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Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation

4.2 248
by Jean Kwok

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Introducing a fresh, exciting new voice, an inspiring debut about a Chinese 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.


Introducing a fresh, exciting new voice, an inspiring debut about a Chinese 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 American immigrant novel—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation speaks eloquently.  Searing debut novel... poignant.” 
— USA Today  

"Kwok drops you right inside Kimberly's head, adding Chinese idioms to crisp dialogue. And the book's lesson--that every choice comes at the expense of something else--hits home in every language." — People Magazine

"Consistently compelling." — Entertainment Weekly 

“Dazzling fiction debut.” — Marie Claire 

"Part fairy tale, part autobiography... buoyant." — O, The Oprah Magazine

Girl in Translation, the astonishing—and semi-autobiographical—tale of a girl from Hong Kong who, at eleven, shoulders the weight of her mother’s American Dream, from Chinatown sweatshop all the way to the Ivy League.” — Vogue

"Kimberly Chang, the girl in the title of Jean Kwok’s first novel, comes to New York from Hong Kong in the early 1980s with her mother, chasing a better life. Ms. Kwok, herself an immigrant, renders Kimberly’s confusion seemingly from the inside." — The New York Times

"Inspired by her own first hand experience of immigration, Kwok writes with quiet passion about the strange dichotomy of growing up surrounded by the glitz of New York, while being barely able to afford to eat.... irresistible power." — The Independent

“Warm and affecting… a compelling pleasure… manages that rare fictional feat of shifting forever the angle from which you look at the world.” — The Daily Mail

"Kwok thoughtfully pens a tale of the desperation and cruelty often faced by newcomers." — Bustle

“Infused with optimism and a can-do spirit.” — The Financial Times

“Compelling… an unforgettable story” — The Global Times

“Potent… a fresh, compelling take on the American success story.” — The Seattle Times

“Simple, searing, richly detailed prose… hilarious and wrenching. Immigrants, new and old, will find much to savor here, from the drama of family secrets to the confusing coming-of-age.” — Booklist

 “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… more than just another immigrant story.” — Publishers Weekly

 “Kwok adeptly captures the hardships of the immigrant experience and the strength of the human spirit to survive and even excel despite the odds.  Reminiscent of An Na's award-winning work for younger readers, A Step from Heaven, this work will appeal to both adults and teens.” 
— Library Journal 

“In this moving story of hardship and triumph, a woman must live a double life as a scholar and a sweatshop worker after she emigrates from Hong Kong to America with her mother.” — The San Francisco Chronicle

“It is impossible not to fall under the spell of Girl in Translation’s tough, plucky narrator as she struggles to make a place for herself in America. Kwok is a natural storyteller who eloquently captures the difficulty of living in two worlds, and the quiet sadness of never feeling quite at home in either. This is an altogether captivating debut shot through with moments of humor and grace.” —Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine 

“A moving coming of age story, reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The possibility of Kimberly Chang’s extraordinary struggle and achievement is what makes America a great nation—generous, forgiving and full of hope. Kwok perfectly captures the voice and perspective of a young immigrant, and the result is a powerful work about love, sacrifice and faith.” —Min Jin Lee, author of the bestselling Free Food for Millionaires 

“A journey into a world that would otherwise be veiled, Girl in Translation contrasts both sacrifice and accomplishment in the most satisfying of ways. Kwok’s vibrant prose makes us live Kimberly’s life almost as if it were our own.” —Brunonia Barry, author of the bestselling The Lace Reader 

“I love how this book allowed me to see my own country, with all its cruelty and kindness, from a perspective so different from my own. I love how it invited me into the heart and mind of Kimberly Chang, whose hard choices will resonate with anyone who has sacrificed for a dream. Powerful storytelling kept me turning the pages quickly, but Kimberly’s voice – so smart and clear - will stay with me for a long time.” —Laura Moriarty, author of The Center of Everything 

From the Hardcover edition.

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.
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

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+

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Penguin Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
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Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page



















A Special Preview of MAMBO IN CHINATOWN

Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


First published in the United States by Riverhead Books 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Jean Kwok

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


A CIP catalogue record of this book is available from the U.S. Library of Congress.

eISBN : 978-1-101-18748-7




This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For Erwin, Stefan and Milan, and to the memory of my brother Kwan S. Kwok


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.


