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Girl in Translation

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Overview

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

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 ...

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Overview

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

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.

Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant-a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Kimberly Chang is a brilliant, dirt-poor sixth grader, just off the boat from Hong Kong but determined to make it in America. She and her mother arrive planning to live with family on Staten Island, but they're forced into a roach-infested tenement in one of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Kimberly spends her days trying to fit in at school, where she can barely communicate in English but commands perfect scores in math and science; after school, she pulls second shift helping her mother at a Chinatown sweatshop.

Drawing on her own experience in relocation, Kwok weaves a modern immigrant tale with a twist. Overcoming her many hardships, Kimberly learns to excel in both of her worlds. At the factory, she becomes the fastest skirt bagger and meets the love of her life; at school, she scales the heights of academic excellence and begins to move with the popular crowd. But as these two worlds progress on a collision course, Kimberly is forced to make a wrenching choice. Girl in Translation is a gripping, poignant story of perseverance and success against all odds.

"It is impossible not to fall under the spell of [this] tough, plucky narrator....an altogether captivating debut."
— Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine

Library Journal
Living in squalor among rats and roaches in a virtually abandoned unheated apartment building in Brooklyn, NY, 11-year-old Kimberly Chang narrates how, after recently immigrating from Hong Kong, she and her mother strive to eke out a life together working in an illegally run sweat shop. Though she was once the top-ranked pupil in her class in Hong Kong, Kimberly's English skills are so limited that she must struggle to keep up in school while still translating for her mother and attempting to hide the truth of her living situation from her well-to-do classmates and only true friend, Annette. Drawing on her own experiences as an immigrant from Hong Kong (though she herself went to Harvard and Columbia, while Kimberly earns a spot at Yale), Kwok adeptly captures the hardships of the immigrant experience and the strength of the human spirit to survive and even excel despite the odds. VERDICT Reminiscent of An Na's award-winning work for younger readers, A Step from Heaven, this work will appeal to both adults and teens and is appropriate for larger public libraries, especially those serving large Asian American populations.—Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. Lib., Santa Ana, CA
Kirkus Reviews
An iteration of a quintessential American myth-immigrants come to America and experience economic exploitation and the seamy side of urban life, but education and pluck ultimately lead to success. Twelve-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong and feel lucky to get out before the transfer to the Chinese. Because Mrs. Chang's older sister owns a garment factory in Brooklyn, she offers Kimberly's mother-and even Kimberly-a "good job" bagging skirts as well as a place to live in a nearby apartment. Of course, both of these "gifts" turn out to be exploitative, for to make ends meet Mrs. Chang winds up working 12-hour-plus days in the factory. Kimberly joins her after school hours in this hot and exhausting labor, and the apartment is teeming with roaches. In addition, the start to Kimberly's sixth-grade year is far from prepossessing, for she's shy and speaks almost no English, but she turns out to be a whiz at math and science. The following year she earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Her academic gifts are so far beyond those of her fellow students that eventually she's given a special oral exam to make sure she's not cheating. (She's not.) Playing out against the background of Kimberly's fairly predictable school success (she winds up going to Yale on full scholarship and then to Harvard medical school) are the stages of her development, which include interactions with Matt, her hunky Chinese-American boyfriend, who works at the factory, drops out of school and wants to provide for her; Curt, her hunky Anglo boyfriend, who's dumb but sweet; and Annette, her loyal friend from the time they're in sixth grade. Throughout the stress of adolescence,Kimberly must also negotiate the tension between her mother's embarrassing old-world ways and the allurement of American culture. A straightforward and pleasant, if somewhat predictable narrative, marred in part by an ending that too blatantly tugs at the heartstrings.
Publishers Weekly
A resolute yet naïve Chinese girl confronts poverty and culture shock with equal zeal when she and her mother immigrate to Brooklyn in Kwok's affecting coming-of-age debut. Ah-Kim Chang, or Kimberly as she is known in the U.S., had been a promising student in Hong Kong when her father died. Now she and her mother are indebted to Kimberly's Aunt Paula, who funded their trip from Hong Kong, so they dutifully work for her in a Chinatown clothing factory where they earn barely enough to keep them alive. Despite this, and living in a condemned apartment that is without heat and full of roaches, Kimberly excels at school, perfects her English, and is eventually admitted to an elite, private high school. An obvious outsider, without money for new clothes or undergarments, she deals with added social pressures, only to be comforted by an understanding best friend, Annette, who lends her makeup and hands out American advice. A love interest at the factory leads to a surprising plot line, but it is the portrayal of Kimberly's relationship with her mother that makes this more than just another immigrant story. (May)
Entertainment Weekly
Jean Kwok takes two well-trod literary conceits - coming of age and coming to America - and renders them surprisingly fresh in her fast-moving, clean-prosed immigrants' tale, Girl in Translation. Along with her widowed mother, 11-year-old Kimberly (Ah-Kim) Chang is transported from the balmy familiarity of her native Hong Kong to the icy, inhospitable projects of 1980s Brooklyn - a girl with little grasp of the language and cultural mores of her newly adopted homeland, and even less financial means. How Kimberly fights through almost obscene marginalization to forge her own version of the American dream is consistently compelling, even if Girl's needlessly soapy conclusion seems unworthy of what came before. B+
The Barnes & Noble Review

It's easy to forget while you're reading that Jean Kwok's novel is not actually a memoir of the Chinese immigrant experience. Each page of its insistent narrative pushes the reader through the vicissitudes of life in a decrepit Brooklyn apartment, labor in a Chinatown sweatshop, and the relationship between a mother and her young daughter Kimberly with an astonishing scope of striking details. Indeed the faded red of an oft-washed pair of handmade underwear, the heft of a bolt of lime green polyester plush found in the trash and used to create blankets, jackets, and slippers, and the steamy exhale of the factory's pressing machines, are each imbued with a dimensionality that could only come from real life.

