Friday, January 16, 2015

Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok

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When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition. Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly’s story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about.

Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant-a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

I’ve been waiting for so long to read this book ever since I first came across it a few years ago.  Now I’ve finally read it and I’m so glad that I did.

In these riveting pages, we’re invited into the world of an immigrant, eleven year-old Kimberly and her mother “A-Mah” who are essentially fresh off the boat from Hong Kong. They are brought here by her Aunt Paula (her mother’s sister) and her husband.  They were promised certain provisions upon their arrival but things go differently.  Dropped off in a cockroach-infested apartment in a very dingy neighborhood in New York, Kimberly and her mother make due with they have, which is hardly anything at all. They don’t have a proper bed, heat or proper clothes for the winter. Kimberly’s clothes are all hand-sewn. Aunt Paula does provide them with jobs laboring away for hours at her husband’s sweatshop that she oversees. Kimberly, who has to work so much harder at school because of her language deficit also winds up at the factory in the evenings to assist her mom with meeting their daily production goals. This is the life she must become accustomed to and keep secret. The bleak world of living in the projects and working in a sweatshop for a few measly dollars a day are in stark contrast to the idea of the American Dream they had envisioned when they first left Hong Kong.  It’s sad to see how she breaks down her meager wages.

Kimberly becomes more attuned to her aunt’s manipulative ways and concludes that the only way to rescue herself and her mother is through excelling at school.  She zeroes in on this goal with extraordinary zeal, rarely complaining about her life. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t notice how different she is from the other kids at school. She’s very observant about the cultural differences in thought, mannerisms and values. What’s amazing is instead of getting bitter as she wishes for an easier life, she focuses on her studies. At the beginning she admits she has a talent for school. The order of doing math and science provides her the comfort of logic, an escape from the repressive responsibilities she faces daily.

I was very moved by Kimberly and her struggles. I couldn’t put the book down because I kept thinking “please let something good happen, please”.  And I was also inspired by her. Everyone handles adversity differently.  Here she faces uncaring teachers, bullying at school, living in squalor, lack of material possessions, and worst of all, being taken advantage by family. Despite these harsh conditions, she and her mother remain humble. Her mother even gives her the best advice at the beginning when she was having trouble at school:

“But you, don’t you forget you were the smartest student our primary school in Hong Kong had ever seen. Nothing can change how bright you are, whether your current teacher knows it or not. Most important, nobody can change who you are, except for you.”

Taking these words to heart, Kimberly starts out quietly accepting her circumstances and ends up becoming an advocate for herself and her mother. All the while keeping her eye on the prize and her principles intact. Read this book to glimpse life from the viewpoint of a newly-arrived immigrant. Read it to feel a mother's unconditional love for her child or to reminisce about falling in love for the first time. Read it to be inspired by one young woman's unrelenting determination, hard work and refusal to back down. Even with so much stacked against her, she empowers herself and creates her own opportunities! 

~ Bel

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