Thursday, July 29, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Posted by Life Explorer at 6:47 PM
Review:Girl in Translation is a coming of age story that intertwines what it means to be an immigrant with the values of family, a sense of duty, and hope for the future. Kimberly and her mother find themselves in New York looking for a better future than the life they'd known in Hong Kong. They are, unfortunately, at the mercy of Kimberly's aunt and uncle as they are quite indebted to them for arranging green cards and for taking care of medical bills for Kimberly's mom (who has had TB) as well as paying for their accommodations to New York.

When the story starts Kimberly is a middle school age girl who speaks and reads some English but not enough to create any real level of understanding of her surroundings. Her mother speaks almost no English. They've just arrived and their mother's sister (herself with a story that I won't spoil) has arranged an apartment and a job. The apartment is a heat-less, roach and rodent infested slum tenancy, and the job working at a sweatshop making pennies for long hours. The Chinese culture is front and center here and it is interesting to understand why Kimberly and her mom would agree to these conditions. The sense of duty, of obligation, runs strong - and they have very little other options and no choices. It certainly brought me back to stories my grandparents talked about as immigrants themselves and how they arrived in America and the struggles they faced. I think many of us have lost this sense of our past, of the struggles of our ancestors and how it really was when you arrived at Ellis Island (or how it could be)

As time passes they manage by making noises to frighten the various other non human tenants of their apartment and tape garbage bags to the broken window panes. Various people enter their life but they keep very much to themselves, afraid of what others would think if they knew the true situation. At first Kimberly struggles in school with her limited English skills but she soon picks things up and shows herself to be the star student she was back in Hong Kong for science and math.

Meanwhile both she and her mom work in the sweatshop for the pittance they get paid. Their life is undeniably hard and there is a marked contrast between the way things are for them and what Kimberly sees in school. The scenes in the sweatshop are particularly disturbing and it is unsettling to say the least to know that this type of thing exists not only in the USA but all over the world.

As high school approaches Kimberly receives a scholarship to an exclusive private school. All is not perfect though as there is such a contrast between her impoverished life and the immaculate and sprawling landscaped school grounds and beautiful buildings. It is really the first time Kimberly feels that she can escape the life she's been living and sets the stage for the choices she will make for the future.

As Kimberly tries to balance the demands of a top notch private school with her work both at the school and at her aunt and uncles sweatshop one of the boys there becomes Kimberly's friend, later destined to be something else. To see how a young boy can grow up in that environment and struggle and work towards a better future is heartwarming.

Just when you think you know what will happen the ending has a huge twist. I won't spoil it other than to say I almost cried.

I adored this book. It was comfortable and, in spite of the tragic content in places, the author did a wonderful job of making you feel it without spending your reading time in abject misery. The characters are extremely rich and vibrant and interesting. The world introduced feels as foreign as China to me and it is hard, as I've noted, to reconcile the fact that this type of thing happens all the time within the America I grew up in.

I also really enjoyed the Chinese sayings interspersed throughout the book. Instead of saying you are ungrateful you say "your heart has no roots". Although Kimberly struggled with learning this "Chinese" (what was being said indirectly or in a different way) I really enjoyed it. It is a part of the culture that is so different than the direct American way.

Girl in Translation flows smoothly and Kimberly ages as you press on, waiting to see what will happen, where she will end up, and if she can escape her situation and have a bright future. As bright as she is was my hope for her. An enlightening story with an interesting cast. Highly recommended!

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