And in fact, they did. Kwok writes, "Though Girl in Translation is a work of fiction, the world in which it takes place is real," and one she knows as intimately as her protagonist Kimberly, having come to America as a child not speaking a word of English, yet managing to excel in school and eventually landing in an Ivy League college. As a work of fiction, Kwok has crafted a powerful story of one young woman's tenacity in the face of a constant stream of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But it's more than that. Girl in Translation is a vividly rendered telling of a child's struggles as she navigates the boundary between traditional and contemporary cultures, hardships and successes, and matters of the heart. As Kimberly grows to womanhood we can't help but root for her, on the one hand confident she's tough enough to make it, on the other holding our breath, hoping she'll never stop trying.

--Lydia Dishman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594496922
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/3/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. Jean received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in Fiction at Columbia. She worked as an English teacher and Dutch-English translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and now writes full-time. She has been published in Story Magazine and Prairie Schooner.

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Read an Excerpt

prologue

I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort. It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit in it. This is not to say that my education was always easy for me. When Ma and I moved to the U.S., I spoke only a few words of English, and for a very long time, I struggled.

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. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At the time when it seemed that everything I’d ever wanted was finally within reach, I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.

From my position outside the window of the bridal shop now, I can see the little girl sitting quietly at the mannequin’s feet, eyes shut, the heavy folds of falling fabric closing her in, and I think, This isn’t the life I wanted for my child. I know how it will go: she already spends all of her time after school at the shop, helping with small tasks like sorting beads; later, she will learn to sew by hand and then on the machines until, finally, she can take over some of the embroidery and finishing work, and then she too will spend her days and weekends bent over the unending yards of fabric. For her, there will be no playing at friends’ houses, no swimming lessons, no summers at the beach, not much of anything at all except for the unrelenting rhythm of the sewing needle.

But then we both look up as her father walks in and after all these years and all that’s passed, my heart stirs like a wounded animal in my chest.

Was I ever as beautiful as she? There are almost no pictures of me as a child. We couldn’t afford a camera. The first snapshot taken of me in the U.S. was a school photo, from the year I came to America. I was eleven. There came a moment later in my life when I wanted to move on, and I ripped this picture up. But instead of discarding the pieces, I tucked them away in an envelope.

Recently, I found that envelope and brushed off the dust. I broke open the seal and touched the torn bits of paper inside: here was the tip of an ear, a part of the jaw. My hair had been cut by my mother, unevenly and too short, parted far to the right and swept over my forehead in a boy’s hairstyle. The word PROOF covers much of my face and a part of my blue polyester shirt. We hadn’t been able to pay for the actual photo, so we’d kept this sample they’d sent home.

But when I join the ripped pieces of the photo and put together the puzzle, my eyes still gaze directly at the camera, their hope and ambition clear to all who care to look. If only I’d known.

one

A sheet of melting ice lay over the concrete. I watched my rubber boots closely, the way the toes slid on the ice, the way the heels splintered it. Ice was something I had known only in the form of small pieces in red bean drinks. This ice was wild ice, ice that defied streets and buildings.

“We are so lucky that a spot in one of Mr. N.’s buildings opened up,” Aunt Paula had said as we drove to our new neighborhood. “You will have to fix it up, of course, but real estate in New York is so expensive! This is very cheap for what you’re getting.”

I could hardly sit still in the car and kept twisting my head, looking for skyscrapers. I didn’t find any. I longed to see the New York I had heard about in school: Min-hat-ton, glistening department stores, and most of all, the Liberty Goddess, standing proud in New York Harbor. As we drove, the highways turned into impossibly broad avenues, stretching out into the distance. The buildings became dirtier, with broken windows and English writing spray-painted over the walls. We made a few more turns, passing people who were waiting in a long line, despite the early hour, and then Uncle Bob parked next to a three-story building with a boarded-up storefront. I thought he was stopping to make a pickup of some sort, but then everyone had gotten out of the car onto the icy pavement.

The people in line were waiting to go into the doorway to our right, with a sign that said “Department of Social Services.” I wasn’t sure what that was. Almost everyone was black. I’d never seen black people before, and a woman near the front, whom I could observe most clearly, had skin as dark as coal and gold beads gleaming in her cloudlike hair. Despite the frayed coat she wore, she was breathtaking. Some people were dressed in regular clothes but some looked exhausted and unkempt, with glazed eyes and unwashed hair.

“Don’t stare,” Aunt Paula hissed at me. “You might attract their attention.”

I turned around and the adults had already unloaded our few possessions, which were now piled by the boarded-up storefront. We had three tweed suitcases, Ma’s violin case, a few bulky packages wrapped in brown paper, and a broom. There was a large wet spot at the bottom of the front door.

“What is that, Ma?”

She bent close and peered at it.

“Don’t touch that,” Uncle Bob said from behind us. “It’s pee.”

We both sprang backward.

Aunt Paula laid a gloved hand on our shoulders. “Don’t worry,” she said, although I didn’t find her expression reassuring. She looked uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed. “The people in your apartment moved out recently so I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but remember, if there are any problems, we will fix them. Together. Because we are family.”

Ma sighed and put her hand on top of Aunt Paula’s. “Good.”

“And I have a surprise for you. Here.” Aunt Paula went to the car and took out a cardboard box with a few items in it: a digital radio alarm clock, a few sheets and a small black-and-white television.

“Thank you,” Ma said.

“No, no,” Aunt Paula replied. “Now we have to go. We’re already late for the factory.”

I heard them drive away and Ma struggled with the keys in front of the looming door. When she finally cracked the door open, the weight of it seemed to resist her until finally it gaped wide to reveal a bare lightbulb glowing like a tooth in its black mouth. The air smelled dank and filled with dust.

“Ma,” I whispered, “is it safe?”

“Aunt Paula wouldn’t send us anywhere unsafe,” she said, but her low voice was laced with a thread of doubt. Although Ma’s Cantonese was usually very clear, the sound of her country roots grew more pronounced when she was nervous. “Give me the broom.”

While I brought our things inside the narrow entryway, Ma started up the stairs first, wielding the broom.

