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Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation (edition 2011)

by Jean Kwok

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1,2641276,249 (3.95)90
Title:Girl in Translation
Authors:Jean Kwok
Info:Riverhead Trade (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
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Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok


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English (125)  Dutch (3)  Finnish (1)  All languages (129)
Showing 1-5 of 125 (next | show all)
A straightforward but very enjoyable account of the trials and tribulations of immigration, with a particular emphasis on the language barrier. Kim and her mother arrive from Hong Kong with hardly a word of English, though Kim is gifted in science and maths. The story of how she gradually learns the language and makes a life for herself despite extreme poverty and the exploitation she and her mother are subjected to within the black economy is an eye-opener. The tribulations of adolescence and the difficulties she has with her friends (not wanting to go to their houses in case they expect a return invitation etc) are relevant in other walks of life too, but the book made me wonder - in particular - about sweatshops, and whether they are confined to the developing world or not. ( )
  jayne_charles | Apr 20, 2015 |
I'm into immigration stories these days. This is a good one, of a Chinese immigrant to New York trying to make something of herself. I just wish it had a happier ending :-( ( )
  Shiraloo | Mar 25, 2015 |
A memorable novel, beautifully told, Girl in Translation is the coming of age story of Kimberly Chang who, at the age of 11, arrives in New York with her mother. Mrs. Chang, a widow, is fearful of the handover of Hong Kong from British to communist Chinese authorities scheduled to occur in 1997 and immigrates to the United States believing she will be able to give her daughter a better life. Narrated from a child's point of view, the harrowing situation in which Kim finds herself unfolds vividly and prosaically, to wit: living in an unheated apartment in an otherwise abandoned building, working in a sweatshop in Chinatown, and attempting to learn in a classroom with a clueless, cynical teacher. Jean Kwok has a marvelous ear, periodically dropping into the dialogue the English words Kim thinks are being spoken, occasionally to hilarious effect. The conversations with Chinese peers and between mother and daughter have a unique but not stilted rhythm and are frequently "translated" so that the reader can appreciate the nuances of the Cantonese idioms. Framed as a flashback, the book's final chapters seem a bit hurried and abrupt, but this is on the whole a minor quibble. ( )
  LizHD | Mar 25, 2015 |
Highly, highly, highly recommended. A wonderful main character, no easy answers, but inspiring and wonderful all the same. ( )
  dukedukegoose | Jan 26, 2015 |
In this book about immigrants, the 11 year old Kimberly Chung moves to Brooklyn from Hong Kong with her mom, sponsored by her mom’s elder sister, Aunt Paula. Language barriers, financial struggles, school/life acclimations and young love are all the normal topics du jour. Tricked to live in abandoned housing by Aunt Paula, Kim and ma worked endless hours at the clothing factory that Aunt Paula owns, repaying the debt of ma’s tuberculosis treatment costs in HK, the immigration fees (both with interest!), and rent plus utilities for the unlivable housing. Paid at per piece wage (an illegal practice) of $0.015 to bag skirts, their life seems doomed, and Kim was determined to help her family with her one tool – her brains.

I really wanted to like this book more – be touched by it and especially to relate to it. (I was a nearly 9.5 year old immigrant to SF from HK.) There are definitely the heart-tucking moments, the relatable events, with a few “I don’t need to be reminded of this” cringes. Being able to translate the Cantonese terms, such as heart stem, into the exact Chinese characters was a bonus. But it lost me along the way.

The Good:
- I LOVED the way Ms. Kwok used misspelled or incorrect words to denote the vocabulary that Kim didn’t know. That was exactly how I heard sentences, with gaps and/or incorrect fillers guessing at the meaning hoping I’m answering correctly.
- Kim excelled in math and sciences while failing vocabulary heavy classes such as social studies. I stumped a teacher or two with my A’s and C’s/D’s/F’s between the two categories of classes. The evil Mr. Bogart gave me some laughs/cringes too.
- It is very accurate that the child (or the eldest of the children) becomes pseudo adult upon arriving in the U.S. They learn English faster, and they acclimate faster than the parents. I forged every single parental signature that I can remember from 5th grade onwards.
- Needless to say the cultural divide is a transition that requires compromises between Kim and ma and some creative lying on Kim’s part. Been there, done that.

