Review : Girl In Translation – Jean Kwok


A week ago I was done with Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I picked up the book on a whim.  I did the usual drill.  I pick up the book and read bits and pieces in between before taking it home. If nothing catches my interest I leave it alone.

The blurb read “When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.” The back and forth straddling two worlds is what I recognize very well, since I am a fence sitter on most things.

I turn to a random page and I read “There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time.  Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown.  I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions.”  Gets me thinking, how much of that was true in my own life.  I believed in Fate and Destiny like most every Indian kid. That writing on our foreheads that never can be changed. I still do to a degree but the older I get, my memory of what the choices I made that got me to where I am today is undeniable.

Now for some thoughts on the book –

1. The story is about a young girl, Ah-Kim AKA Kimberly, just entering her teens moving to the US from Hong Kong with her Mother. Told from the Girl’s perspective as she grows. An immigrants experience always makes me empathetic, cause I am in those shoes partly. Though I have been curious about immigrants from other countries and their experiences, my own inhibition when it comes to falling over myself to make conversations makes it impossible to know another the way I want to. The fear of being labeled nosy or disrespecting a person’s privacy makes me very wary of crossing certain boundaries.

2. Throughout the story, there is a theme of “so many skirts worth” when ever they buy something.  I couldnt help but laugh in complete knowing what that meant.  When we came to the US, we didnt have much money although it was definitely more than what we had in our home country. So we became such experts at the 33 and 34 times tables. A Dollar was worth about 33  Rupees at the time. And every dollar we spent would be converted to rupees in such habit that it never seemed like we lived in America, we lived in a  “so many rupees worth of dollars spent” world.

3. As the girl grows in a place unfamiliar to her, you see the obstacles of clashing culture with her own rich inner life. The experience is very poignant, cause some of those very emotions are the emotions I think any girl growing anywhere in conservative Asian societies goes through. Its that “not being heard but seen” rule that girls in Asian societies are afflicted with and the inner worlds we build because of what cant be voiced freely and the freedom we find in voicing it when an opportunity knocks, compelling us to grab it.

4. It is story of strength of women, the stuff we go through and still keep our humanity in tact. It is about love, love of family, love of mother, of lovers. I love a good love story and this has that typical in the teens love that has an innocence mixed with ambition for the future.

5. The premise that a woman can make it, no matter what obstacles, with her single mindedness and need to keep it together, it’s a trait that I watch in a lot of women. I am not saying that Men don’t have it, but that it is more appealing in a woman cause she rarely gets credit for it. Society rarely awards women for their strength, the quiet strength that is used every day of their lives. Its that strength that helps those around them breathe and move free, cause they yoke themselves in one place being the sun in others lives. I am yet to see someone give a woman “The Best Housewife award”. And I think I am biased, I like the underdog better than the hero.

6. There are a few instances where the girl Ah-Kim uses different pronunciations for words in English that she couldn’t understand in the beginning of her stay in the US. She isnt well versed in English, though she studied the language in Hong Kong. It felt funny as I read it, cause it reminded me of my faux pas. I have been in situations where I didn’t understand the US English word for certain things and had misunderstandings in spite of knowing the British Version of the Language. Nuances, Redneck Jokes, The Southern Drawl, the dropping of consonants from certain words in the East Coast, the laid back words of the NW, References to Books and stuff that wasnt part of my growing up(like baseball, Roots, different genres of music, art etc.) were things I had to learn over time. In a way I am glad I learned and that I have a lot more to learn(Hey, I am not dead yet Right?). I am aware that certain others of my ilk never make the effort, and I make it a point to explain if I am around, just so they will enjoy their stay here better.

7. Overall I give it a 3.5/5. I shaved the points for the fact it isnt a book that will appeal to anyone anywhere.