“Stay here and keep the door open,” she said. I knew that was so I could run for help.

My pulse pounded in my throat as I watched her climb the wooden stairs. They had been worn by years of use and each step warped, slanting sharply downward to the banister. I worried that a step would give way and Ma would fall through. When she turned the corner on the landing, I lost sight of her and I could only hear the stairs creaking one by one. I scanned our luggage to see if there was anything I could use as a weapon. I would scream and then run upstairs to help her. Images of the tough kids at my old school in Hong Kong flashed through my mind: Fat Boy Wong and Tall Guy Lam. Why wasn’t I big like them? There was some scuffling upstairs, a door clicked open and a few floorboards groaned.

Was that Ma or someone else? I strained my ears, listening for a gasp or a thud. There was silence.

“Come up,” she called. “You can close the door now.”

I felt my limbs loosen as if they’d been deflated. I ran up the stairs to see our new apartment.

“Don’t brush against anything,” Ma said.

I was standing in the kitchen. The wind whistled through the two windows on the wall to the right of me, and I wondered why Ma had opened them. Then I saw that they were still closed. It was only that most of the windowpanes were missing or cracked, with filthy shards of glass protruding from the wooden frame. A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows.

The bathroom was in the kitchen and its door directly faced the stove, which any child knows is terrible feng shui. A section of the dark yellow linoleum floor near the sink and refrigerator had been torn away, revealing the misshapen floorboards underneath. The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.

The kitchen was attached to one other room, with no door in between. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a scattering of brown slowly recede into the walls as we walked into the next room: live roaches. There could also be rats and mice hiding in the walls. I took Ma’s broom, which she was still holding, inverted it and slammed the handle hard against the floor.

Ah-Kim,” Ma said, “you’ll disturb the neighbors.”

I stopped banging and said nothing, even though I suspected we were the only tenants in the building.

The windows of this room faced the street, and their windowpanes were intact. I realized that Aunt Paula would have fixed the ones that other people could see. Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.

What Aunt Paula had said couldn’t be true, I thought, no one has lived in this apartment for a long time. I realized the truth. She’d done it all on purpose: letting us move on a weekday instead of during the weekend, giving us the presents at the last moment. She wanted to drop us here and have the factory as an excuse to leave fast, to get out when we were still thanking her for her kindness. Aunt Paula wasn’t going to help us. We were alone.

I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.

Ma bent down and touched her forehead to mine. She could hardly bring herself to smile but her eyes were intense. “It will be all right. You and me, mother and cub.” The two of us as a family.

But what Ma really thought of it all, I didn’t know: Ma, who wiped off all the cups and chopsticks in a restaurant with her napkin whenever we went out because she wasn’t sure they were clean enough. For Ma too, something must have been exposed in her relationship with Aunt Paula when she saw the apartment, something naked and throbbing under the skin of polite talk.

In our first week in the U.S., Ma and I had stayed in the short, square house of my aunt Paula and her family on Staten Island. The night we arrived from Hong Kong it was cold outside, and the heated air inside the house felt dry in my throat. Ma hadn’t seen Aunt Paula, her oldest sister, in thirteen years, not since Aunt Paula left Hong Kong to marry Uncle Bob, who had moved to America as a child. I’d been told about the big factory Uncle Bob managed and always wondered why such a rich man would have had to go back to Hong Kong to find a wife. Now I saw the way that he leaned on his walking stick to get around and understood that there was something wrong with his leg.

“Ma, can we eat now?” My cousin Nelson’s Chinese was awkward, the tones not quite right. He must have been told to speak the language because of us.

“Soon. Give your cousin a kiss first. Welcome her to America,” Aunt Paula said. She took three-year-old Godfrey’s hand and nudged Nelson toward me. Nelson was eleven years old like me, and I’d been told he would become my closest friend here. I studied him: a fat boy with skinny legs.

Nelson rolled his eyes. “Welcome to America,” he said loudly for the adults’ benefit. He leaned in to pretend to kiss my cheek and said softly, “You’re a rake filled with dirt.” A stupid country bumpkin. This time, his tones were perfect.

I flashed my eyes at Ma, who had not heard. For a moment, I was stunned by his lack of manners. I felt a flush crawl up my neck, then I smiled and pretended to kiss him back. “At least I’m not a potato with incense sticks for legs,” I whispered.

The adults beamed.

We were given a tour. Ma had told me that in our new life in America, we would be living with Aunt Paula and taking care of Nelson and Godfrey. Their house seemed luxurious to me, with orange wall-to-wall carpeting instead of the plain concrete floors I was used to. Following the adults around the house, I saw how large Aunt Paula was, nearly the same height as her husband. Ma, thinner after her recent illness, seemed small and fragile by comparison, but it was hard to think too much about it. I’d never been allowed to walk on bare feet before and I was amazed by the prickly feel of the carpet.

Aunt Paula showed us all her furniture and a closet full of linens but what impressed me most was the hot water that came out of the taps. I’d never seen such a thing. In Hong Kong, the water was rationed. It was always cold and had to be boiled to make it drinkable.

Then Aunt Paula opened her cupboards to show us the shiny tins and pots inside. “We have some very fine white tea,” she said proudly. “The leaves unfurl to become as long as your finger. Very delicate aroma. Please, feel free to drink as much as you like. And here are the pans. Best-quality steel, wonderful for frying and steaming.”

When Ma and I woke from our night sleeping on the couches, Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob had left to take their kids to school and attend to their work managing the clothing factory, but a note said Aunt Paula would be home at noon to arrange things with us.

“Shall we try that special white tea?” I asked Ma.

Ma gestured at the counter. It was bare except for an old ceramic pot and a box of inexpensive green tea. “My heart stem, do you think that those things were left out by accident?”

I stared at the floor, embarrassed by my stupidity.

Ma continued. “It is not easy to understand Chinese. Certain things are not said directly. But we must not be annoyed by small things. Everyone has their faults.” She put her hand on my shoulder. When I looked up, her face was calm and she meant what she said. “Never forget, we owe Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob a great debt. Because they got us out of Hong Kong and brought us here to America, the Golden Mountain.”

