentences of the prologue in Jean Kwok's novel Girl in Translation intrigued and hooked me. “I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school.” Instantly, I related to the protagonist, Kimberly, as I also have had a knack for school. Tests on their pristine paper copies, drawn-out lectures in stuffy classrooms, the smell of pencil shavings and new paper, the physical act of writing organized notes, and all those scholarly pursuits have always sucked me in to a haze of delight. As you can imagine, I’m sure, those things are not supported by most peers in school. As such, it was delightful to read a story about a character similarly drawn between the lure of education, learning, and knowing and the social or cultural world where such pursuits are not promoted and sought. That, however, was merely one part of the complex story in this novel.
The main topics presented in Ms. Kwok’s story are not topics that I am unfamiliar with as I came from a lower-income family, have been involved with social services as a client and as the provider, and am currently a foster parent. Some of these topics include immigration, extreme poverty, fear of receiving services, difficulty navigating between socioeconomic statuses, fear of the unknown, some men “needing to provide,” cultural differences, hunger, and lack of adequate shelter or clothing. I have touched the world that Ms. Kwok paints from both sides of the canvas. Ms. Kwok, probably unintentionally, reminded me of the proverb I’d heard throughout my childhood that the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. In this novel, Kimberly could not ever be referred to as a squeaky wheel. She lives out the life that was handed to her with grace. She is meek and well-behaved. Yet, she is desperately in need of some “grease” which she is lucky enough to receive in the guise of her accepting and compassionate friend, Annette.
Ultimately ever the quiet wheel, Kimberly is struggling in two worlds and she isn’t sure she really fits in either. She faces this struggle mostly alone as neither of the worlds represented by her mother or Annette could ever be merged so that both parties could understand both sides. The juxtaposition of the sweatshop, where Kimberly helps her mother after school so that they have just enough money to survive, and the school setting where Kimberly excels really helps to set up the double life that Kimberly is expected to lead. In one she embraces her heritage and her culture and in the other she is expected to “rise above” both. In one she has the love of her life and in the other she has the thing she uses desperately for some companionship. In one she is just another part in the crowd and in the other she is an individual above the crowd. In one resides her family and her friends and in the other is her future.
Kimberly wants to act as the bridge between the two worlds, bringing her love and her culture and her heritage and her friends and her family over to the world where she succeeds. Yet, the bridge is never completely constructed and Kimberly is left to stand on one side of the bridge ever gazing over at the other side with heartbreak and a sense of not being complete.
This heartbreak that Kimberly faces over and over throughout the book was sad, but it was not stunning. My one gripe with the novel is that the author had such a deep story to tell with so many emotions available, yet those emotions did not seem deeply tapped. Unlike the book I’d read just a few days before, a real heartbreaker that saw me sobbing with a tissue in hand throughout three-quarters of the novel, Girl In Translation didn’t have quite that effect. It was sad, it was moody, it highlighted struggle and grit, yet it still seemed as if it too was not quite complete. The bridge from my world to that of Kimberly seemed as if it was missing a few planks and some depth of emotion that I would expect. But, then, Kimberly is a quiet wheel and perhaps she wasn’t meant to show such depths of emotion. After all, she externally meekly accepts her fate (while working hard to change her circumstances) while I am much more of an abrasive and outgoing fighter. Perhaps my highs and lows are higher and lower than hers. The absence of severe emotion, the absence of vast anger at the situation, and the almost down-trodden acceptance of her lost-in-translation life perhaps was intentional.
The most memorable idea that this book left me with is that for some people, like Kimberly, some things just aren’t possible without intense struggle. Kimberly had to work very hard if she wanted to achieve her dream of getting her mother out of the sweatshop and denying her mother’s statement of, “Most people never leave this life” (p. 50). For some people, like Curt, some things are just handed to them without any struggle or desire; Curt didn’t want the opportunities that he’d been handed and instead wanted something else. For some people -- ones that don’t get noticed for an amazing talent (music, sports, learning ability) -- some things will never be possible no matter how hard they struggle unless they receive some outside intervention. Some of the children that Kimberly worked with at the sweatshop could struggle and work all they wanted and, like Kimberly mother’s stated, they never would have left that life.
As people who are often on the flip side of the children of the sweatshop -- home owners, college graduates, world-travelers -- it can be hard to understand why some people “stay down” and don’t “better themselves.” We think, “I did it! So can you!” when in reality that is not something that is easy and quite frankly, it is not something that is always available. Without someone to stand there and take stock of the child’s abilities and motivate them, provide for them, and advocate for them, some children will be lost in the cracks, lost in the translation, and not have all the privileges that we take for granted. Even more confusing, some people are perfectly happy where they are without all the “privileges” we have.
Whenever I ponder this subject, as Girl In Translation made me do, I am reminded of the Disney movie Pocahontas (not to be confused with history) in which she stares at John Smith with abject horror and follows it up with, “You think I’m an ignorant savage / And you’ve been so many places / I guess it must be so / But still I cannot see / If the savage one is me / How can there be so much that you don’t know?”
Like the movie The Blind Side, this story has ultimately reaffirmed the choices I’ve made in my life to try to support and advocate for children in my community. I could only hope that I can provide the needed assistance in my community for both the squeaky and the quiet wheels, because both require maintenance. Yet, my last thought as I concluded this novel is a life-long question spun off of Pocahontas’, “How do we learn more so that we do know?”