Suffer the Indecencies with This Girl in Translation

BlogHer Review

There are certain indecencies I can’t imagine. Chief among them would be living in a roach and rat infested apartment, which has no heat, while earning a mere $2/hour for sweatshop labor. However, as a mother, I can easily understand doing whatever is necessary to give your child a better life. And that is exactly what Kimberly Chang's mother does and how they live in Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation, a semi-autobiographical novel that follows the mother and daughter after they immigrate to America from Hong Kong.

The book made me think about how good I have it, how easy my life has been and how I’ve probably squandered hundreds of opportunities that many people less fortunate than I am would have loved to have had. It also made me think about what kind of life I want for my two sons and how far I would go to secure a better life for them. Girl in Translation is an incredibly thought-provoking book, with a story that makes it difficult to put down.

When Kimberly Chang is 11, she and her mother land in Brooklyn where they are put up in an apartment that should be condemned, and her mother takes a job in Aunt Paula’s sweatshop, finishing skirts for 1.5 cents per skirt. Kimberly enrolls at a local school where she’s teased by her teacher and struggles to fit in with the other kids. But she works hard in school and just as hard at the sweatshop, helping her mother with the finishing work after her school day is over.

In Hong Kong, Kimberly’s mother taught music; in America she labors for long hours in a sordid sweatshop. In Hong Kong, Kimberly was the top student in school; in America she’s accused of cheating, teased for home sewn underwear, and maligned for being not like the other girls.

Together, though, Kimberly and her mother struggle to make it and create for themselves a better life. They live in deplorable conditions for years, finding strength in one another. Kimberly acts out on occasion like normal teens, but she always sees the enormous sacrifices that her mother has made for her benefit and she appreciates her for that.

As I read Girl in Translation, I could not stop rooting for the two of them. I wanted better for them. I wanted something miraculous to happen so they would not have to sleep with roaches crawling over them, so they would not have to work to finish skirts at two in the morning, so they would not have to listen to the rustle of the garbage bags that served as their windows. I wanted them to achieve their version of the American Dream.

Reality is, though, that miracles don’t always happen and for the Changs -- like millions of other immigrants -- their American Dream could only be achieved by single-minded focus. Kimberly and her mother showed me that focus of that sort is possible, and that sacrifice can lead to a better life.

As I rooted for Kimberly and her mother, I also rooted a little for myself, hoping that I could do a better job appreciating my life, taking better advantage of my opportunities and striving to ensure that my two young boys do the same. It shouldn't take living among rats and roaches to make one appreciate the small decencies of one's life. Kimberly and Mrs. Chang serve as a very motivational reflection and reminder that we are the ones who make our own lives and we are the ones who can decide to squander our opportunities or seize them. It's an important reminder and one that in richly and wonderfully conveyed in Girl in Translation.

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