Thursday, 20 June 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Girl in Translation

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

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.


You know, I actually read this book a few months ago but I've never thought about writing a review until now - this book is just too good to just simply read and not write a review about, in my opinion. In ways more than one, this book really resonated with me. It's not just that she's a good writer, it's just these experiences felt so close to me. I'm not Asian-American (I'm Asian-Australian) and I've never been to New York City, but it seemed like these experiences mirrored my own. Petty relatives, snobbery from more well-off classmates, parents working long hours in menial jobs, the idea that education triumphs over everything, being too embarrassed to have friends come over to your house... yep, I can relate to all that.

Girl in Translation follows the story of a Chinese immigrant, Kimberley Chang, who moves from a comfortable life in Hong Kong, to Brooklyn squalor in the United States with her mother. They're exploited by Kimberley's petty and jealous Aunt Paula, and they find themselves living in an illegal apartment in Brooklyn - a dirty, unhygienic apartment with broken heating and is infested with rats. Kimberley initially struggles with life in America; she struggles with the English language, which is not helped by a very unsympathetic teacher to her plight. Speaking of the narrator's struggles with English, I love how Jean Kwok integrated Cantonese conversations into English and made the English that Kimberley hears in a unique way - we see how English seems strange and foreign to Kimberley's ears. 

After Kimberley's initial struggles with English, she realises that the only way how to escape poverty is through education. Her mother is working fourteen hour days at a sweatshop in Chinatown, and Kimberley is forced to work with her mother after school at the factory. Kimberley is a hard worker; she eventually picks up English, she studied hard to get into an exclusive private school (and even then, she still meets obstacles in the form of bitchy, snobby classmates), forms strong friendships with people at school, gains admission into an Ivy League school and most importantly of all, finds love with a fellow worker at the factory.

I found the ending extremely unsatisfying but I can understand it. In my ideal world, Kimberley would have it all: the man, a good job, a beautiful child, nice house blah blah. Unfortunately life does not work that way, and I can understand her reasonings for why it had to be that way - despite being in the US for a long period of time, Kimberley is still very much Chinese and believes in the concept of sacrifice for one's child, and some of it is still heavily ingrained in her. It reminded me a lot of how my own mother sacrificed a lot for me, so I could have a good future, and it was just something that really resonated with me.

Kwok really brings the reader into the gritty realities of many Chinese immigrants. In the scenes with Aunt Paula, we see the notion of saving face and wanting to appear better than your relatives concealed behind the elaborate courtesies of Chinese etiquette, occasional cracks in the facade revealing just enough to communicate the true meaning of practiced, polite assurances. Kimberley is the epitome of a stereotypical Asian; hard-working, resilient and education is a high priority. We see how her and her mother believe that education is the only ticket to escaping the trap of poverty, and how success in education is a validation of their choice to leave behind the safe and familiar, in more ways than one.

This was a wonderfully written classic Asian-American tale. We feel empathy and sympathy for Kimberley throughout her struggles. We feel pride when we see her overcome her struggles and becomes a strong, successful woman. In short, this book was awesome, I highly recommend it and does a great job of communicating cultural differences, and it is one of the very few Asian-American literature to do so, without focusing on extreme cliches. I was left with a feeling of hollow sadness by the time I was done with it, though I can't quite pinpoint why. Yet I don't mind. This story was worth it.

RATING: 4.5/5 stars