Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
When Kim was 11 years old, she and her mother moved from Hong Kong to New York. They seemed to be lucky in their move, Kim’s aunt was already in America and was able to help them get their green cards, give them housing when the arrived, help them find a more permanent residence, and employ Kim’s mother in the factory she managed. Until, that is, they realized that they were paying huge amounts from their paltry paychecks in loan repayment, were living in a dwelling unfit for human habitation (they had to heat the apartment by leaving the stove on), and that they were unable to meet their deadlines at the factory without Kim working long hours with her mother after school. Basically, not at all the life they expected when coming to America.
Luckily, Kim and her mother do have some hope for the future. Kim is an extraordinarily bright girl, and always excelled in her classes in Hong Kong. All she needs is to do the same thing in America, and then eventually she can rescue her mother from this life. Of course, success in school in Hong Kong doesn’t immediately translate to success in school in Brooklyn. First, Kim must navigate the cultural differences between her family and the people around her – and try to translate kidspeak.
“Girl in Translation” is an absolutely lovely novel, as is evidenced from the very first two pages (this quote is from an ARC, and may have changed in the final copy):
There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At the time it seemed that everything I’d ever wanted was finally within reach. I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.
lf I had any criticism, I would say that at times Kim did not have enough flaws; she had huge reserves of strength and determination that kept her forever moving in the right direction. Perhaps she wasn’t always good, but neither did she ever really seem weak. However, I could accept her strength because she had essentially no choice but to be continually strong. If she could not do that, she and her mother would be lost under the press of their financial woes and limited options.
Interestingly, I was reading through “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” at the same time as I was reading “Girl in Translation” and couldn’t help but see some similarities: the impoverished family, the father more or less out of the picture, the mother working incredibly hard, the daughter choosing to become educated no matter what the difficulties.
At the risk of sounding corny, this is a fabulous coming-of-age novel about the power of education and determination. Not only that, but the writing is gorgeous and Kim is a compelling character. Highly recommended.