Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
2010; Riverhead Hardcover
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. (courtesy of Goodreads)
Girl In Translation is a beautiful, thought-provoking book that captivated me from the first page of the prologue. The book starts out with the character observing a little girl sitting by a mannequin in a bridal shop, knowing exactly how her life would play out, inescapably trapped in the sweatshops of New York Chinatown. I instantly was rooting for this little girl and soon for Kimberly, the protagonist. There has to be another way; I can't bear to see either one suffer.
Kimberly Chang (11 years old) and her mother come to Brooklyn from Hong Kong with great hopes of life in America. These hopes are almost instantly dashed upon arrival. Her mother's sister runs a sweatshop and has the "kindness" to give Kimberly's mother a job and a roach-strewn, freezing apartment. To pay off her many debts to her sister, her mother has to toil in the sweatshop for long hours each day to fulfill her quota.
Kimberly has to make her own way in the world. She begins school knowing no English and nothing about America. No one will help her; not even her teacher. Only one person is kind to her - Annette, her faithful best friend. Kimberly is lucky to be gifted with extreme intelligence. She catches on to English quickly and gains admittance and a full scholarship to a prestigious private school. But she still goes to the factory each day after school to help her mother meet her quota and make enough money to survive. Her life is split into two distinct worlds, each of which are challenging. She's successful at school but everyone, including the staff, are suspicious and jealous over her amazing intelligence and skill at school. She also doesn't fit in with her wealthy classmates. At the sweatshop, Kimberly's success makes her aunt green with envy and only makes life more difficult.
I love the relationship between Kimberly and her mother. Kimberly's childhood ends as soon as they come to Brooklyn. She's the English representative for her mother. She also is outraged by the obvious injustices brought upon them by her aunt and much more eager to share her feelings than her mother. Kimberly's mother is a fabulous character. A refined musician in Hong Kong, she is just as unhappy as Kimberly with the struggles in her new life, but she never shows it. She seems to accept the difficulties of this life and cruelties of her own sister knowing that Kimberly's future will be bright. Throughout the book, you can also see how wise and funny she is through her advice and teasing of Kimberly (especially about boys). Jean Kwok said this book was written especially to show how wonderful her own mother is.
Kimberly can't seem to fit in either of her worlds; she is constantly pulled between each. She loves school and wants to build a successful life for her and her mother. But she clearly doesn't fit in with peers who have lived a carefree life; she had to grow up very quickly. She hates the sweatshop culture of Chinatown and her aunt's cruelty. But her love for one boy - kind, smart, handsome Matt - pulls her back toward the factory world. Which will she choose - love or success? And what are the consequences of that choice?
Rating: 4 / 5