Sunday, April 15, 2012

Girl in Translation - Jean Kwok

Summary:  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.  (Summary from and image from

My Review:  I think one of the best aspects to this book is the lively discussion you can have with others who have read it.  It surprised me how varied everyone's responses to Kim's decisions were.  For more conservative readers it came as a surprise that this was a YA book.  If you've read a lot of YA lately this wouldn't surprise you.  Seeing as my book club doesn't consist of secondary education teachers, the number of YA books read regularly is lower.  One of the biggest complaints it seemed, besides disagreeing with Kim's decisions, was that the plot was predictable.  While I agree to a certain extent, I felt that for teens Kim's decisions--which dictate the plot--made sense to me.  (I won't go into detail so as to not ruin it for future readers.)  

There were some fantastic techniques the author used to help the reader see the world through an English Language Learner's eyes.  One of these was showing the words she thought she was hearing instead of what was actually being said.  Kim was exceptionally intelligent, and even for her this constant confusion changed her perception of the world and her understanding of it.  I can only imagine what it would be like to have to find your own way through a new culture, new school, new language without the help of adults for guidance.  Kim had no one to really rely on.  In fact, her family was either unable to help or purposefully hindering her.  It was heart-breaking to read and I can only wonder how common this experience is for immigrants who feel they have no help or alternative to what they are currently dealing with.  Kim manages to pull through by her own intelligence, hard-work, and grit, but how many do not?

One of my favorite concepts to analyze is her subconscious relationships with the opposite sex.  I can't help but wonder if her father hadn't died how it would have changed her decisions and the outcome of her life.  She seemed starved for their attention, but not really. Everything was surface level.  How much of this would have been different with her father in her life?

Lastly, Kwok throws in these moments of adult lucidity, metaphors, analogies that could be quotes to be hung on the walls of your home.  It's not more than half a dozen times, but they are beautiful, thought-provoking and quite moving.  I started anticipating these sections and spending more time analyzing those spots than speed-reading the book to find out what happens.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader:  There is a sex (mild description) scene near the end of the book, but it is integral to the story.

Sum it up:  A coming of age story combined with the underbelly of America's working immigrants and the trials they face.


Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I listened to it on audio and found it amazing!

Marjorie/cenya2 said...

This is a super book and I recommend it to everyone.
Wow, what a story.


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