I nodded. Every single kid at my old school had been openly envious when they heard we were moving to the U.S. It was difficult for anyone to escape from Hong Kong before its scheduled return from British to Communist Chinese rule in 1997. There was almost no way out in those days unless you were a woman, beautiful or charming enough to marry one of the Chinese American men who returned to Hong Kong in search of a wife. This was what Aunt Paula had done. And now, she had been kind enough to allow us to share in her good fortune.

When Aunt Paula returned to the house that first morning in America, she suggested that Ma and I join her at the kitchen table.

“So, Kimberly,” Aunt Paula said, tapping her fingers on the vinyl tablecloth. She smelled of perfume and had a mole on her upper lip. “I’ve heard about what a bright child you are.” Ma smiled and nodded; I’d always been at the head of my class in Hong Kong. “You will be such a great help to your mother here,” Aunt Paula went on. “And I’m sure Nelson can learn so much from your example.”

“Nelson is a smart boy too,” Ma said.

“Yes, yes, he is doing quite well in school, and his teacher told me he would make a wonderful lawyer someday, he’s so good at arguing. But now he will really have a reason to work hard, won’t he? To keep up with his brilliant cousin?”

“You are putting the tall hat of flattery on her head, older sister! It will not be easy for her here. Ah-Kim hardly speaks any English at all.”

“Yes, that is a problem. Nelson’s Chinese needs help as well—those American-born kids! But little sister, you should call her by her American name now: Kimberly. It’s very important to have a name that is as American as possible. Otherwise, they might think you were fresh off the boat!” Aunt Paula laughed.

“You’re always thinking of us,” Ma said politely. “We want to start helping you too, as soon as we can. Should I start Nelson’s Chinese lessons soon?”

Aunt Paula hesitated. “Well, that’s what I wanted to talk about. It’s not actually necessary any longer.”

Ma raised her eyebrows. “I thought you wanted Nelson to learn better Chinese? What about taking care of little Godfrey and picking Nelson up from school? You said their babysitter was so expensive, and careless too. Will you be staying home to take care of them yourself?” Ma was bumbling in her confusion. I wished she’d just let Aunt Paula speak.

“No, no.” Aunt Paula scratched the side of her neck, something I’d seen her doing before. “I wish I could. I’m so busy now with all my responsibilities. The factory, all of Mr. N.’s buildings. I have a lot of head pains.” Aunt Paula had already let us know that she was very important, managing the clothing factory and a number of buildings for a distant relative of Uncle Bob’s, a businessman in Taiwan she called “Mr. N.”

Ma nodded. “You must take care of your health.” Her tone was searching. I too wondered where this was leading.

Aunt Paula spread her hands wide. “Everybody wants more money, everything has to make a profit. Every single building, every shipment . . .” She looked at Ma, and I could not make out her expression. “I imagined that bringing you here would help with the children. But then you had a few problems.”

Ma had been diagnosed with tuberculosis about a year earlier, after all of the paperwork to bring us here had already been finalized. She’d had to choke down huge pills for months. I remembered her lying in bed in Hong Kong, flushed with fever, but at least the antibiotics had put an end to the coughing and handkerchiefs tinged with blood. The date for our journey to America had been postponed twice before she got clearance from the doctors and the immigration department.

“I’m cured now,” Ma said.

“Of course. I am so glad you are well again, little sister. We must be certain that you do not relapse. Taking care of two active boys like Nelson and Godfrey, that will be too much for you. Boys are not like girls.”

“I am sure I can manage,” Ma said. She gave me an affectionate look. “Ah-Kim was also a monkey.”

“I’m sure. But we wouldn’t want the boys to catch anything either. Their health has always been delicate.”

I was trying hard to truly understand Chinese now, like Ma was teaching me. In the awkward silence that followed, I understood this was not about illness. For whatever reason, Aunt Paula was not comfortable with Ma caring for her children.

“We are grateful you brought us over anyway,” Ma finally said, breaking the tension. “But we cannot be a burden to you. I must work.”

Aunt Paula’s posture relaxed, as if she’d stepped into a new role. “You are my family!” She laughed. “Did you not think I could provide for you?” She stood up, walked over to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “I’ve gone to great lengths and gotten you a job at the clothing factory. I even fired the old worker to make space for you. You see? Your older sister will take care of you. The job is picking up a dead chicken, you’ll see.” Aunt Paula was saying that she’d gotten Ma a sweet deal, like a free chicken dinner.

Ma swallowed, taking it in. “I will try my hardest, big sister, but nothing ever comes out straight when I sew. I’ll practice.”

Aunt Paula was still smiling. “I remember!” Her eyes flicked across my homemade shirt with its uneven red trimming. “I always laughed at those little dresses you tried to make. You could practice ten thousand years and never be fast enough. That’s why I’ve given you a job hanging dresses—doing the finishing work. You don’t need any skills for that, just to work hard.”

Ma’s face was pale and strained, but she said, “Thank you, older sister.”

After that, Ma seemed lost in her own thoughts and she didn’t play her violin at all, not even once. A few times Aunt Paula took her out without me to show Ma the factory and subway system. When Ma and I were alone, we mostly watched television in color, which was exciting even if we couldn’t follow it. Once, though, Ma wrapped her arms around me and held me tight throughout an episode of I Love Lucy, as if she was the one seeking comfort from me, and I wished harder than ever that Pa were here to help.

Pa had died of a stroke when I was three, and now we had left him behind in Hong Kong. I didn’t remember him at all but I missed him just the same. He’d been the principal of the elementary school where Ma taught music. Even though she had been supposed to marry an American Chinese like Aunt Paula had, and even though Pa had been sixteen years older than Ma, they had fallen in love and gotten married.

Pa, I thought hard, Pa. There was so much I wanted here in America and so much I was afraid of, I had no other words left. I willed his spirit to travel from Hong Kong, where he lay, to cross the ocean to join us here.

