Girl in Translation: So this is America

BlogHer Review

Girl in Translation, the semi-autobiographical debut novel from Jean Kwok, is a work of Dickensian magnitude set in late 20th century Manhattan. Written with delicacy and power, it tells the story of a young Chinese girl Kim Chang and her mother who immigrate to New York City from Hong Kong. With little English and no knowledge or understanding of American ways, Kim and Mrs. Chang are completely at the mercy of their relatives. Little do they know at first that Aunt Paula is working out a long-standing grudge against Kim’s mother. As the malice unfolds the reader is given a stark, heart-stopping portrait of the experience which many immigrants have of being led into a life of virtual slavery in America.

The aunt and uncle who sponsored the Chang's immigration to the USA have built up a successful business in Chinatown. Nevertheless, Kim and her mother are placed in the most hellish living quarters, an apartment in the projects which is an oven in the summer, an ice box in the winter, and overrun at all times by rodents and roaches. Kim’s mother, a gentle and cultured musician, rises to the occasion with grace and dignity, not allowing herself to think ill of her own sister. Both Kim and Mrs. Chang must work long hours in a filthy sweat shop while the Aunt and Uncle take most of their wages, insisting that they be paid back for the immigration fees. Kim must face the harrowing experience of inner city public school, with little food, sleep and constant illnesses, while being ridiculed and misunderstood by students and teachers.

What captivated me about the novel is that the story, told through the innocent eyes of an observant and remarkably intelligent little girl, exudes simplicity and honesty, which make the sorrow, dirt and sickness all the more agonizing and disgusting. Kim is determined not only to survive but to take care of her mother at all costs. As she realizes that education is the key to both survival and escape from the ghetto her determination to succeed makes her invincible. Kim’s growing up is a sort of long “translation” from the Chinese to the American way of looking at things. Kim changes from frightened foreigner to a savvy American girl. Her sense of honor and duty, however, remain old world and beautifully intransigent.

Most of all, Girl in Translation is a searing love story. The author shows to an unbelieving world that happiness has nothing to do with riches, and love can flourish anywhere, even in the purgatory of the sweat shop. Not that the author romanticizes either poverty or injustice, not at all; the descriptions are richly desolate. While Kim cannot be defeated by corrupt relatives, bullies or disease it appears that her own passions may be her undoing, made desperate by the despair which threatens to overwhelm her. There is a life-affirming message which does not come out until the end but when it does it is overwhelming. Ms. Kwok paints with words, creating a portrait of American life that devastates as well as transforms.

 

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