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Jean Kwok’s debut novel “Girl In Translation” takes the reader into the struggle of Chinese immigrants Ah-Kim (Kimberly) Chang and her mother, who struggle to make a new life in contemporary New York City. The two immigrants come to America from Hong Kong – where Ma was a piano teacher and Kimberly an academic star student – when Kimberly is just 11. When they arrive they are already in debt to the relative who paid for the cost of their trip.
The poverty of Chinatown is their milieu: Ma must take a job doing piecework in a factory, and Kimberly comes to a Chinatown sweatshop factory after school every day to add pieces to her mother’s pile. Home is an unheated, pest-infested apartment with a mattress on the floor.
School in the United States is tough for Kimberly. Language barriers make her classes in history and social studies almost impossibly difficult. She is teased because she does not have the right clothes. Their apartment is so wretched that Kim is too embarrassed to invite anyone over. Because their Chinese culture mandates reciprocal hospitality, Kim cannot accept invitations, either. Kim keeps at it, though, because both mother and daughter – “Ma and her cub” – know education will be their ticket out of poverty. She will study hard, get that scholarship and lift her and her mother from their harsh circumstances.
Little Kim is the heart of this novel. In many ways she must be the adult. To her it falls to find her way around Brooklyn, act as translator for her mother, even fill out income-tax forms. Kimberly has determination, but she finds that brains, hard work and even luck are not always enough to help a family succeed.
The novel is written in first person from Kim’s point of view. The evolution of her language charts Kim’s progress into American culture, growing smoother as Kim solves the mysteries of the language. The author herself was a child-laborer in New York and she has borrowed from her experiences to translate the lives of impoverished but determined immigrants into absorbing prose.