Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation has Great Classroom Potential

BlogHer Review

When I was teaching developmental English at Community College of Philadelphia, Girl in Translation just the kind of book I was looking for -- a clear narrative line, straightforward syntax, a manageable vocabulary, but with some complexity and which addressed real social issues. In short, I was always looking for a book that college students with weak reading skills could handle, but one which raised serious issues and introduced my students to a different world.

For many years, I was determined to teach challenging works and convinced that somehow I could make students fall in love with the books I had loved so much. We had some interesting discussions about issues raised in these books but when the narrative complexity was too great I failed miserably to engage students with the texts themselves. Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (my all time favorite authors) were just too much of a stretch.

Most of my community college students could handle the linguistic challenges of Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation and would be intellectually challenged by the issues the book raises. There’s one issue in particular which I think would resonate with my community college students: the extent to which educational aspirations can create distance from one’s partner. The novel’s central character, Kimberly Chang, realizes she has a choice between her educational goals and her relationship with her first love, who like her was from a struggling Chinese immigrant family. Over the years I saw young men -- particularly African-American men -- disappearing from my classes. My female students’ partners, were not pursuing higher education and many spoke of increased tension and growing distance from their partners.

The earlier chapters of the book in which Kwok describes Kimberly’s experience working in a sweatshop and living in extreme poverty were, for me, the most compelling. I found Kimberley’s adult relationships far less interesting -- perhaps because this was more familiar territory.

I found some of Kwok’s linguistic devices intended to convey the struggle of learning another language ineffective and distracting. When Kimberly had difficulty with a word Kwok used a garbled spelling intended to convey her confusion. One example:

Don't worry. We have a financial aid program. You are applying after the normal process has closed but I’m sure we can make an excession for you. Sometimes we offer up to fifty percent of twosheen costs.

The translation of Chinese expressions into English -- for example,“release your heart" for “don't worry” -- was much more effective than the use of garbled spelling and did provide a window into Chinese cultural traditions. In an interview with Danwei, Kwok described her linguistic choices:

One of the greatest compliments I’ve been given is when native Chinese speakers tell me what a pleasure it was to read the language, and how they had to chuckle at the Chinese expressions. Non-native speakers seem to love this experience too -- it’s like they can suddenly speak Chinese! However, my deeper goal was to show people how very difficult it is for a foreigner in a strange country. So many people are articulate and intelligent and funny in their own language, yet are judged as ignorant because they don’t speak the dominant language well.

In some ways the plot is a cliché: a young immigrant girl through talent and drive achieves the American dream, but pays a price in terms of distance form her cultural roots. However, although we may have read this story line many times before, the details are fresh and new -- all in all, an enjoyable read with great classroom potential. Old habits die hard: I just can’t seem to get over evaluating a novel in terms of how it would work in the classroom.

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