Girl in Translation
by Jean Kwok
Desperate to get out of Hong Kong before the Chinese regain sovereignty, 11-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother are brought to New York City by her Aunt Paula, who offers to let them live with her and teach her sons Chinese. Once in America, however, Paula changes her mind but declares she’ll still take care of them. Aunt Paula provides them with a home…in a condemned building filled with roaches, broken windows and no heating system. Aunt Paula provides her sister with work…in a Chinatown sweatshop paying pennies for each garment completed. When she starts school, it seems like just another struggle; Kimberly’s English is limited and she doesn’t relate to her classmates. But Kimberly was the best student in her class in Hong Kong, and when she proves herself light years ahead of her classmates in math she realizes that academic success will be the ticket out of her impoverished life.
Paula’s cruel treatment of her sister and niece at the beginning of the book really surprised me, because filial duty is such a big part of Chinese culture. Granted, Kimberly and her mother aren’t Paula’s parents, but I would assume that the concept also applies to siblings. Apparently not! Sure, Paula’s treatment of her sweatshop employees makes it pretty clear she’s not a kind person, but I’m always a little bit blown away when people treat their family members abusively.
I really liked Kimberly and rooted for her from the first page. Her life in Hong Kong isn’t described in great detail, but it’s clear that the trip to America is a huge step down for her. She doesn’t complain much, though, just rolls up her sleeves and helps her mother with the factory work. She’s very isolated, since she doesn’t identify with her classmates and isn’t really able to play with other kids because she’s always working. It’s also really interesting to see which aspects of American culture Kimberly absorbs and what she retains of her background, especially in contrast to her mother, who never really adapts to life in America.
When I was a kid, one of the first chapter books I remember reading was In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and this book reminded me of it quite a bit. It’s not just because both books are Chinese-American immigration stories set in NYC. It’s the belief that America is the land of opportunity that permeates both novels. This seems to have disappeared from many of the fictional works about native-born Americans today, but you still see it in books written about immigrants. It’s rather comforting to know that the myth of the America Dream still rings true to someone out there.
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