Ma and I spent several days cleaning that apartment in Brooklyn. We sealed the windows in the kitchen with garbage bags so that we had a bit more protection from the elements, even though this meant that the kitchen was always dark. When the wind gusted, the bags inflated and struggled against the industrial tape that held them in place. According to feng shui principles, the door to the bathroom cast a ray of unclean energy into the kitchen. We moved the stove a few inches, as far away from the bathroom’s pathway as possible.

The second day into our cleaning we needed more supplies and roach spray, and Ma decided to make the trip to the convenience store a bit of a celebration, for all the work we had accomplished. From the affectionate way she ruffled my hair, I could tell she wanted to do something extra nice for me. We would buy some ice cream, she announced, a rare treat.

Inside, the store was tiny and crowded, and we stood on line with supplies until we got to the front, where there was a dingy glass display behind the counter.

“What does it say?” Ma asked me, nodding at one of the cartons. I could make out a picture of strawberries and the words “Made with real fruit” and another word, beginning with a “yo,” that I didn’t know.

The man behind the counter said in English, “I ask got all day. You gonna buy something or not?” His tone was aggressive enough that Ma understood what he meant without translation.

“Sorry, sir,” Ma said in English. “Very sorry.” That was about the limit of her English, so then she glanced at me.

“That,” I said, pointing to the strawberry cartons. “Two.”

“About time,” he said. When he rang up the price, it was three times more than it said on the carton. I saw Ma glance at the price tag, but she averted her gaze quickly. I didn’t know if I should speak up or how you complained about prices in English, so I kept silent as well. Ma paid without looking at the man or me, and we left. The ice cream tasted terrible: thin and sour, and it wasn’t until we got to the bottom that we found the fruit, jellified and in one lump.

On the way home from the store, I didn’t see any other Chinese people on the street, only blacks and a very few whites. It was quite busy, with some mothers and working people, but mostly groups of young men who swaggered as they walked. I overheard one of them calling a young woman on the street a “box.” The girl didn’t seem so boxlike to me. Ma kept her eyes averted and pulled me closer. Garbage was strewn everywhere: broken glass by doorways, old newspapers floating down the sidewalk, carried by the wind. The painted English writing was illegible and looked like swirls of pure anger and frenzy. It covered almost everything, even the cars parked on the street. There were a few large industrial buildings on the next block.

We saw an older black man sitting on a lawn chair in front of the used-furniture store beside our building. His face was turned up to the sun and his eyes were closed. His hair was a silver poof around his head. I gazed at him, thinking that no Chinese person I knew from home would deliberately try to make themselves tanner in the sun, especially if they were already as dark as this man was.

Suddenly, he leaped up in front of us and sprang into a one- legged martial arts pose with his arms outstretched. “Hi-yah!” he yelled.

Ma and I both screamed.

He burst into laughter, then started speaking English. “I got cha moves, don’t I? I’m sorry forscaring you ladies. I just love kung fu. My name is Al.”

Ma, who hadn’t understood a word he’d said, grabbed my jacket and said to me in Chinese, “This is a crazy person. Don’t speak to him, we’ll just tiptoe away.”

“Hey, that’s Chinese, right? You have anthn you can teach me?” he asked.

I had recovered enough to nod.

“So, there’s this very fat guy who comes into my store. What can I call him—he’s a real whale?”

“Whale,” I said in Cantonese. Now Ma looked at me like I had gone insane.

Kung yu,” he repeated, with the tones all wrong.

“Whale,” I said again.

King yu,” he said. He was really trying. Still gibberish but it was closer.

“That is better,” I said in English.

Ma actually giggled. I think she had never heard a non-Chinese person trying to speak our language before. “May your business be good,” she said in Chinese.

Ho sang yee,” he repeated. “What does that mean?”

I told him in English, “It is to wish your store much money.”

His face broke out in the biggest, whitest smile I had ever seen. “Now I need that. Thank you.”

“You welcome,” Ma said in English.

Aside from Mr. Al’s store, many of the storefronts we could see were empty. We lived across the street from a huge lot filled with trash and rubble. There was a leaning apartment building sunken into the back of the lot, as if someone had forgotten to demolish it. I had seen black children clambering in the rubble, searching out bits and pieces of old toys and bottles to play with. I knew Ma would never let me join them.

On our side of the street, a few shops were open: a store with hair combs and incense in the window, a hardware store.

Even with the spray, the roaches were impossible to exterminate. We sprayed all the cracks and corners with roach spray, scattered mothballs through all our clothes and in a thick ring around our mattress. Still, the brown heads with wiggling antennae appeared out of every crack. As soon as we left an area or became too quiet, they approached. We were the only source of food in the entire building.

It was impossible to get used to them. I’d seen them in Hong Kong, of course, but not in our apartment. We’d had a nice simple place. Like most people in Hong Kong then, we didn’t have luxuries like a refrigerator, but Ma had kept our leftovers in a steel-mesh cage underneath the table and cooked every meal with fresh meat and vegetables just bought at the street market. I missed our neat little living room with its red couch and piano, on which Ma used to give lessons to kids after school. The piano had been a gift from Pa when they got married. We’d had to sell it when we came here.

Now I was learning to do everything noisily, thumping around in hopes of keeping them away. Ma often hurried to the rescue, clutching a bit of toilet paper to kill the roaches near me, but I screamed when I looked down at the sweater I was wearing and found a big one clinging to my chest. I don’t like to think about what happened when we slept.

I know that that was when the mice and rats came. Our first night I’d been aware of something running over me in my sleep and quickly developed the habit of sleeping burrowed deep in the covers. I wasn’t as afraid of rodents as I was of roaches, because mice are at least warmblooded. I understood they were small living things. Ma was terrified of them. In Hong Kong, she’d refused to have a cat because she was afraid that they would bring her offerings of their prey. It didn’t matter that a cat actually reduced the number of live rodents. None was allowed in our house. After that night I told Ma I should sleep on the side of the mattress away from the wall because I needed to pee sometimes. I wanted to protect her from having to sleep closer to where the mice and rats were likely to be active. These were the small graces we bestowed upon each other then. They were all we had to give.

