Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Kimberly Chang, the young heroine in Jean Kwok’s debut novel Girl in Translation, could be described by adjectives like “irrepressible,” “plucky” or “gifted” -- but all of those would fall just a bit short. Kimberly is only eleven years old when she and her mother, Ma, arrive from Hong Kong in search of a better life, and find their new digs are in an infested, unheated condemned building in Brooklyn.
Their “benefactors” are Ma’s sister, Paula, and her husband, who had paid for Ma’s tuberculosis treatments, and funded their passage to the United States. Both Kimberly and her mother are extremely aware of the debt they have to repay to their relatives. Paula is also the one responsible for her sister and niece working under harsh conditions in her factory and living in squalor. “That was ma and me: two squeamish Buddhists in the apartment from hell.”
With her limited English vocabulary, Kimberly goes to school and struggles to comprehend what the teacher is saying, dreading moments when he might call on her. “This is a pop quick,” he said. “Fill in allde captal see T’s.” After school, Kimberly meets her mother at the Chinatown garment factory where they work. Her saving grace is Matt, a boy near her age, who also works in the factory with his mother.
“Going to the factory after school would become something so automatic that sometimes, even when I needed to go someplace else years later, I would find myself on the trains to the factory by accident, as if that were the place to which all roads led.” And so Kimberly’s intertwined lives begin -- student by day, worker by night.
No one at school comprehends the depth of Kimberly’s poverty, despite her unflattering homemade haircuts and the awkward clothing Ma stitches together for her. Kimberly forms her own accounting system to determine what is affordable based on prices given to their factory work. “For years, I calculated whether something was expensive by how many skirts it cost. In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts.” However, toys and other adolescent accoutrements have no room in her life, because she’s too consumed by studying to give in to childish whims.
Kimberly becomes friends with Annette, a budding dramatist, although she is careful to keep the boundary of their friendship at school. Otherwise, Annette might try to see her after school and Kimberly is instinctively aware their home must remain a secret. Despite all of the challenges she faces or perhaps because of them -- Kimberly earns a slot at an exclusive preparatory high school due to her academic achievements.
The novel could have simply become a version of a well-known and often-repeated tale about a young girl trying to assimilate in a new culture, but under Kwok’s skillful guidance, the story is more far-reaching. It’s also about a child trying to care for her mother who doesn’t speak the language in an unfamiliar country.
One night as Kimberly is studying, she glances up to see her mother preparing for bed. “Her fragile frame was weighed down by layers of clothing, bound together by a furry vest made out of stuffed animal fabric we had found. She had pulled on her gloves but she still rubbed her hands together to warm them. That past summer, I had read a passage in a children’s book in which the father sat down with his daughter to teach her how to write a check. I thought about that scene often.”
Kwok’s measured, poignant writing deftly captures Kimberly’s struggles at school and the factory, where she realizes the depth of her affection for Matt. Although their daily lives are completely different -- Matt had to drop out of school at an early age to support his family -- they develop an understanding that had been missing from both of their lives. Yet Matt doesn’t share in Kimberly’s vision for the future, so she has to decide what to sacrifice. In her debut, Kwok creates an unforgettable heroine whose story will remain with the reader long after the last page.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok