America For Beginners

Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants

Interview with Jean Kwok, Author of Girl in Translation

Interview with Jean Kwok

Photo by Sigrid Estrada

I’ve been a fan of Jean Kwok’s debut novel Girl In Translation for years and back in 2011 reviewed it on this blog. This year I got really lucky. Despite the busy schedule of a New York Times bestselling author, Jean found time for a short interview and shared her insights on cultural assimilation, raising bilingual children, following your own path, and more.

  • Is there anything that you absolutely love about American culture?

I have a particular perspective on American culture both because I’m a first generation Chinese immigrant and because I married a Dutch man and now live in Holland. Something I absolutely love about Americans is their ability to dream. When I taught English here in Holland and tried to give exercises like, “If you were an animal, which animal would you be?” or “If you could do anything at all that you wanted, what would you do?”, I realized that the Dutch are different. Americans love questions like this. They’re filled with imagination and dreams. The Dutch are a wonderful people, but in general, they’re much more grounded in reality. They say things like, “But I’m not an animal.” Or “I like my routine the way it is. I wouldn’t change anything.” That ability to hope and see beyond boundaries is very American, and I love it.

  • Do you raise your children as bilingual? Or even bicultural? What traits of American culture do you want them have?

Our kids are half Dutch and we live in Holland, so my husband always speaks Dutch to them and I always speak English. They’re fluent in both languages, and I’ve taught them some Chinese as well but not as much. It is hard enough to teach them a second language perfectly. The thing about living abroad is that holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving don’t really exist here. Fortunately, we’ve found American friends with whom we can celebrate those holidays. We also celebrate Chinese holidays and can be found on Chinese New Year walking along the canal, welcoming the gods back with mandarin oranges in our hands. Finally, we’re really Dutch too, especially when it’s soccer season and the Dutch national team is playing!

  • You live in Holland now. Were there any obstacles in cultural assimilation this time? Did you feel like a “girl in translation” all over again?

It is always difficult to adapt to a new culture and even now, I sometimes feel like a complete foreigner here. However, it was much easier to move from one western culture to another, from the US to the Netherlands. That first step from Hong Kong to America was by far the hardest. At that time, my family was vulnerable and ignorant of so much. We started working in a Chinatown sweatshop and even though I was only five year old, I worked there as well. By the time I moved to the Netherlands, I had degrees from Harvard and Columbia in my suitcase. That made a world of difference.

  • Your new novel is about a Chinatown girl who wants to be a professional ballroom dancer.  Dance can be a powerful tool of bringing the community together and making us speak the universal language of human emotion. I know you worked as a dancer yourself after you graduated from Harvard. What life lessons did you learn from that experience?

I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for a few years in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia. I learned so much in the dance studio. You’re very right in that dance transcends language. I learned about discipline and trust. I learned how hard you have to work in order to truly excel at something. My coaches were Russian champions and they taught me that dance is not about moving your feet, it is about bringing your feelings into motion and when the feeling is right, the feet will fall where they need to. In Chinese culture, we don’t believe in the separation of the pure soul from the earthly body but rather that when body and soul are truly integrated, that is where you will find transcendence. In many ways, I learned about the limitations of language and how emotion can be expressed in gesture and touch, which went on to make me a better writer.

  • In your essay “Our mothers, ourselves” you mentioned that sometimes we need distance from our parents to become adults. It’s especially true for immigrant families, where power dynamic of who is taking care of whom is often shifted. So, what can we do in order not to lose touch with our parents, when our emotional and intellectual experiences drift us apart?

Love. I think that when we hold onto the bonds of love, we will always keep our connection to our parents. It is very difficult. Culture and language can unify us but especially for immigrants, they can also divide. In an immigrant family, the children often adapt faster than the parents and as a result, there can be this power inversion where the children need to take care of the parents rather than the other way around. Often the parents are more rooted in their own culture and language, and resistant to change, which causes conflict with the children. It’s like a curtain has fallen in between them. I think we have to realize that when we brush aside that curtain of language and culture, the person on the other side has their own dreams and burdens just as we do. If we can honestly try as hard as we can to see things from the other person’s point of view, to value them for who they are, I think that we can remain connected to those we love.

  • Your life story and your accomplishments show that you are a very strong, determined person who knows what sacrifice is. You have already achieved the goal of becoming a writer. What’s the next goal?

Thank you for your kind words. My primary goal in life was always to try to be a good person, to give something back to the world, and in many ways, that hasn’t changed. Now I have two little boys and I hope to be someone that they can love and respect as they grow up. Becoming a writer was my dream. I’m so grateful to be living that dream now. My goal now is to write more books that can hopefully touch someone’s life for the better.

  • And my traditional question: What advice would you give to new immigrants to the US?

Try to be as open as you can to new influences while keeping your own culture and traditions intact. It is always a balancing act. But it’s a gift too because when you are forced to choose between the new and old way of doing things, you realize that you have a choice. Make your own choices, follow your own path.


For more information about Jean Kwok visit


4 comments on “Interview with Jean Kwok, Author of Girl in Translation

  1. Edward J. Kular
    April 11, 2013

    Fantastic Interview. Easy to Love Jean Kwok. Good Luck on Future Books.

  2. bayta
    April 14, 2013

    I bought “Girl in Translation” a few months ago but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. Having just come across this interview, I definitely want to get to it asap! Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Weekend Chat 14 April 2013 | Ain't Mine No More

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