Girl 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:
Warning: SPOILER AHEAD!!
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.