We set out a handful of mousetraps and quickly caught a few. Ma shrank back when she saw the limp bodies, and I wished desperately that Pa were alive so I wouldn’t have to do this. I knew I should have removed the dead mice and reused the mousetraps, but I couldn’t handle touching the dull flesh, and Ma made no complaint when I used a pair of chopsticks to pick up the traps, an act I immediately recognized as extremely unhygienic. I threw the traps, mice and chopsticks away, and after that, we put out no more mousetraps. That was Ma and me: two squeamish Buddhists in the apartment from hell.

We put the Tong Sing, the Chinese Almanac, at the head of the mattress. There are many phu in these books, words of power written by ancient masters that can pin a white bone demon under a mountain or repel wild fox spirits. In Brooklyn, we hoped they would keep any thieves away. I slept badly in that apartment and was jolted out of sleep by cars rumbling over potholes in the street. Ma whispered, “It’s all right.” Then she tweaked my ears to bring my sleeping soul back to my body and brushed my forehead three times with her left hand to ward off evil spirits.

Finally, my hands no longer came away covered with dust when I touched the walls. When we knew the apartment was as clean as we could get it, we set up five altars in the kitchen: to the earth god, the ancestors, the heavens, the kitchen god and Kuan Yin. Kuan Yin is the goddess of compassion who cares for all of us. We lit incense and poured tea and rice wine before the altars. We prayed to the local earth god of the building and apartment to grant us permission to live there in peace, to the ancestors and heavens to keep away troubles and evil people, to the kitchen god to keep us from starving and to Kuan Yin to bring us our hearts’ desires.

The next day, I would start school. Ma would begin her job at the factory. That evening, she sat down with me on the mattress.

Ah-Kim, I have been thinking about something since visiting the factory, and I realize I have no choice,” Ma said.

“What is it?”

“After you get out of school, I want you to come join me at the factory. I don’t want you here in this apartment by yourself, waiting for me every afternoon and evening. And I’m worried I won’t be able to do the finishing at the factory alone. The last woman who had my job had two sons who came to work with her. I have to ask you to come to the factory with me after school and help me there.”

“Of course, Ma. I always help you.” I put my hand on hers and smiled. In Hong Kong, I’d always dried the dishes and folded our laundry.

To my surprise, Ma’s face flushed, as if she were about to cry. “I know,” she said. “But this is something different. I’ve been to the factory.” She took me in her arms and squeezed so hard that I gasped, but by the time she pulled away, she had recovered control. She spoke softly, as if to herself. “The road we could follow in Hong Kong was a dead one. The only future I could see for us, for you, was here, where you could become whatever you wanted. Even though this isn’t what we’d imagined back home, we will be all right.”

“Mother and cub.”

Ma smiled. She started tucking the thin cotton blanket we’d brought from Hong Kong around me. Then she laid both of our jackets and her sweater over the blanket to keep me warm.

“Ma? Are we going to stay in this apartment?”

“I’ll talk to Aunt Paula tomorrow.” Ma got up and brought her violin case over to the mattress. She stood in the middle of that darkened living room with the cracked walls behind her, lifted her violin to her chin and began to play a Chinese lullaby.

I sighed. It seemed so long since I had heard Ma play, even though we’d been in America for only a week and a half. In Hong Kong, I’d heard her teaching music at school or giving private violin or piano lessons in our apartment, but she was usually too tired to play in the evenings when I went to bed. Now Ma was here and her music was just for me.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 246 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Great Coming-of-Age Story

    This is a nice coming-of-age story. It's also a debut novel but sure does not read like this is the author's first novel. Kimberly Chang and her mother immigrate from Hong Kong to New York to what they hope will be a better life. However, they are sponsored by Kimberly's aunt and uncle who put them to work in their sweatshop as repayment for their trip to America. They are put up in an abandoned apartment building owned by the aunt and uncle. They live in squalor among roaches and rats with the oven providing the only heat in the apartment. It doesn't take Kimberly long to realize the only way out of their situation is through her education. Kimberly studies hard and is given a scholarship to a top school where she excels. Kimberly, who is quite mature for her age, is caught up between the world of poverty in which she lives and the world of her classmates, who mostly come from well to do families. She struggles to keep her life at home a secret from her classmates.

    I really appreciated the relationship between Kimberly and her mother. They both counted on each other to survive. When life took a bad turn they were really there for each other.

    I liked this book a lot. It wasn't a rosy coming-of-age story like one might think it would be. I could feel the struggles, pride, and heartbreak that Kimberly and her mother both must have felt. I highly recommend this book!

    11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2010

    Great Book

    I really enjoyed this book even though reading it made me sad and very angry. I know America is a great country but the ways that our immigrants were and are treated makes me mad. They are lied to and taken advantage of though in this book Kim and her mother were lied to and taken advantage of by their own blood which makes it even worse. I will never understand how people can sit back knowing this kind of stuff is going on and not lift a finger to help. Why is it so easy to turn a blind eye to other people's suffering? It's just not right.


    I admire Kim, the way she works so hard at school and then the factory to help her mother. She is determined to succeed and get her mother into a better situation. She is devoted to her mother and always puts her first. That is a trait that I believe more Americans need to work on.


    Kim's struggles in school with a teacher who really didn't give a crap tore my heart out and made me want to slap his face. But she overcomes, she moves upward and onward and never looses sight of her dreams. Kim is a very strong person who knows what she wants. Even though it is hard work getting there she never once gives up.


    I loved her friendship with Annette. Every one of us would be blessed to have a friend like that. One who sticks by you through thick and thin without judging, just is there to love and support.


    The ending for me was happy and sad and I will not go into detail because it would give too much away. If you haven't read this book, read it. I have no doubt it will make an impression on everyone who reads it.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Amazing!

