Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (Website, Insta)
Genre: Contemporary / YA
Setting: Brooklyn, NY
I read it as a(n): audiobook
Narrator: Grayce Wey
Source: my own collection
Published by: Books On Tape (4 May 2010)
Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Girl in Translation is the debut novel from bestselling author Jean Kwok. It tells the story of young Kimberly Chang, who immigrates with her mother to Brooklyn from Hong Kong just before its return to Chinese rule. Kimberly’s aunt, Paula, had married a Chinese-American years before and was the one who got them their passports, visas, and immigration assistance. To pay off the monetary debt this created, Kimberly and her mother both have to work in Paula’s sweatshop making skirts and shirts. They are impoverished and live in a condemned apartment building that is full of roaches, mice, and has no heat. At school, Kim is a star and does her best to assimilate into teenage American culture. She dreams of performing well enough in school to earn a full ride scholarship to college, thus getting herself and her mother out of poverty.
Spoilers below the cut!!
I am not an immigrant so I have no frame of reference for how well this story captures the experience. But I do know that Kim’s situation was not unique, and probably still happens even now. In a culture that seems not to want to ask for help, and which has a distinct class structure and social code, honor is paramount. It was heartbreaking to see how much better Kim and Ma’s lives could have been had they only known they could ask for help. Once Kim’s best friend, Annette, finally realizes the actual situation, she is able to enlist her mother to help Kim and Ma in ways which drastically and immediately improve their lives.
Kim’s childhood friend, Matt, was a fun character – while he was young. He is loyal and stands up for the people he cares about. As he and Kim grow up, though, it becomes clear that the two have a mutual attraction. In the final weeks of high school, when Kim finds herself pregnant just weeks after getting an acceptance AND a full ride to Yale, her life is upended.
Where to start? Well, for one thing, this is a great argument for why we need to teach realistic sex education to junior high and high school kids! If they had done, Kim and Matt would have known that you don’t use two rubbers at once. Jesus Christ. Teach proper sex ed.
Also, this is when I decided I really didn’t like Matt. He had been a fun, cute, supportive friend when he was little. As a young man, though, he tried to talk Kim into not going to college and making a life with him. Holy shit! He wanted her to give up a free ride to YALE, give up on her dreams of a good education that would allow her to drag herself and her mother out of poverty, just so she could live with him, his severely autistic brother, their baby, and her mom in his tiny apartment and keep working menial jobs that would ensure she would be poor her whole life? When she has a realistic chance to get out? No. Matt became yet another man who wanted a woman to make herself smaller for the sake of his own ego and desires. Fuck that. She dodged a bullet.
It is a good thing all this happened near the end of the book because if it had been earlier, I may well not have read on. I was ready to burn it all down as it was. However, Kim made the choice she knew was best for her and she went to Yale. So YAY! I did not at all agree with how she apparently pined for him for years, though. Girl, you made a choice – the right choice – so pull up your big girl panties and move on. Get over it. Find a man who doesn’t expect you to stay small, uneducated, and impoverished just because he doesn’t want to go to school himself. She did this brave, feminist thing on her own behalf and then tarnished it by pining after a boy who doesn’t deserve her. So BOO!
I’m indifferent to Kim deciding to keep her baby and not tell Matt. Clearly, Matt would just pressure her to give up college to be a mother, which is fine, but not what she wants. If it had been me, I would have had an abortion. But in this story, Kim managed to make it all work out, so that’s cool. I have no room to move on having a baby alone. I very deliberately had my kid on my own and am so happy I did. This was the part where I most related to Kim, although we each had our babies in different ways. It was still a deliberate decision.
I enjoyed learning more about Chinese culture. I especially liked how Kwok added in literal translations of Chinese expressions and then gave an explanation. For example, Kim said something about how Aunt Paula had red eyes, meaning she was jealous. This kind of expression was scattered throughout the book and I just thought it was interesting.
On balance, I loved the first 90% of this book. The last 10% was not as good, but mostly it was my angst that Kim would actually maybe give up a free ride to Yale just for a boy who turned out to be quite petty in the end. So 4 stars instead of the 5 it had been for me up to that point. I would definitely read more by this author, though.