"Nobody in America Lives Like This," Except They Do
Jean Kwok Girl in Translation is fiction, but clearly there are characters and incidents drawn from her own childhood. The main character, Kimberly Chang, is a new immigrant from Hong Kong who works in a sweatshop -- much like Kwok as a child. Kimberly's one big talent is that she has "a knack for school." Over the course of the book, we see her grow from a shy 6th grader who can barely speak English to an self-assured young woman.
It's easy to overlook the fact that Kimberly and her mother were for all practical purposes the victims of trafficking. Ma and Kimberly arrive in New York City legally, but deeply in debt to Ma's older sister. While she had been promised a position as a live-in nanny and music teacher to her sister's children, they both end up living in a condemned apartment and working for pennies an item processing clothing in a sweatshop. Their boss and their landlord, of course, was none other than Ma's sister. Nor was it possible for Ma to find another job, despite having a Green Card and being in this nation legally. Since she only spoke a few phrases of English, she was limited to work in Chinatown. It's as if she were completely insulated from the "land of opportunity."
Their living conditions reflected a poverty that most of us can't comprehend: a vermin infested apartment in the ghetto, with broken windows and no heat. In a hilarious but sad scene near the end, Kimberly's best friend Annette manages to get in. She exclaims "Nobody in America lives like this!" Kimberly objects that yes, they do, but Annette points out "Your soy sauce has iced over! And there's a roach drinking from it!"
Annette -- and most of the Non-Chinese characters in the novel -- are like most of us in one key respect: we tend to see others in terms of ourselves: "Nobody in America lives like this." Annette's father insists that Kimberly can't possibly be working in a factory after school, because kids don't work in factories. The schools are also guilty of this narrow thinking. Various teachers don't understand that she can't afford materials for posters and dioramas, or that she can't just watch the evening news and discuss current events with her parents over dinner. All things considered, it was a miracle that she had "a knack for school."
One character never appears, never says a word, and I would guess that some people would not consider Her a character: the goddess Kuan Yin. Revered as a bodhisattva of compassion by Buddhists and a goddess of mercy by the Chinese, she has a shrine in Kimberly's home, prayers said to her at Chinese New Year, and Kimberly's love interest wears a pendant with her likeness. If ever there were a young woman in need of compassion and mercy, it is Kimberly.
Near the end of the novel, however, the plot comes off the rails. An ill advised sex scene starts the ball careening downhill. The epilogue strains my willing suspension of disbelief. I asked a doctor if certain things could really happen that way. I kept considering the obstacles she faced. I found myself counting off years on my fingers trying to figure out how that works. It doesn't help that the author does everything she can to delay telling us what happened.
Not a bad way to spend a long airplane flight, a good insight into immigrant communities and poverty, but very unsatisfying ending.