    A cultured, violin-playing mother and her gifted eleven-year-old daughter flee Hong Kong and arrive in New York, full of the American dream. Within weeks they are living in a rat infested, unheated apartment and working in a searing sweat shop. Welcome to the world of Girl in Translation where life is never as it seems, from the supposedly welcoming aunty who quickly shackles her own sister and niece into near-slavery, to young Kimberly's charming protector who is the only person with the power to destroy her carefully crafted life.
    Jean Kwok has written a beautiful novel that is more than a coming-of-age story about succeeding in America, this story IS America, with its pride and its shame, its love story and heartbreak, its contradictions and glimpses into secret worlds from Chinatown to elite Manhattan prep schools. All of it tied together by the story of a mother who makes sacrifice after sacrifice for her child, but it is the child who sacrifices the most in return.

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 11, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A POIGNANT, MOVING NOVEL WELL WORTH READING!

    Despite her young age, Kimberly Chang, an exceptionally intelligent young girl, enjoys none of the carefree privileges of childhood. Attending an elite private school on full scholarship while working in a sweatshop and living in squalor and hardship, Kimberly exists in two parallel worlds, and becomes a keen observer of each. She was brought to Brooklyn by her widowed immigrant mother with only basic command of English. A poignant, moving novel worth reading!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Distinctive Voice and Unforgettable Characters

    This book has an authenticity that many other "immigrant" novels lack. It almost seemed as if the author had firsthand knowledge about the kind of dire poverty that her main characters lived in. Without shying away from the ugliness of their situation, the author chooses to celebrate their strengths and you find yourself rooting for the heroine as she overcomes her depressing situation against insurmountable odds.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 11, 2010

    Coming of Age

    Back in 2000 when my daughter was in sixth grade I started a mother-daughter book group. We read a number of coming of age novels: stories about girls growing up and discovering the world and themselves; and with the strong and smart ones overcoming all kinds of adversity and often with bittersweet endings of lessons learned and prices paid for (ultimately) good, but hard decisions made. Girl in Translation fits that description perfectly.

    Kimberly Chang and her mother arrive in the United States from Hong Kong in the mid 1990's when she is eleven. Poor and owing money to unscrupulous relatives, they are set up in a horrid apartment and her mother is given a job in a sweatshop clothing factory. Kimberly is a very smart, driven girl and strives to overcome language and cultural barriers. She eventually gets into a private school where her intellectual abilities are recognized and nurtured. But outside school she leads a very different life from her privileged New York classmates: she works at the factory for hours after school to help support herself and her mother and comes home to an unheated, insect and rodent infested apartment where they are forced to keep the oven on just to keep from freezing to death.

    Kimberly is also straddling the differences between the insular Chinese culture of her family, the factory and Chinatown and the broader world that her exceptional intelligence opens up to her. She finds love with a Chinese boy, also struggling to support his family, but whose sights for his own life and theirs together are so less ambitious and more traditional than hers that she has to make a heart-wrenching and life altering decision as to which path to follow.

    I highly recommend this book for young adult readers, especially young women, although many others will enjoy it too. The author creates believable and interesting characters. We get a look into the immigrant experience, including the reality for many of prejudice, poverty and sweatshop employment. And the story ends not happily ever after, but reflecting the joys and sorrows of life's choices.

    And as for my book group: the girls went to college in 2006 and will be graduating this spring. But even after ten years, the mothers still meet just about monthly to drink wine - and discuss books. I think we will read this one.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 24, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Not Worth the Money

    I was intrigued by the jacket synopsis of this book and the book cover. The story was interesting, I finished it in two days, but there was no emotion, no splashes of color, it seemed almost a monotone recital of Kim's life. At the end I felt disappointed that there wasn't more...something to make me smile about a remembered passage, something to help me remember why I read it. Certainly not worth the $$ in these economic times.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 1, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Fascinating and enlightening read.

    This is an unforgettable, wonderful coming of age story of heartbreak and triumph of one Chinese-American who makes a life for herself and her family in a new country. There is tragedy, touched briefly, in some places, but all in all, it was a fascinating, and enlightening read.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is a book that is very hard to put down. Once I picked it up, it took 2 days to complete and kept me thinking and feeling about the characters.

    At the age of 11, Kimberly and her mother move to America from Hong Kong expecting the American dream in New York City. Instead, their Aunt has brought them to a dismal existence in a condemned, rat infested building. Here Kimberly tries to do well in school and improve the conditions for her and her mother. Kimberly meets many obstacles; language barrier, working at the sweatshop with her mother at night, and ridicule from her peers. This unforgettable story has everything that will keep you turning page after page.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    4.5 Stars for this endearing read

    A child and her mother come to America, 'the Golden mountain', in hopes for a better life, escaping the threats of a communist Hong Kong. Knowing little English and nothing of the American culture, Kim is thrust into the taunting and hateful school environment at age eleven. At the same time, Kim and her mother are beholden to a jealous aunt who makes them work long hours in a factory doing sewing work. They live in squalor, amongst roaches and rats, in the projects of Brooklyn, yet with not many neighbors because the place has been condemned.

    The one saving grace for Kim is her intelligence and ability to catch on quickly. Kim makes a single friend who gets her through the days, and her mother never veers from her duty to try as hard as she can, although much of it is futile as they endure one freezing winter after another without any heat. Kim grows older and wiser, and surpasses the others at her school with stellar grades, and eventually gets accepted to Yale. Kim is forced to make a devastating choice go to Yale and leave her family obligations behind, or to accept her position in life as an immigrant forever trying to ingratiate herself into a foreign society.

