Tales of an immigrant coming to America and struggling to succeed are abundant, but Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok tells the story of Kim and her Ma as they immigrate to New York City, in the hopes of the American Dream. Kwok tells Kim’s story in chapters, made of short cinematic prose that mimic snapshots of a life, and make it easy to get engrossed in the story of Kim and her Ma. Brought over by her Aunt Paula, Kim and her Ma move into a roach-infested apartment, with broken windows, and no heat. Put to work in a factory that pays “per piece,” Kim realizes that in order move out the soon-to-be-condemned building she must do well in school. The novel is told through Kim’s perspective, and focuses mostly on her experience at school, with teachers who don’t understand her Chinese heritage or that she comprehends very little English. As Kim’s English improves she advances in school, scoring very high on her standardized tests, much to Aunt Paula’s dismay and envy. In addition to Kim’s studies, she must help her mother at the factory where she meets her friend Matt. As the two grow up together in the common setting of the factory, they become really close, with their friendship becoming one of the main centerpieces of the novel.
As I was reading this book I was reminded of the films El Norte and Spanglish, both of which detail immigrants experience, the later in particular with a mother/daughter relationship. However while this book has tones similar to these movies, the novel has a completely different tone. The novel starts when Kim is in sixth grade and progresses until she’s thirty and with it comes all the subtleties of growing up. Kwok handles this subject matter with maturity and grace as Kim tries to stay true to what her Ma taught her while assimilating into American society and making friends. It is in this method of storytelling that Kim’s voice comes through, to the point where I thought I was reading a memoir and not a novel, and found myself having to keep reminding myself that the volume in my hands was a work of fiction. Kim’s voice is so present and alive that it felt like she was in the room as I read the book and found myself relating to her, not as immigrant, but as an intelligent student.
Kwok’s personable characters and realistic plot make this story come to life and jump off the page with familiar situations and archetypes. Everyone has had that childhood love interest or a friend who was there when no one else was, and its more likely then not that everyone has one relative that they don’t get along with. Even though all readers of this text might not be first-generation immigrants, Kwok elegantly explains the life and colloquialisms of a Chinese immigrant.
However rich the characters may be, the one thing that always makes a novel for me, is when I can’t predict the ending. As I was reading this book I found myself anticipating a fairytale ending, but Kwok turned it on its head in the last twenty pages and made me happy and sad at the same time. As such, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a delicious and dramatic human story. Readers will be pleasantly surprised to find themselves or someone they know in Kim’s personality.
Final Grade: B+