Book Review: Jean Kwok’s GIRL IN TRANSLATION

Just as Jean Kwok is hesitant to reveal how similar her novel Girl in Translation is to her real story, I wondered if I could review it without getting too personal about why it moved me. Well, I could, but it’d be a vague, disconnected review. So, I decided to write this one.

The titular girl is eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang, who emigrates from Hong Kong to America with her mother. They land in Brooklyn where her aunt Paula gives them work in the sweatshop she owns with her American husband. Aunt Paula also puts them up in a squalid apartment in a condemned building with no central heat but plenty of roaches. Kimberly helps her mom at the factory after school every day, doing her homework late at night.

Luckily, as Kimberly says, “I’ve always had a knack for school.” Despite her lack of English skills, she excels in science and wins full scholarships, first to an exclusive prep school then Yale. But the road to success isn’t an easy one, as Kimberly struggles between feelings of duty towards her mother and feelings of a different kind for a boy at the factory. She eventually makes a difficult choice that leads to both love and loss.

Reading this book, I felt like someone had stolen some of my memories and spilled them out on the page. Kwok’s depiction of how Kimberly’s classmates and teacher (!) make fun of her took me right back to fourth grade when I’d just arrived in America and kids pushed me in hallways and laughed at my mismatched clothes. Kwok speaks from inside that feeling of alienation, of being treated as stupid even though you’re not. Immigrant or no, who hasn’t felt that way?

I could also relate to Kimberly’s confusion when encountering her classmates’ childhood games:

They were busy with cooties: catching them, getting rid of them and inoculating themselves against them…I had no idea what cooties were and often ended up as the recipient of all the cooties in the class.

I used to get all the cooties, too, and still don’t know what they are.

Kwok puts the reader in Kimberly’s head by using a voice that’s both innocent and too knowing for her age. The author doesn’t explain everything Kimberly sees, leaving it up to the reader to figure it out as Kim does, so we can discover her new world along with her. Her first lunch in the school cafeteria sounds almost identical to one of my first meals in America and her reaction also resembles mine at the time:

I wound up with this: minced meat in the form of a saucer, potatoes that were not round but had been crushed into a pastelike substance, a sauce similar to soy sauce but less dark and salty, a roll and milk. I had hardly ever drunk cow’s milk before and it gave me a stomachache. The rest of the food was interesting, although there was no rice and I felt as if I hadn’t really eaten.

But you don’t need to be an immigrant to appreciate this story. We can all use a reminder that even if we’ve got it tough, there’s always someone whose wildest dreams is to have what we have. If we’re unhappy with our lives, we have the freedom to change it. Sometimes perseverance isn’t enough; we must find a way to overcome. It may require great sacrifices but can result in even greater fulfillment.

Nerd verdict: Resonant Translation



  • Reply
    April 29, 2010 at 8:51 am

    No kid knows what the hell cooties are, but I’m guessing the little boys like saying it because it sounds like boobies. 😉 Kimberly’s description of her school lunch is perfect and completely unappetizing. Makes me want to run to my nephews’ and nieces’ school cafeterias and implement changes immediately!! It’s amazing what you can learn from others’ POV.

    If this writer’s descriptions were true enough to move you in regards to your own experiences, then she’s worth reading. Thanks for the review, PCN.

  • Reply
    April 29, 2010 at 8:52 am

    PCN: What an amazing review and experience you’ve shared. I feel like I know you ever better after having read this review, and can appreciate even more the incredible person you are. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    April 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Sounds like Jean Kwok delivers the goods. I know you are very selective with your positive reviews and this one appears to be a bit personal. I look forward to the read.

    We seem to get your immigrant story in small doses and I find what little you have shared with us quite hilarious. So when is YOUR book coming?

  • Reply
    April 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    In the excerpt you take from the book where Jean Kwok is describing the cafeteria food…..Is she taking about Salisbury Steak and Mashed potatoes with gravy? Wow, just made myself a little hungry. LOL!

    Never thought of describing it that way, but I can see why someone unfamiliar with American food would look at it like that. Makes sense. Also, what the heck else could it be? I think I’ll pick up the book just to read Kwok’s descriptions.

    Nice going, PCN! Keep it coming.

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    April 29, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I can almost imagine you doing a double take as you were reading this book, PCN. Thank you for the insights into some of your childhood experiences. We don’t have cooties in Australia per se, but if we had, I’m positive I would have been the recipient, too.

  • Reply
    Jean Kwok
    May 1, 2010 at 2:50 am

    Thanks so much for this really moving review! It means a lot to me, and this kind of thing is exactly why I wrote this novel. I’m on my national book tour now so don’t have time to keep up with all the blog reviews, but this one is so great, I posted a link to it on my fan page on Facebook:

    Thanks again!

  • Reply
    May 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Thanks for the review. The book sounds interesting and I’ve been debating whether or not I should read the book or not, but after reading your review I’m definitely adding it to my ever growing tbr list.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    May 2, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Christine—I think the lunch was Salisbury Steak with mashed potatoes & gravy (nice call, Reader#9!), which isn’t awful, but because it was foreign to Kimberly, it looked unappetizing to her. I thought a lot of things looked disgusting when I first got here (a PBJ is goopy and brown), things I now find delicious.

    Novelwhore—You made my heart sing.

    EIREGO—Um, I’m working on it.

    Reader#9—Trying to figure out what Kimberly was experiencing from her descriptions was a fun little game but I think you’ll enjoy the rest of the book, too. Nice call on the mysterious lunch!

    Shell—You don’t have cooties there? Do you have something equivalent?

    Jean—You just made my day! Thank you so much for your kind words about my review and for writing this book. You touched a nerve and I think GIRL will be huge because of it. Have a wonderful tour!

    toothy—I understand too well the staggering size of TBR piles, but I’m glad you’re adding this one to it. Welcome to my site and to the blogosphere!

  • Reply
    May 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    I am delighted that you chose the personal route for this review. One more time I need to comment on the fabulousness of your blog!
    When I was five years old, the neighbors had relatives visiting from New York; the girls were a few years older and introduced us to the “cooties” game. I naively asked what cooties were and after being insulted for my stupidity was told that they were lice. I did not know what lice were, either, but wisely decided not to ask. After looking at the enlarged picture in the encyclopedia I did not sleep for days!
    Thanks, again, for the insightful review. It is already in my TBR but will move up the pile.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      May 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm

      Oh, thanks for the kind words, Paulette, and clearing up what cooties are! Now excuse me as I take a long shower to make sure no cooties remain from childhood.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    When you put some of you into your book reviews, PCN, they really can be quite something. This was an absolutely splendid review to get lost in, Elyse. Thank you very much for this.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Nice review!
    i was searching to see if the book is worth buying. but you showed an interesting review of this book . I’ll come back after finishing it 🙂

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