Jean Kwok Gives the Stereotypical Immigrant Story a Frank, New Twist (SPOILERS)
Kimberly Chang, the main character in Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok knows who she is. She comprehends her immigrant status, understands her veil of poverty, and openly flounders in a distinctly Western world as an average Chinese immigrant. And yet, there is something intriguingly different about Kimberly.
In Girl in Translation, Kwok takes us into the life of an immigrant from Hong Kong. Kimberly comes to New York City for a better life, only to be sucked into a system of inept education, illegal child labor, and misconstrued moral values -- leaving her and her mother destitute and fighting to even reach the first step in the so-called American dream.
The novel takes us through Kimberly's life from the fifth grade, when she arrives in America, to adulthood, when she experiences a buffet of horrifically honest yet stereotypical experiences as a poor, factory worker's daughter with no means and no way to fight against her condemned living conditions, her illegal wages, and her lazy, amoral American teacher, Mr. Bogart.
While the experiences almost seem predictable -- a Chinese immigrant moves to Chinatown and works under inhumane conditions in a garment sweatshop earning below minimum wage -- the supporting characters give this book a distinct taste of authenticity and interest.
There is Kimberly's widowed mother, whose unfailing love leads her to run her oven 24-7 in an effort to keep her daughter warm in their unheated apartment. She spends her meager earnings on a real bra for Kimberly, so she won't be embarrassed changing for gym class. She stands behind her daughter's aspirations, even when she knows they'll make their caretaker -- her jealous, mean-spirited sister, Aunt Paula -- irate enough to endanger her factory job, the only means she has of caring for her child.
Then there's Annette, Kimberly's well-off, Caucasian classmate, who befriends her despite their initial language barrier. Annette goes on to break down additional barriers that Kimberly herself erects to protect her only American friend from ever realizing how desperate the Changs' life really is.
These two characters help lend surprise to what would otherwise be a typical story of Girl vs. The Strange City.
Annette shows loyalty when you expect other teenage girls to turn tail and run, staying by Kimberly's side through a snobby, preparatory high-school, where everyone is richer, prettier, and cooler than Kimberly.
Kimberly's mother shows compassion, even when you expect her to take a hard-line approach with her daughter, who, despite her unfailing and successful efforts to conquer the American academic system, still almost comes up short after making a mistake with the young love of her life.
These characters help us understand Kimberly and her drive. They let us see why she continues to go to a school where every word is delivered in a language she doesn't understand. They give Kimberly a reason to keep studying in her cold, decrepit apartment, despite the cold, decrepit environment she receives from the public education system she also doesn't understand.
And they show us why, despite her best intentions, Kimberly can't give up on a teenage pregnancy, even though she ends up complicating her life as a undergraduate student at Yale and a medical student at Harvard.
It's a surprising end to a rags-to-riches story: An immigrant girl fights her way up through the educational system against all odds and continues on to become a surgeon, even while raising her son with the assistance of her mother and not the child's father -- Kimberly's true love and the one distraction she allowed herself in all her years living in a city that bore promise but delivered desperation.
Unfortunately, thanks to the plethora of details in the first half of the book about immigrant life, author Kwok seems to bury the details of Kimberly's budding and misguided sexuality.
For example, Kwok slips in the fact that Kimberly seeks companionship by “fooling around” with boys she openly admits she has no feelings for. Kimberly then develops a relationship with the well-off son of two editors, Curt, whom she jokingly admits she uses "for his body.” And, ultimately, the teenage Kimberly seems to haphazardly let her guard slip by conceiving her son with her teenage love, Matt.
Initially, these details are delivered as if they really aren't that important to the plot line, especially as Kimberly arises and attains success and status via scholarships, academic prestige, and citizenship.
But then, they end up shaping her entire world in the end, as she and she alone must carry the burden of caring for her mother, son, and self -- something she almost seems resigned to, leaving the book's ending feeling a bit anti-climatic.
Still, the story is a good one and a quick, easy read. It's hopeful and inspirational and, sometimes, surprisingly frank when it comes to the shortcomings of a system that many immigrants have fought through.
Luckily, Kimberly Chang survives. And Jean Kwok, herself an immigrant from Hong Kong, like her main character, is able to insightfully tell that tale.