America For Beginners

Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants

[Book Review] Girl in Translation. Jean Kwok.

girl in translation. Jean KwokWhat is it about?

The story is about a young girl, Kimberly Chang, who emigrates from Hong Kong to New York City. She and her mother (who doesn’t speak any English) have optimistic expectations and hopes for the better future. Needless to say that it had to come into clash with harsh reality.

Kimberly has no other choice but live a double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. The girl learns to survive in that new American world while keeping her own cultural values.

Girl in Translation is not the first and by far not the last heartbreaking immigrant story. Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, for example, was published in 1945, giving a detailed description of a Chinese girl struggling in search of her true identity in the USA. And there are numerous other stories about similar life challenges.

What makes this book stand out?

The main character, Kimberly that is, literally has no time to speculate about the intricacies of Eastern vs. Western philosophy and analyze cultural differences. But she has to learn the difference. By trial and error.  She is a child thrown into a new culture who has two options: sink or swim. In Kimberly’s situation it’s rather think or swim. And she thinks.

Like I’ve mentioned above, there are a great many books written on this subject.  But Girl in Translation is beautiful in its almost painful realism. It’s interesting how the author describes Kim’s first encounters with English: phrases not the way they were originally pronounced, but the way Kimberly heard them.  Like when people say something and Kimberly gets only half of it. Unknown words simply form a chain of incomprehensible sounds.

He burst into laughter, then started speaking English. “I got cha moves, don’t I? I’m sorry forscaring you ladies. I just love kung fu. My name is Al.

Hey, that’s Chinese, right? You have anthn you can teach me?” he asked.

Another fascinating thing about Girl in Translation is that mother and daughter have a very deep connection; it’s not only that traditional Chinese respect but also a new interdependence born out of mutual support and even some role confusion. Kim, being more fluent in English, has to take care of the bills, taxes, interaction with school officials, etc.  It makes you think about the way children assimilate in a new culture as opposed to adults.

Any child in the world learns to assert their own identity, but a child who was born in one culture and then “transplanted” into another definitely has to overcome more challenges. Yes, kids have less background knowledge, and values and social codes are not so heavily ingrained in them. As a result, children can make the transition in a less painful way and in a shorter period of time.

Adults, however,  are more aware of what’s going on (in most cases). They have defense mechanisms helping them to cope with the reality.  In the end, grown-ups most likely have already experienced hardships at some point in their lives. They have an opportunity to discuss assimilation issues with friends/relatives/coworkers, get drunk, get stupid, contemplate about life challenges and finally somehow rationalize their choice. Kids normally don’t have such an outlet. Inevitably, every single phrase or action shapes their identity.

Anyway, Girl in Translation provides food for thought. US Americans can see the culture from an outsider’s perspective. Recent immigrants can get a lot to relate with. Cultural diversity enthusiasts can just enjoy the story and muse upon assimilation and Chinese/American cultural values.

Here’s a link to Jean Kwok’s speech about the book and what it means to her. I love the way she wraps up her speech saying she hopes that after reading Girl in Translation people will say,

Well the next time I see a foreigner who looks funny and has weird bags and can’t even speak English, that they might think, Oh this could be a person who in her own language and culture is a very articulate, wise, funny person, just like Kimberly Chang’s mother.


6 comments on “[Book Review] Girl in Translation. Jean Kwok.

  1. Anna, this book sounds EXCELLENT! I really like Jean Kwok’s desire for the readers: that they’d know how to see a ‘foreigner’ as a real person, an intelligent person, an “articulate, wise, funny person”. If her book can accomplish even a TINY STEP toward that, it will have been a huge success.

    Thanks for passing along your review of this book! -Ron.

  2. Fantage_Forever
    January 26, 2012

    is there one word that comes to mind when you read this book?

  3. Fantage_Forever
    January 26, 2012

    Please tell me i really on my book talk and by the way the time phrase is totally off….its 5:00 pm not 10:00 pm…. just to tell

  4. Jean Kwok
    August 28, 2012

    I came across this review of my novel by accident and I wanted to thank you for writing it. This is such a thoughtful, insightful essay about my book. I really appreciate it and have posted a link to it on my Facebook fan page:

    I took a look around and I love your website in general!

    Jean Kwok

    • America For Beginners
      August 28, 2012

      Jean, I am flattered! I really appreciate that you took your time to read my review of your wonderful book. I read Girl In Translation during my first winter in the US and I’m so glad I did. It’s a powerful story that is beautifully executed, and I’m sure it keeps inspiring people.

      All my best,

  5. Raine
    September 11, 2012

    Where I was born, there are a LOT of immigrants from South America. It’s totally brutal how difficult it is to survive as an immigrant. One of my dad’s BEST employees just got shipped back to Honduras because his American wife divorced him (well, it was mutual) and his green card was no longer valid. We tried really hard to keep him here (his ex wife as well), but the government was so unyielding. He’d been living here for 15 years, established his life, saw his kids regularly. Then he gets sent back to his home country where he hasn’t lived for ages. We have yet to hear from him.

    This is a different aspect of immigrant life, but it’s a subject I’m interested in.

    Anyway, I’ll definitely take a peek at this book. Sounds like a moving read. Thanks for the review.

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