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 warm-blooded. 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.


In that third week of November, I started school. Ma and I had a hard time finding it because it was many blocks away, beyond the area we had explored so far. This new neighborhood was cleaner than the vacant lots and empty storefronts that I had seen closer to our apartment. Aunt Paula had explained with pride that my official address would be different from the one where I actually lived. I should use this other address whenever anyone asked me.

“Why?” I’d asked.

“This is another of Mr. N.’s buildings. It’s one you wouldn’t be able to afford to live in, but using this address will allow you to go to a better school. Don’t you want that?”

“What’s the problem with the one I would go to normally?”

“Nothing!” Aunt Paula shook her head, clearly frustrated by my lack of gratitude for what she had done for me. “Go see if your ma needs you.”

Now, trying to find this better school, Ma and I walked across several big avenues and then past a number of governmental buildings with statues in front of them. Most of the people on the street were still black, but I saw more whites and lighter shades of black people, possibly Hispanics or other nationalities I couldn’t identify yet. I was shivering in my thin jacket. Ma had bought me the warmest one she could find in Hong Kong, but it was still made of acrylic, not wool.

We passed an apartment complex and a park. Finally, we found the school. It was a square concrete building with a large school yard and a flagpole waving the American flag. It was obvious I was late—the yard was empty of people—and we rushed up a broad flight of stairs and pushed open the heavy wooden door.

A black woman in a police uniform sat behind a desk, reading a book. She wore a tag that said “Security.”

We showed her the letter from the school. “Go downda hall, two fights up, classroom’s firsdur left,” she said, pointing. Then she picked up her book again.

I understood only that I had to go that way and so I started slowly down the long hallway. I saw Ma hesitate, unsure whether she was allowed to follow me. She glanced at the security guard, but Ma couldn’t say anything in English. I kept going, and at the staircase, I looked back to see Ma in the distance, a thin, uncertain figure, still standing by the guard’s desk. I hadn’t wished her good luck for her first day at the factory. I hadn’t even said good-bye. I wanted to run back and beg her to take me with her, but instead, I turned and made my way up the stairs.

After a bit of searching, I found the classroom and knocked weakly on the door.

A deep, muffled voice came from behind the door. “You’re late! Come in.”

I pushed it open. The teacher was a man. I learned later his name was Mr. Bogart. He was extremely tall, so that his forehead was level with the top of the blackboard, with a raspberry nose and a head bald as an egg. His green eyes seemed unnaturally light to me in his wide face and his stomach stuck out from under his shirt. He was writing English words on the blackboard, from left to right.

“Our new student eye-prezoom?” He gave a strange smile that made his lips disappear, then he looked at his watch and his lips reappeared. “You’re very late. What’s your exsu?”

I knew I had to answer so I guessed. “Kim Chang.”

He stared at me for a second. “I know what your name is,” he said, enunciating each word. “What’s your exshus?”

A few of the kids snickered. I took a quick look around: almost all black with two or three white kids. No other Chinese at all, no help in sight.

“Can’t you speak English? They said that you did.” This came out as a kind of grumbled whine. Who was he talking about? He took a breath. “Why are you late?”

This, I understood. “I sorry, sir,” I said. “We not find school.”

He frowned, then nodded and waved at an empty desk. “Go sit down. There.”

I sat down in the seat he had indicated, next to a chubby white girl with frizzy hair that stuck out in all directions. My fingers were shaking so much that I fumbled with my pencil case. It opened and everything in it clattered on the floor. Now most of the class laughed and I scrambled to pick up my things. I was so flushed I could feel the heat not only in my face but in my neck and chest. The white girl also bent down and picked up a pen and a pencil sharpener for me.

Mr. Bogart continued writing on the blackboard. I sat up straight and folded my hands behind my back to listen even though I couldn’t follow it at all.

He glanced at me. “Why are you see something that?”

“I sorry, sir,” I said, but I had no idea what I’d done wrong this time. I looked around at the other students. Most of them were sprawled in their chairs. Some had sunk so low that they were practically lying down, some were leaning on their elbows, a few were chewing gum. In Hong Kong, students must fold their hands behind their backs when the teacher is talking, to show respect. Slowly, I loosened my arms and placed my hands on the desk in front of me.

Shaking his head, Mr. Bogart turned back to the blackboard.

