Girl in Translation: The Lot of a Child Forced to Move

BlogHer Review

In her debut novel, Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok takes us on a moving journey that weaves the themes of family ties, culture shock and young love into a rich coming-of-age tapestry.

Raised only by her mother, Kimberly Chang’s father died when she was very young. A highly anticipated move from Hong Kong to the U.S. had been postponed several times due to her mother’s illness. Once recovered, and with the financial assistance and green card sponsorship provided by her Aunt Paula, Kim and her mother arrive in the strange, foreign world of Brooklyn, New York.

While Aunt Paula on the surface appears benevolent, we quickly realize that her kindness is borne purely of a sense of familial obligation. Thanks to Paula’s “generosity," Kim and her mother are truly on their own, the sole renters in an abandoned apartment building -- a hovel by anyone’s standards -- owned by Mr. N., the absentee proprietor of the clothing sweatshop where Kim and her mother work. By the time Paula deducts miscellaneous expenses from Ma’s pay, there is very little money left for the two to live on -- Kim calculates the cost of everything in terms of how many skirts she’d have to finish in order to pay for it.

I remember as a child moving with my family from England to Brazil. While my circumstances were much different than those of Kimberly Chang, I was struck by the beautiful and seemingly effortless way that Kwok captured the universal and naïve confusion that is the lot of a child forced to move from their familiar culture to one that is entirely different. Kwok’s writing evokes the aching, hollow pit inside that comes when you feel utterly alone, not knowing even the simplest of cultural protocols -- my own experience of referring to a pencil eraser as a rubber was eerily similar to Kim’s.

It is not often that I have visceral reactions to people’s writing. Many times throughout Girl in Translation, I felt a physical urge to reach out and smack the smug, oh-so-superior Aunt Paula right across the face, (with a couple of sharp jabs to the ribs of her son, Nelson, for good measure). I cringed reading how Mr. Bogart, her first American teacher, treated Kimberly with such disdain and suspicion. I wept for joy when Kim stood up to Paula in the office on the floor of the sweatshop. My heart pounded when she and the handsome, hardworking Matt, another factory worker’s son, were made to hide together in a restroom during a factory inspection. I cheered aloud after she passed a verbal science examination with flying colors.

We learn how Kim’s efforts and hard work pay off in an epilogue that frankly surprised me at first reading. Upon reflection, I came to realize that it was actually the perfect right wrap-up to Kim’s long journey. To have left us with a trite, “and they all lived happily ever after...” would have done a grave disservice the realistic struggles around which this excellent novel was framed. Life doesn’t typically pan out the way we expect it to. But that doesn’t mean that ultimately, we won’t find what we’re looking for.

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