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September 28, 2010 > Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Review by Barbara Wong

This story isn't new. This is an immigrant's tale. But the bravery and strength of heart displayed by the central character, Kimberly Chang, gives us a unique glimpse into what motivates an immigrant child to overcome the odds stacked against her. It provides a window into the sacrifices borne out of love, which makes her success so much more poignant.

From the opening paragraph of Kimberly's story "I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything else so delightful. I've always had a knack for school." to the twists and turns of her life and her choices, the images of her struggle to survive and thrive stay with you. What drives a person to persevere? Why do others who face the same daunting circumstances fail?

11-year old Kimberly Chang and her mother immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong originally in order for her mother to care for her sister's children, but upon arrival in the U.S., it becomes clear that the Aunt, perhaps frightened by Kimberly's mother's bout with tuberculosis, had no intention of giving them a helping hand. Instead of caring for her nephews, as she was originally told, Kimberly's mother was given a job at the Aunt and Uncle's garment factory, and in return, Kimberly and her mother would work to pay off the costs incurred by the Aunt to treat her mother's illness and to bring them to America.

Once Kimberly began to understand the output requirements of her new life at the garment factory, she also begins to measure everything based on the costs of piece work in the factory, in 'skirts,' equating the amount of money she and her mother make by bagging clothing, or 'finishing,' in factory shorthand. "Ma also gave me $2.99 to buy a paperback Webster's dictionary. This cost us almost two hundred finished skirts, since we were paid 1.5 cents per skirt. For years, I calculated whether or not something was expensive by how many skirts it costs. In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum costs 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts."

This is the new life that Kimberly Chang or "Ah-Kim", as her mother calls her, is now a part of. As they go to the workstation in the factory, a combination of very old ladies and young children were crowded around it, clipping all the extraneous threads off the sewn garments. This seemed to be the easiest job. "They enter at this table as children and they leave from it as grandmas," Aunt Paula said with a wink. "The circle of factory life."

Coming to the United States was seen as a ticket out of the dead end life in Hong Kong, but the world she entered living in a condemned, vermin infested apartment that is due to be demolished, was light years away from what 11-year old Kimberly and her musical tutor mother envisioned.

Deposited in an abandoned building with no heat and barely enough clothing to stay warm through the harsh New York winters, Kimberly and her mother rejoice when they discover discarded cloth used to make stuffed animals "A few days after the Western New Year, we found a true gift. Our regular route to the subway took us past a big building and one morning we saw some men working near its dumpster. Soon, they left and we saw what they'd thrown away: several rolls of the plush cloth used to make stuffed animals. The building must have been a toy factory. We both stopped short, riveted by the sight of the warm material.

" Ma laughed with joy at the glorious find. Yards and yards of material that could keep us warmer. Even though the cloth with fake fur, lime and green prickly, it was better than anything we had. The streets were deserted in the bitter cold but Ma and I made several trips to pull as many rolls out of the trash as we could and dragged them home. Ma made us robes, sweaters, pants and blankets out of the toy factory cloth." Throughout her story, she doesn't express pity, in herself nor in others.

The value of true friendship comes with no price tag. Kimberly was befriended by Annette Avery, a child of parents who come from a world so far removed from her day-to-day life of school and factory work. But even though their friendship thrived, the barriers erected by her circumstances could never be fully breached. Kimberly never invited anyone to her home, and her mother discouraged her from going to the home of her one true friend, Annette. "But when Annette invited me to her house again, Ma said I couldn't go. I pleaded until finally Ma held me by the shoulders, looking into my eyes, and said, "Ah-Kim, if you go too many times to her house, we will have to invite her back to ours one day and then what? Little heart's stem, we already have too many debts we can't repay."

She develops strength and hope in dismal conditions. Throughout the trials of discrimination, lack of language skills and facing the oppressive schedule of life in the factory, Kimberly manages to succeed and earn a full scholarship to a tony prep school, and eventually to college. Although Kimberly saw the disparity between her life and the lives of the students who attended Harrison Prep, she didn't lament about her lack in comparison to others.

"The complexities of these kids were beyond me, and I thought about telling Annette. She and I talked every day on the bus and at lunch, but she babbled about her classes and the kids who shared them with her, telling me often that none of them were as nice or smart as I was. Most of our talks consisted of my reassuring her that one boy or another didn't hate her. She didn't notice that I rarely said anything about myself, but I didn't blame her for this. The truth was, I enjoyed not talking about myself. It was such a relief to be in her world and, by my silence, pretend I shared it. I didn't want her to know that a hard time I was having."

Throughout what often is a confusing time of searching of the self and what gives life meaning, aka the teenage years, Kimberly kept her focus and determination on the need to succeed and overcome the odds stacked against her.

What makes this immigrant success story special is that Kimberly and her mother never allows the sorrows and burdens of life overcome their ability to get up each and every day and do what is required for their survival. Jean Kwok has created a memorable character in Kimberly Chang that we can root for and praise, not only for the odds she overcomes, but for her ability to plunge ahead, despite fear and hardship.


Hardcover, 293 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
ISBN 1594487561 (ISBN13: 9781594487569)

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