Deeply moving and heart-wrenching, Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an intriguing and poignant semi-autobiographical story of a Chinese girl and her mother struggling to build their life from the ground up in Brooklyn, NY.
With the help from Aunt Paula, Kimberly and her mom are able to leave Hong Kong and move to New York, in hope of finding a better life there. When they arrive in America, Kimberly is only 11 years old and neither she nor her mother can speak any English. Kimberly's mom feels greatly indebted to her older sister, who paid for her expensive tuberculosis treatment and lent them money for the plane tickets. Aunt Paula, who moved to US after marrying an American man, is now a well established sweatshop owner. To repay the debts to her relatives, Kim's mom starts working at her sister's factory. She soon realizes that meeting the unbearably strict deadlines won't be possible if she works alone, and so she asks her daughter for help. Kim starts coming to the factory straight from school and the two of them work exhausting shifts till late night hours. They return to their flat only to get few hours of sleep. Their workplace conditions are grueling and inhumane, but the apartment they go back to after work is even worse. Infested with roaches and mice, with broken windows, cracked walls and paint flaked off in most of the places, without heating and hot water, the place they're forced to live in offers no comfort and no protection whatsoever. Their living conditions are abominable, but until they pay off their debts there is no hope of finding a better place, and so they patiently endure the cold and the vermin.
Kimberly attends school, but with her limited English abilities the first few months there are a constant struggle. Discouraged by both her classmates and her teacher's initially negative and bullying attitude, Kim comes close to giving up her school carrier. For almost a week, afraid of being misunderstood and laughed at, she skips classes and hides out in the freezing-cold and damp apartment. It doesn't take long, though, for Kimberly to realize that this is not a permanent solution to her problems. She is aware of the fact that her and her mom's future depends directly on her succeeding at school and making a career for herself. Kim takes upon herself the responsibility of being the breadwinner (or should I say "ricewinner") for her family and she makes herself a promise, that she will take care of her mother as best as she can. Thanks to her determination and hard work, Kimberly earns a spot and a full scholarship at an exclusive high school. This, however, is not yet the end of the story, as she will still have some very hard decisions to make. These very important decisions will determine the course of her life.
Girl in Translation is a truly phenomenal semi-memoir and coming-of-age story. I absolutely loved it. It's written with a simple, yet beautiful language that speaks right to your heart. The phoneticization of English phrases unfamiliar to Kimberly allows you to experience the language barrier for yourself.
Deeply compelling and engrossing, it's a book to savor, not one to quickly read and forget. It's the kind of book that makes you reflect on your own life and how it compares to the life of others. It deals with so many important issues, like child labor, racial discrimination, bullying, alienation, poverty, worker abuse and many, many more. Through the passages of this book we become vividly aware of the terrible realities of life and labor of Chinese immigrants. The images that Jean Kwok paints with her words shatter the myth of the American Dream. She vividly depicts all the challenges and hardships that Kimberly and her mother are forced to face while they're trying their best to make a place for themselves in United States. And to think that this book was in some part based on Jean Kwok's personal experiences just breaks my heart. Meaningful and moving, Girl in Translation is a wonderful eye-opener!show more