Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation
I’ve read a fairly large amount of books over the course of my life. And if you are familiar with my blog and reviews, you’ll know that I also read a wide array of genres and don’t really have one favorite type. As long as it’s fiction, I’ll read almost anything (all right, I won’t read erotica). In my reading adventures, I have only managed to find a handful of real jewels. Not that other novels are bad. No, most of the books are really good, sometimes even awesome. But there are a few among those books that have this special radiance and as soon as I read them, I know that they will become my lifelong companions. Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok is one such book.

Kimberly Chang comes to America with her mom straight from Hong Kong. They were living there as Chinese immigrants and thanks to Auntie Paula, Kimberly’s mom’s sister, they now have a shot at a life in New York. Kim is still a little girl, barely 11 years old but she has to grow up very fast. Instead of riches and abundance, the Changs are dumped in a rat and cockroach infested Brooklyn apartment, with no heating, with broken windows and one stained mattress for furniture. Kim’s mom, to whom she always refers as Ma, speaks no English and therefore relies on Kim a lot. But there is one talent Kim has and that’s her talent for learning. She is actually almost a genius, especially for math and scientific subjects. And so , through the pages of Girl In Translation we follow Kimberly and her mom as they try to make a better life for themselves as immigrants in a country that holds more promise than any other place.

There apparently are many immigrant stories on the market nowadays. I haven’t read any of them, mainly because I’m an immigrant myself and just never felt the urge to read about something I was experiencing first hand. However, something made me want to read this particular story. I guess you could blame it on wanting to step outside of my safety zone. I will forever be grateful for doing that because within the pages of this small and unassuming book, I found a brilliant and beautiful heroine, a girl who is all I wished I could be. She is strong and resilient, she knows what she needs to do, which path to follow in order to have that better life bother her and her mom dreamed of. But most importantly, Kimberly is not driven by a selfish want of money and materialistic luxuries, but by her love for her Ma. It really was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time to watch the love these two shared.  Ma’s story really broke my heart several times. It’s so much like my mom’s story that reading about it was almost uncanny. Before arriving at New York, Ma was an intelligent, person, outspoken and educated and a gifted violin player. Because she spoke no English, she was all of a sudden reduced to dumb creature who works at a factory at slave wages and is forced to forget the dreams she once might have had. It’s really sad to read about. But there’s also hope and light at the end of the tunnel and I appreciated that the most.

Girl In Translation is a beautiful novel that I read in one day and I didn’t want to end. I loved the redemptive quality of it and the good message that it carries. I know some people are disappointed with the ending but I was happy that the book ended the way it did (that’s all I say so I won’t spoil it). Jean Kwok is an immigrant herself and even though the story of Kimberly is not her story, she is very accurate at portraying the immigrant experience and I mostly appreciate the fact that Kimberly and her Ma do not have a victim mentality and are not victims of circumstances. Instead, they both stand for what I admire most in women: strength, resiliency and an ability to remain true to themselves no matter the hardships.


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I read Girl In Translation as a part of Women Unbound challenge. I hope that having read my review, you get the gist of why this book belongs to the category of 'women unbound'. The story of Kim and her mom resonated with me on a deeply personal level. I am an immigrant, a woman, a daughter and a mother myself and could find parts of me in this beautiful story as well as admirable traits that I can only dream I could share with Kim and Ma.

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Special thanks to Shelf Awareness and Riverhead Books for sending me a copy of this book for review.