Monday, June 14, 2010

Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok - 304 pgs



Book CoverKimberly Chang and her mother have just immigrated to America from Hong Kong in an attempt to escape the communist threat. Having secured help from her aunt's family, who owns a clothing factory, Kimberly and her mother are quickly ushered into their new apartment which comes complete with rodents, roaches and little to no heat. When her mother begins her job at the factory, Kim is enrolled in a public junior high school and her problems with assimilation begin in earnest. Kimberly is a very smart girl who had been used to winning honors and accolades at her school in China and is frustrated and upset that all her attempts to learn and understand the language are coming to nil. Soon Kimberly is working at the factory with her mother in addition to going to school, and it isn't too long before the small family's lives are beset with heartache. As the job at the factory devolves into a sweatshop situation, Kimberly and her mother are forced to do with less and less, while the requirements of living grow to be more and more. When Kim eventually makes a friend and begins to learn the ropes of the school and the English language, her life begins to take a turn for the better. Soon she also forms a romantic attachment in an unexpected place and she comes into her full academic glory. Though she has come from an extremely humble beginning, Kimberly eventually pulls free of her chains and takes her life and her mothers into uncharted waters, and they are able to truly begin again. In this reflective and often somber new novel, Jean Kwok gives us a very different take on achieving the American dream and shows how the spirit and fire of one girl can overcome even the most harsh of obstacles.

While I did end up enjoying this book, it was a bit of a slow start for me. From the moment the story begins when Kim and her mother step into that awful apartment, I felt a sort of odd disconnect. I wasn't sure if it was the writing style or the characters, who seemed almost devoid of real emotion, but for me, there was just a sense that the story was going to be a slog. Therefore I was happily surprised when Kim's voice began to take on more of an authentic ring and her life story really took flight. I think one of my problems with the early sections of the book had a lot to do with the lack of intimate details and feelings that Kim and her mother expressed, but as Kim grew into the courageous girl willing to brave any situation, she also grew on me.

A lot of this story was sad. Kim was forced to assimilate very quickly, and as a result, her self-image and confidence was really affected. Though she wanted to have friends and be a top student, her lack of knowledge about American social customs and the language barrier really put her up against some huge stumbling blocks. Part of the problem was the traditional ideals of her mother. Though Kim was sometimes invited to the homes and parties of her classmates, her mother felt that it was improper that a girl should socialize in that way and was also worried about having to reciprocate that hospitality when their home life was in such shambles. This led to a weary Kim having to lie about her excursions and kept her from feeling like part of the group. It was really frustrating to see that Kim definitely needed to bond with her fellow students, if only to learn from them, but due to her cramped schedule and the beliefs of her mother, was kept away. I also was kind of appalled to see that Kim and her mother were so ill used by her aunt in the factory. They were basically indentured servants, working long tiring hours for what amounted to pennies, jealously kept from advancement and success by a domineering and cruel woman.

As Kim begins to strike out on her own, she has many life changing experiences. When she discovers that there is mutual interest between herself and a boy who works in the factory, she is first delighted and then shy and confused. There is a lot of struggle in this quasi-relationship because although the boy is more familiar with her way of life and situation than other boys might be, Kim is still caught up in the anxieties of her low self-esteem and financial situation. This leaves the door open to many frustrations and misunderstandings between herself and the boy in question, and regretfully, the relationship takes many years to bear fruit.

I thought that the sections regarding Kim's school career were very interesting. She goes from being at the top, to somewhere in the bottom rungs, and is constantly maligned by both teachers and students. The main problem seems to be the language barrier, but she also has the more typical problems of teasing and being the odd person out. Her friendship with another girl in her class was a bright spot, both for her and for me. It had to be very punishing for her to constantly have to doubt her own value and accomplishments, to have to run twice as fast just to pull up even with the pack. As she becomes more comfortable in her environment, doors begin to open for her, both academically and in the area of relationships. I cheered for Kim when she began to fit in, and thought that though her success was hard won, it was a sweet victory.

In later sections, Kim falls into the same pitfalls as some of her friends. She becomes mildly promiscuous and seeks out destructive endeavors in order to fit in and find herself. This was a bit of surprise to me, and I felt that these were some of the sections that really emulated real life. Kim's life was a conundrum. Living and working as she did did not set her free, neither did travelling down the paths of her friends. What I think it finally was, was her determination to free her mother from her bonds and to experience the life she knew she was meant to have. And believe me, there was a lot of nefariousness disguised as goodwill keeping her trapped where she was. I think that's why it was doubly impressive that she broke free and was able to live the life she dreamed of. Though the book does return a more somber conclusion, I felt that there was a tremendous balance struck between Kim's dreams and her reality.

I think Jean Kwok did an excellent job with making Kim's story a tale of perseverance and heart, and it ended up being a very satisfying read for me. I would definitely recommend this book to those who are interested in well developed coming-of-age stories, as well as those who like to read about the immigrant experience. Kim was a human enough character for readers to really relate to her struggles, yet still somewhat of a curiosity whose foreign outlook and opinion would really muster a lot of interest in her singularly unique experience of a new life in America. A very thought provoking read and one that really spoke to me.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

17 comments:

Jenny said...

I've been wondering if I should read this one. But describing it as one about coming of age and the immigrant experience does interest me. The assimilation of Asians, especially, into American culture has always interested me since I'm half-Asian.. I'll have to pick this one up!

Aarti said...

I don't know if this book is for me. I admit I am the opposite of Jenny commenting above because I am really tired of the assimilation stories. I don't think many "new" stories are being written on the topic and I'm tired of reading the same thing over and over. I am not sure that this one seems much more original than the dozens that have come before it.

Suko said...

Zibilee, this sounds like a complex story. Your review is quite thoughtful and although the book may be cloaked in sadness, it sounds engaging.

Nymeth said...

I'm glad to hear this turned out to be so satisfying despite the slow start. I see Aarti's point about immigrant stories, but I personally haven't read enough of them to be tired yet.

Darlene said...

I'm glad this book picked up for you Heather. I find that happens with a lot of books for me. I believe this one is in my piles somewhere. It sounds like a book I would like.

softdrink said...

I have this on my shelf, thanks to Penguin. While it's not at the top of the to be read list, I am hoping to get to it this year.

Thanks for a great review.

Diane said...

This one really speaks to me. I do have it and after your excellent review I am more anxious than ever to begin.

brichtabooks said...

I just started this one and am also having a hard time gettting into it. So far the sections in school are interesting though because I am looking at it from a teacher's perspective, thinking about how I relate to students from other cultures in my own classroom. I'm glad you ended up enjoying it.

Lisa said...

I've been on the fence about this one but it does sound interesting.

Lisa said...

I've been on the fence about this one but it does sound interesting.

Marg said...

I find the immigrant experience to be such rich material for reading books. I have this on my list. Not sure when I will get to it.

Marie said...

I think I have an arc of this around somewhere; I'm glad you enjoyed it. I like coming of age stories and immigrant experiences so it might work for me!

Serena said...

Despite the slow start, I think this story has a lot to offer. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

bermudaonion said...

I love immigrant stories - I think because of our time in France, I know how difficult it is to leave your native country. I'm really looking forward to reading this book!

irisonbooks said...

I'm glad to hear that it turned out to be a good read, even though it started out slow.

B.Kienapple said...

The cover is beautiful and I'm glad to hear that the story holds water. I'll be picking it up!

Melissa M said...

I've seen really great reviews of this one and hope to get to it soon!

Post a Comment

 
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio