A young woman’s journey

Jean Kwok struggled so hard to convey the experience of new Chinese immigrants to America, it took her 10 years to write her best-selling debut novel, Girl in Translation, now in paperback.  

“I wanted to put the reader into the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant,” Kwok explained, in an interview for Danwei. “English comes in garbled and incomprehensible, while the beauty of the Chinese language is easily understood.”
Kwok’s book tells the story of a bright young girl, Kimberley Chang, and her mother, and how they survive and flourish in New York. When they arrive they are met by unsupportive relatives who exploit rather than help them. Kimberley, though only a pre-teen, is thrust into the role of translator and negotiator for her Chinese mother who struggles with English.
Kimberley struggles to adjust to her new life. She must learn to survive in her tough Brooklyn school, and then how to thrive in a posh prep school. In spite of obstacles, she is a gifted student and manages to win a full scholarship to a prestigious school. She suffers from the strain of having to hide her poverty. No one suspects she works after school in a sweat shop to help her mother. She must always hide the facts from her friends and schoolmates; she and her mother live in an unheated vermin-plagued apartment.
“One thing I wanted to illuminate with my novel was how alone a working-class immigrant child is, says Kwok, in the Danwei interview. “If they have any kind of difficulty in school, they often cannot rely on their parents to help them. They often don’t have physical resources like magazines or art supplies at home to complete school projects. Not to mention the lack of tutoring and lessons in extracurricular activities.”
She does so elegantly in her book. I was drawn into Kimberly and her mother’s plight. I could understand the frustration and isolation of educated people suddenly forced into poverty and subjected to racism. Kwok captures the frustration of having no voice because you can’t speak the language and are very poor.
Kwok tells an important and compelling story of poverty, perseverance, and triumph. I adored this book and could not put it down. Don’t miss this inspiring and uplifting story about a young woman’s journey to finding her identity and strength in a new language and culture.