“The road we could follow in Hong Kong was a dead one,” said 11-year-old Kimberly Chang’s mother, known to her as Ma. “The only future I could see for us, for you, was here, where you could become whatever you wanted.” Little did Kimberly and Ma know, life as penniless immigrants in Brooklyn would be brutal.
Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation, was published in 2010 by Riverhead Books. Although this coming-of-age story is a work of fiction, Kwok drew inspiration from her own experiences as a Chinese immigrant and sweatshop worker in New York. Considering the current controversy over immigration policies, this novel’s views on immigration from the perspective of a young girl are a fresh take on the subject.
Kimberly lost almost everything when she and Ma moved to New York: her home, her academic prestige, and the final resting place of her father. She is forced to start over with a new language and a new life, but she and Ma have hope that with hard work and the help of Kimberly’s Aunt Paula, they will be able to prosper in America.
However, the American Dream quickly begins to slip through their fingers. Their only source of income is Aunt Paula’s sweatshop, where they’re forced to work excessive, grueling hours just to scrape by. Their apartment has broken windows, is ridden with roaches and rodents, and lacks heat. Kimberly’s only chance to save herself and Ma is to educate herself and eventually get into a good college.
Girl in Translation is a hopeful novel because in Kimberly’s situation of isolation and poverty, she has nowhere to go but up. It teaches that while situations may arise that throw us off course, we have the power to change our lives. Kimberly’s unshakable motivation is inspiring; despite the odds against her, she moves forward with motivation and humility.
Because it is written from the first-person point of view, Kimberly’s story is raw and personal. The reader feels close to her at her lowest points, like when she is humiliated in school, and at her happiest moments, like when she falls in love with her childhood crush.
Parts of the novel are upsetting and frustrating, but this is not a flaw. Kwok beautifully translates the suffering that she endured when she immigrated to America into Kimberly’s story, which makes it realistic. Aside from the inevitable struggles, Girl in Translation has its share of happiness and hope. At 303 pages, this book is certainly worth a try.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.