Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok was the One Division, One Book read for the Spring 2019 semester where I work. Basically, that means we were encouraged to assign the text in our classes and we held events around the themes of the novel. I chose to include the text in my American Literature since 1865 course – which worked out perfectly as I was determined to teach only one white male author in the entire semester.
The story is, in essence, about a rather quintessential story of modern day immigration. Kimberly Chang and her mother move to Brooklyn to be near Kimberly’s aunt, a detestable woman I will probably rage about later on in this review. But back to the summary. They do not find a land of opportunity; instead they find themselves living in squalor, working in a sweatshop, and struggling to stay alive.
The story is an odd and wonderful combination of the naivete of a child as Kim talks about boys she likes and the struggle to make friends and the hardship of a poor immigrant as we see Kim working and living in conditions so far outside the acceptable range of experience as to be horror-inducing. Then we throw in the difficulties faced by so many trying to balance acclimation, acculturation, and tradition. And an Aunt like Aunt Paula. Okay, so I didn’t even make it very long before talking about the elitist, snobbish, selfish, horrible, horrible woman. She pays for her sister and niece to emigrate from Hong Kong and then promptly puts them to work in her garment factory while housing them in a vermin infested apartment with no heat. I can’t imagine treating people the way this woman does.
Kim, and her Ma, knows that the only way they will survive is if Kim saves them by “making it” in America (i.e. kicking ass in school and becoming a doctor or a lawyer), so Kim studies and studies, all the while working at the garment factory as well so that she and her mother can eat. At times, this exceptionalism did annoy me though. Kim is brilliant, and thank god she is because this story would have been quite different had she been of average intelligence. While I appreciate the idea of life-improvement through education – I am, after all, a college professor – I also sometimes get annoyed at hardship-to-success stories that have geniuses as their central characters. While Kim certainly studies hard, she has a natural intelligence that is her true lifesaver. We see her succeed in the full knowledge that without this, she would miserably fail – as so many others in her position have throughout history.
The students in my American Lit class appreciated reading a book from a very different perspective than their own – and they really enjoyed the comparative discussions we had between this, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the film Winter’s Bone. They did, however, feel the book was a bit tedious at times, and many of us had conflicting feelings about the ending.