Our class went to the school cafeteria for lunch. I had never seen children behave the way these Americans did. They seemed to be hanging from the beams on the ceilings, shrieking. The lunchroom ladies roamed from table to table, yelling instructions no one heard. I had followed the other children and slid a tray across a long counter. Different ladies asked me questions and when I only nodded, they plopped foil-covered packages on my plate. I wound up with this: minced meat in the form of a saucer, potatoes that were not round but had been crushed into a pastelike substance, a sauce similar to soy sauce but less dark and salty, a roll and milk. I had hardly ever drunk cow’s milk before and it gave me a stomachache. The rest of the food was interesting, although there was no rice, so I felt as if I hadn’t really eaten.

After lunch, Mr. Bogart gave out sheets of paper with a drawing of a map.

“This is a pop quick,” he said. “Fill in allde captal see T’s.”

The other kids groaned but many of them started writing. I looked at my piece of paper and then, in desperation, glanced at the white girl’s sheet to try to see what we were supposed to do. Suddenly, the sheet of paper slid out from under my fingers. Mr. Bogart was standing next to me with my test in his hands.

“No cheap pen!” he said. His nose and cheeks were flushed as if he were getting a rash. “You a hero!”

“I sorry, sir—” I began. I knew he wasn’t calling me a hero, like Superman. What had he said? Although I’d had basic English classes in school in Hong Kong, my old teacher’s accent did not in any way resemble what I now heard in Brooklyn.

“ ‘I’mmm,’ ” he said, pressing his lips together. “ ‘ I’m sorry.’ ”

“I’m sorry,” I said. My English mistakes clearly annoyed him, although I wasn’t sure why.

Mr. Bogart wrote a large “0” on my paper and gave it back to me. I felt as if the zero were fluorescent, blinking in neon to the rest of the class. What would Ma say? I’d never gotten a zero before, and now everyone thought I was a cheat too. My only hope was to impress Mr. Bogart with my industry when we cleaned the classrooms after school. If I’d lost any claim to intelligence here, I could at least show him I was a hard worker.

But when the last bell finally rang, all of the other kids ran out of the room. No one stayed behind to mop and sweep the floors, put up the chairs or clean the blackboards.

Mr. Bogart saw me hesitating and asked, “Can I help you?”

I didn’t answer and hurried from the classroom.




Ma was waiting for me outside. I was so happy to see her that when I took her hand, my eyes became hot.

“What is it?” she said, turning my face to her. “Did the other children tease you?”

“No.” I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. “It’s nothing.”

Ma looked at me intently. “Did some child hit you?”

“No, Ma,” I said. I didn’t want to worry her when there was so little she could do. “Everything is different here, that’s all.”

“I know,” she said, still looking concerned. “What did you do today?”

“I don’t remember.”

Ma sighed, then gave up and started teaching me how to get to the factory by myself. She went through a long list of things for me to be careful of: strange men, homeless people, pickpockets, touching the dirty railing, standing too close to the edge of the platform, etc.

Once we passed the entrance of the subway, the roar of an incoming train blocked out her words. Behind the grimy windows, we could see the walls of the tunnels speed by in a blur. There was so much noise that Ma and I could speak little on the subway ride there. There were two boys about my age sitting across from us. As the taller one got up, a bulky knife fell out of his pocket. It was sheathed in leather, the black handle grooved to fit a large hand. I pretended I wasn’t looking and willed myself to be invisible. The other boy gestured, the first one picked it up, and then they left the train. I peeked at Ma and she had her eyes closed. I huddled closer to her and concentrated on learning the stops and transfers so I wouldn’t get lost by myself.

When we got out of the train station, Ma turned to me and said, “I wish you didn’t have to take the subway by yourself.”

That was the first time. Going to the factory after school would become something so automatic that sometimes, even when I needed to go someplace else years later, I would find myself on the trains to the factory by accident, as if that were the place to which all roads led.

Chinatown looked very much like Hong Kong, although the streets were less cramped. The fish store was piled high with sea bass and baskets of crabs; grocery store shelves were stocked with canned papayas, lichee nuts and star fruit; peddlers on the street sold fried tofu and rice gruel. I felt like skipping beside Ma as we passed restaurants with soy sauce chickens hanging in the window and jewelry stores that glittered with yellow gold. I could understand everyone without any effort: “No, I want your best winter melons,” one woman said; “That’s much too expensive,” said a man in a puffy jacket.