    Well told with a blunt passion for the subject matter, I wonder how close the story is to the author's own experiences. The racism is an underlying current, but not forced upon us as this is truly one young woman's story of surviving New York with little assistance and becoming an accomplished adult despite of it. It is also the story of young love and the repercussions of the romantic liaisons. There were a myriad of characters offered, from schoolmates to teachers to employers, and each one was an important part to Kim's story. I enjoyed the novel and recommend for anyone wishing for a light and quick read that moves fast. I read this novel in a quick page flipping all-nighter so that I could learn what happens to these strong characters who had endeared themselves to me so quickly. Jean Kwok delivers a powerfully told story of a coming of age story that holds nothing back and gives everything expected, and more. With promise of much success from this new author, Girl In Translation has already been selected as an Indie Next List Pick as well as a Blue Ribbon featured pick for many book clubs.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A truly moving story

    I just finished Girl in Translation-couldn't put it down until the end! What a beautiful story and a reminder of hardships everwhere. I want my rising high school senior to read it-this is an inspiring example of how anyone can make it and how there are really no excuses for failure. Hard to believe this is a debut novel-can't wait to read more from Jean Kwok.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2014

    Outstanding

    One of the best books I've read in a long time. Great character development- I really became very fond of each one.

    I never post a review or rating. I felt compelled to do it on this book.

    Am recommending to friends and family.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2012

    You won't be able to put it down!

    Kimberly Chang emigrates from Hong Kong to Brooklyn with her mother at the age of 11. Thinking that they will be in good hands they fully trust Kimberly's aunt with making the arrangements for their arrival. They soon realize how wrong they had been. On top of that they end up working at the sweatshop in china town that is owned by Kimberly's aunt and uncle. Leading Kimberly to live a double life,a exceptional school girl by day and a sweatshop worker by night. Kimberly learns to disguise the hardships of her life like her familys pverty and the fact that she feels extreme pressure from having her family's future on her shoulders. She soon finds herself befriending a fellow factory worker and having to hide her true feelings for him.Kimberly's story is one of finding courage and discovering who you really are.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2010

    Good book, bad ending

    I liked the book until the ending. The main character made a self indulgent choice that was not in the best interests of the child. The author might have consulted a child psychologist before imagining the ending she chose for her book.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    fascinating inspiring contemporary

    Eleven years old Kimberly Chang and her mom left Honk Kong looking forward to "Minhaton" and the Liberty Goddess, but her Aunt dumps them into an unheated roach hell dump in a nasty part of Brooklyn. Mother and daughter survive by working at a Chinatown sweat shop while Kimberly struggles to learn English.

    Ashamed, Kimberly conceals her home life from her affluent classmates including her only friend Annette. Over the years in spite of having to work she tries her best at school as she knows her only hope out of abject poverty for her and her mom starts with a college scholarship.

    This is a fascinating inspiring contemporary fiction starring a wonderful girl who conceals her impoverish life from her schoolmates and friends though she feels guilty doing so as her mom works so hard (as does Kimberly) to give her somewhat a life. Character driven, fans will feel empathy for the young heroine while rooting for her to make it to the Ivy league and to give her mom one day a piano. Adults and high school teens will appreciate the powerful Girl in Translation.

    Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 15, 2014

    My Secret Reader for the month of October picked this book out f

    My Secret Reader for the month of October picked this book out for me, and I was a little bit bummed at first. I had gotten the book years ago when Borders was shutting down after a recommendation from a friend. Back then I was hardly even looking at YA books and had been reading a fair amount of adult literature. This was also prior to my discovery of Goodreads and the way all the pretty covers can make me want books. Anyway, I was a little bummed because I was hoping I could knock off some older YA books I haven't read yet, but I was delighted to read this book.

    Girl in Translation was the best way to break up the monotony that YA can bring. I didn't have to worry about the cute guy being part stalker part hunk, or even entertain the idea of instalove. This book was everything that I miss about adult reading. It was evenly paced and beautifully written and while there was no big plot line where some big bad is lurking in the corner, it was a simple and heartbreaking tale about a girl who came to America with big dreams, and while it got hard at times, she never gave up.

    I really adored Kimberly and how witty she was. All the Chinese insults were fresh and interesting and while you couldn't always get what they meant right away, an explanation wasn't too far behind. I also loved that while the characters were speaking in Chinese, the text was in English never leaving me to puzzle out what was being said or having to wait for the author to provide a halfhearted explaination.

    I felt that each of the characters were wonderfully written and characterized. They were all their own unique person and not carbon copies of each other. While they were frustrating or down right awful, it was great to have people be so different. I felt that all the descriptions of all the characters were wonderful, I could vividly see many of them in my mind. I really enjoyed this book and I'm glad that my Secret Reader picked it for me!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2014

    Good book

    Enjoyed reading this story about hard work and success

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  • Posted August 6, 2014

    Immigration and family

    Jean Kwok's first novel tells of a young girl from Hong Kong and her violinist mother and their extreme hardships on emigrating form Hong Kong to New York City.
    Girl In Translation is a book that I did not enjoy reading yet it stuck with me as it rang true to my view of my immigrant grandparents and my father and aunts: my grandmother especially, though fluent in English, was often intimidated by people and situations years after coming here, even if in many cases there was no malice involved. My father and his sisters, on the other hand, wanted only to fit in as they saw that as the way to social and other success.
    Although I think there is much ignorance and sometimes cruelty in the American treatment of immigrants the enslavement of Kim and her mother by their aunt surpassed those of others. I have read of such treatment in news stories and thus realize that they are not untrue.
    Kwok's description of the physical horrors of cold, filth and vermin are chilling as are conditions in the clothing factory which the aunt runs. Thus the kindnesses extended to Kim by friends there and at her schools are more effecting.
    The one weakness that I see is the 'Twelve years Later' part of the book yet as it is somewhat of an epilogue the rags to riches element is simply the outcome and Kwok does relate difficulties that exist as the result of earlier choices.
    Upon reflection this is a strong and cleverly told tale and I think teenage girls and openminded boys--those who would read a book about girls--and anyone interested in the immigrant experience or a whacking good tale are the audience for this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2014

    Picked this book up at Barnes & Noble because something abou

    Picked this book up at Barnes & Noble because something about the cover caught my attention, and I found the title intriguing. I could not put this book down. Jean Kwok is an amazing storyteller. I am now looking forward to reading "Mambo In Chinatown". Very excited to have a new author to add to my list of favorites!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2014

    Highly recommend

    I like how the author spelled out the words being translated wrong. I had never thought of it before, will always remember to enunciate.
    Great book ,

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