Girl in Translation Will Transport You [Spoilers!]

BlogHer Review

Opening up Jean Kwok Girl in Translation was like stepping onto a moving walkway at the airport and jogging. From the first page I was transported rapidly into the world of Kimberly Chang’s life as a Chinese immigrant in New York City and the story flowed. Kwok’s vivid descriptions of the conditions of the apartment and the garment factory in which Kimberly and her mother lived and worked left me freezing and paranoid about imaginary roaches, and sweltering and choking on dust, in turns.

Kwok’s characters were easy to empathize with and the book soared at such a pace, but sometimes I just wanted to reach into the book and shake Kimberly and her mother. Tell them, “It doesn’t have to be this way! Let go of just a wee bit of your pride! Tell someone! Let someone help you!”

Each time I started to think this, however, I realized time and again just how easy my own life has been! As a white, middle-class girl, I have heard about the hardship of those who’ve immigrated to America, but reading the words on the page I was struck again and again by the sheer difficulty -- horror, really -- of the Chang family’s situation.

The dichotomy between the worlds in which Kimberly Chang was meant to traverse was palpable. When Kimberly walks into the library at her private school for the first time, you can almost feel her relief at having a warm place surrounded by so many books, but there is a seemingly innocuous scene when Kimberly visits Annette’s house for the first time that struck me even more. When Kwok describes the conditions of Annette’s dog’s life as the pup lounges on the couch, the ease, contentedness, and food- and warmth-rich life of that dog feels almost like a slap in Kimberly’s face. Not, mind you, that she acknowledges it!

Spoiler alert!

I can never fully understand the life of a Chinese immigrant, or their sense of pride and honor, because I have lived a relative life of ease. When faced with my own injustices, I have fought. I, however, have had much in my life and little to lose. While I was often frustrated with Kimberly and her mother for not reaching out, and for not ditching that old Aunt Paula even before their debts were paid, it also left me feeling proud for the Changs that they could keep their heads held high when they left Aunt Paula’s factory and apartment with their debts paid and their lives on track. I also found myself thinking that this is a book that should be in the high school curriculum. It is evocative and informative and every teenager and young adult should know about the trials and triumphs of those who come to America.

Kwok doesn’t delve too deeply -- or much at all -- into the psychological aspects of what this dichotomous life has meant for she and her mother, but I think, in leaving that out, Kwok has truly captured a bit of Kimberly’s and her mother’s spirit. They are not the sort to feel sorry for themselves. They do not seem like folks who dwell luxuriously on things. Thinking is bougie! Not to mention, they didn’t have the time! The Chang family is made up of women who act, they don’t hem and haw and they don’t dwell. In the end, Kimberly allows herself but a few moments to think about the decisions she made in life, but! Let’s talk about that ending!

My word, Ms. Kwok!

The epilogue transported me yet again. I could feel the emotion so deeply, of such a secret, of such hard work, of giving up such great love! There is regret, but there is a comfort, too, for Kimberly, in knowing that she made decisions that would allow she and her beloved Matt to live lives close to the ones they wanted to lead. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but in the end, I think the decision took away some of pain.

When I came to the end of the epilogue, I both wanted the book to end so I could stop feeling so deeply, and wanted it to go on forever. Well played!

Where to Buy Girl in Translation

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