Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to America, they do not expect life in their new country to be easy but they had not anticipated the poverty and struggles they will experience when they go to work at a Chinatown sweatshop owned by Kimberly’s aunt and uncle, who have lent them money to pay for their way here. They live in a dirty, unheated Brooklyn apartment without furniture and must work long hours at the sweatshop to begin to repay their debt.
Kimberly possesses great intelligence and quickly becomes an academic star at her Brooklyn public grade school. Before starting seventh grade she is awarded a scholarship at a prestigious private school where she hides her home life from the other more privileged students. She leads a double life between her hard work and academic excellence at the school and the drudgery of the sweatshop and the difficulties she and her mother experience in their home. Her mother had been a talented musician in Hong Kong but in America she struggles with the new language and with her indebtedness to her unkind, condescending sister.
At the Chinatown sweatshop where Kimberly works she befriends Matt, a Chinese young man who must help support his mother after his father leaves the family. Kimberly’s friendship with Matt slowly blossoms into a sweet love story. Matt loves Kimberly but he does not share her academic talents or aspirations. Kimberly feels torn between Matt and Kurt, a wealthy teen at her private school. Every day Kimberly lives in two worlds – the affluent one at her private school and the squalor at the sweatshop and in the small apartment she shares with her mother.
This lyrical immigrant story is informed by the author’s own experience emigrating from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child and working with her family in a sweatshop before earning her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. In her debut novel Ms. Kwok brings to life the experience of thousands of immigrants struggling with adjusting to their new lives in America and their duties to their own families.
Girl in Translation is available in the Fiction department at the Niles Public Library and is also available in a Large Print edition at the library.