Saturday, April 16, 2011

Girl in Translation: Chinese immigrant girl student by day, sweatshop worker by night

Girl in TranslationGirl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I moved from affluent Chinese mother writing a memoir about Chinese parenting to this wonderful novel, which is a more heartwarming story of Asian parental love. It was a terrifically quick read, too, and highly compelling.

Kimberly Chang leaves Hong Kong to move to Brooklyn, New York, with her mother, and neither of them speak a word of English. They, like so many other immigrants, expect to find a wonderful land of promise waiting for them. Instead they find themselves buried in debt (owed to Kimberly's aunt and uncle), living in a roach- and rat-filled hovel without any heat, and working night and day--for pennies--in a sweatshop.

Kimberly is determined to escape, and she focuses all of her energies on learning English so that she can get back to being an outstanding student as she was in China. After she's finished with school, she goes to the sweatshop to work side by side with her mother, who had been a gifted music teacher back in Hong Kong.

Because of Kimberly's determination and innate intelligence, she is able to win a scholarship to an elite private high school. While there she constantly struggles with fitting in and managing to keep all the balls in the air. In the meantime, her mother struggles to learn English and has to work constantly to keep a filthy roof over their heads.

As Kimberly becomes a young woman, she falls in love with a young man, Matt, who also works in the factory. She's faced with a terrible choice between love or ambition.

Much of this novel is based on Jean Kwok's own experiences--she too was an immigrant from Hong Kong whose family ended up working in a sweatshop. Her family lived in a filthy, heatless, vermin-infested apartment. She too relied on her smarts to get her out of that difficult environment. Here is a video of Jean Kwok speaking about the novel:


Many reviewers have commented that they did not like the ending. I'm guessing that they believe Kim should have chosen love instead of continuing to follow her path of pulling her family out of deep poverty. At the beginning of the book, I was concerned that she would have forsaken her ambitious dreams. What Kim only alludes to at the end is that she would not have made Matt happy.

This is a feminist novel to me, because the protagonist makes choices for her own independence. Never again does she want to have to rely on someone else (as she and her mother have been indebted and abused by her aunt and uncle). She is determined to change her life and give her mother the life she deserves. Matt is one of those traditional Asian men who would never abide his wife making more money than he does. I agree that it is sad that he never knows about her son...and sad also that Kimberly ends up alone...but I think it would have been far sadder had she given up her dreams.


  1. Dear Marie,

    Thank you so much for this lovely review of my novel and for posting it on my Facebook fan page (

    I'm glad you enjoyed the book and I agree with your interpretation of the ending. I also wish Kimberly could have made a different choice, but she needed to remain true to who she was.

    Anyway, I am so very grateful to readers and reviewers like you -- you really help keep the world of books alive. Thank you!


  2. Thanks for your comment, Jean! I truly admire people like you who rise up from such humble beginnings. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  3. What really bugged me about the book is how Ms. Kwok seemed to imply that Kimberly's experience was "typical" of Hong Kong immigrants in the 1980s, but more from an earlier time period (say, the 70s). Kimberly's lack of exposure/culture shock also seemed to be exaggerated (what? Never had a picture taken back in Hong Kong? Unheard of by the 70s and 80s. Even my dad, who did not have much money growing up had several volumes of photos. And considering Mrs. Chang was classically trained in western music, it just seemed...implausible). Just a thought.

  4. Thanks for your comments Cynthia. I didn't really perceive that she was implying that this was typical of the immigrant experience. I suppose you're right about the lack of photos, because presumably if her mother taught music, they must have had some money.

  5. @Marie: It's not just about being a music teacher, it's about exposure to what some might consider "western culture" in general. Honestly, I've never met or read about anyone from post WWII Hong Kong who was so...inexposed.

    I was in elementary school during one of the big immigration waves from Hong Kong. The kids may not have spoken English well, but the culture shock was nowhere close to what was described in the book. Again, I really felt that Ms. Kwok played it up to sell books.

    I was also surprised at the lack of teasing from ABC (American Born Chinese) classmates. It would also have been very, very interesting to have had a moneyed Hong Kong immigrant at the private school Kim eventually went to (don't know about the US, but in Canada, old line private schools were very popular with the wealthier immigrants - the schools' culture was closer to that "back home" than at public school).

  6. I know what you mean about the ending. But that's life, isn't it? Kimberly's story is a very real American Dream tale, in which she does overcome many obstacles to achieve things most people would have thought impossible for her. But really, almost everyone I know who's achieved great success has done so at a cost. I was heartened to find out that Kimberley kept her child, but I also felt a sense of longing that someday the son would be able to know his father.

  7. Yes, I agree, Grace. It was sad that her child--and Kimberly herself--missed out on having him be part of their life.