The Bad: Many of these books have a common error where they take everything to the extremes of all possible situations. (Amy Tan’s “Kitchen God’s Wife” is guilty of this too.) This book has these moments too.
- Living in crammed dilapidated housing is pretty common; living in condemned housing with broken windows and no heat is not. (I certainly have seen more cockroaches than I ever want to see for the rest of my life.)
- Working in clothing factory and being paid at per piece are both fairly common. Having the workers’ children also work is kind of iffy since space is a luxury. The flow of untrained labor hungry for a few dollars doesn’t necessitate the need for child labor. They tend to get underfoot and is problematic for efficiency.
- Kim’s super intellect gives the novel its main plot, but it makes her less real too.
- The twist near the end which I won’t reveal was a bit of “let’s throw the kitchen sink at it also”. Argh.

Maybe I’m too close to the subject at hand. I wonder if this would be a better book if Kimberly Chung is a bit more ‘normal’ smart, which makes her more relatable, and the story more realistic. In the end, I’m glad I read it. It reminded me that my childhood could have been worse, and I could have struggled even more.

Some Quotes:

On homework – argh, I remember these. I was also lucky, surrounded by immigrants. Teachers were more aware of our limitations. (The most difficult was college when I couldn’t afford lab materials.)
“It seemed Mr. Bogart went out of his way to choose assignments that were practically impossible for me, although now I think that he was simply thoughtless: write a page describing your bedroom and the emotional significance of objects in it (as if I had my own room filled with treasured toys); make a poster about a book you’ve read (with what materials?); make a collage about the Reagan administration using pictures from old magazines (Ma bought a Chinese newspaper only once in a while.) I did my best but he didn’t understand. Half-hearted attempt, he wrote. Incomplete. Careless. A pictorial collage should not by definition include Chinese text.”

On unhappiness:
“Our living conditions didn’t change but with time, I stopped allowing myself to be conscious of my own unhappiness.”
“What Annette didn’t understand was that silence could be a great protector. I couldn’t afford to cry when there was no escape. Talking about my problems would only illuminate the lines of my unhappiness in the cold light of day, showing me, as well as her, the things I had been able to bear only because they had been half hidden in the shadows. I couldn’t expose myself like that, not even for her.”

On abstract art:
“Because when something is not realistic, it becomes a container for whatever you want it to be. Like a word or a symbol or a vase. You can pour anything you want into it.”

On a broken heart:
“When she saw us, she seemed heartbroken, her grief so complete that it left no room for anger. I thought, I never want to love someone like that, not even Matt, so much that there would be no room left for myself, so much that I wouldn’t be able to survive if he left me.” ( )
2 vote varwenea | Jan 13, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 125 (next | show all)
Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.
Kwok adeptly captures the hardships of the immigrant experience and the strength of the human spirit to survive and even excel despite the odds.
added by khuggard | editLibrary Journal

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jean Kwokprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wey, GrayceNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Erwin, Stefan and Milan, and to the memory of my brother Kwan S. Kwok
First words
I was born with a talent. Not for dance, nor comedy, nor anything so delightful. I've always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort. It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit in it. This is not to say that my education was always easy for me. When Ma and I moved to the U.S., I spoke only a few words of English and for a very long time, I struggled.
What Annette didn't understand was that silence could be a great protector. I couldn't afford to cry when there was no escape. Talking about my problems would only illuminate the lines of my unhappiness in the cold light of day, showing me, as well as her, the things I had been able to bear only because they had been half hidden in the shadows. I couldn't expose myself like that, not even for her.
Brains are beautiful.
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Book description
Ah-Kim Chang and her mother immigrate to Brooklyn, where they work for Kim's Aunt Paula in a Chinatown clothing factory earning barely enough to keep them alive; however, Kim's perseverance and hard work earns her a place at an elite private school where she is befriended by Annette, who helps her adjust to American culture.
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Emigrating with her mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, Kimberly Chang begins a secret double life as an exceptional schoolgirl during the day and sweatshop worker at night, an existence also marked by her first crush and the pressure to save her family from poverty.… (more)

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