Ma brought us to a doorway that led to a freight elevator. We took the elevator upstairs and exited. When Ma pushed open the metal door of the factory, the heat rushed out and wrapped itself around me like a fist. The air was thick and tasted of metal. I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines. Dark heads were bent over each one. No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread. Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat. They wore air filters over their mouths. There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.

The factory took up the entire floor of a massive industrial building on Canal Street. It was a cavernous hall bulging with exposed beams and rusting bolts covered in ever-thickening layers of filth. There were mountains of fabric on the floor next to the workers, enormous carts piled high with half-finished pieces, long metal racks hung with the pressed and finished clothes. Ten-year-old boys rushed across the floor dragging carts and racks from section to section. The fluorescent light swirled down to us through the clouds of fabric dust, bathing the tops of the women’s heads in a halo of white light.




“There’s Aunt Paula,” Ma said. “She was out collecting rent earlier.”

Aunt Paula strode across the factory floor with a load of red fabric in her arms, distributing work to the seamstresses. The ones to whom she gave the bigger loads seemed grateful, nodding repeatedly to show their thanks.

Now she had seen us and she came over.

“There you are,” she said. “The factory is impressive, isn’t it?”

“Older sister, can I talk to you?”

I could see this wasn’t the response she wanted. Her face seemed to tighten, and then she said, “Let’s go to the office.”

Although no one dared to stare openly, the workers’ eyes followed us as we walked with Aunt Paula to Uncle Bob’s office at the front of the factory. We passed women using machines I had never seen before to hem pants and sew on buttons. Everyone worked at a frantic pace.

Through the window of the office door, we could see Uncle Bob sitting behind a desk. His walking stick leaned against the wall next to him. We entered and Aunt Paula closed the door behind us.

“First day, eh?” Uncle Bob said.

Before we had a chance to reply, Aunt Paula spoke. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have much time,” she said. “I can’t let the other workers think I’m showing you any favoritism, just because you’re family.”

What People are Saying About This

Brunonia Barry
A journey into a world that would otherwise be veiled, Girl in Translation contrasts both sacrifice and accomplishment in the most satisfying of ways. Kwok's vibrant prose makes us live Kimberly's life almost as if it were our own. (Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader)
Joanna Scott
In Kimberly Chang, Jean Kwok has created a gentle and unassuming character. But Kimberly is also very clever, and as she struggles to escape the brutal trap of poverty she proves indomitable. With her keen intelligence and her reservoir of compassion, she's irresistibly admirable, as is the whole of this gripping, luminous novel. (Joanna Scott, author of Follow Me)
Julie Otsuka
It is impossible not to fall under the spell of Girl in Translation's tough, plucky narrator as she struggles to make a place for herself in America. Kwok is a natural storyteller who eloquently captures the difficulty of living in two worlds, and the quiet sadness of never feeling quite at home in either. This is an altogether captivating debut shot through with moments of humor and grace. (Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine)
Laura Moriarty
I love how this book allowed me to see my own country, with all its cruelty and kindness, from a perspective so different from my own. I love how it invited me into the heart and mind of Kimberly Chang, whose hard choices will resonate with anyone who has sacrificed for a dream. Powerful storytelling kept me turning the pages quickly, but Kimberly's voice-so smart and clear-will stay with me for a long time. (Laura Moriarty, author of While I'm Falling)
From the Publisher
"At age 5, Kwok moved with her family from Hong Kong to a New York City slum. . . . She has spun some of her experiences into this involving debut. . . . Kwok drops you right inside Kimberly's head, adding Chinese idioms to crisp dialogue. And the book's lesson-that every choice comes at the expense of something else- hits home in any language."
-People (3 1/2 stars)

"Writing in first-person from Kim's point of view, Kwok cleverly employs phonetic spellings to illustrate her protagonist's growing understanding of English and wide-eyed view of American teen culture. The author draws upon her own experience as a child laborer in New York, which adds a poignant layer to Girl in Translation."
-USA Today

"Though the plot may sound mundane - a Chinese girl and her mother immigrate to this country and succeed despite formidable odds - this coming-of-age tale is anything but. Whether Ah-Kim (or Kimberly, as she's called) is doing piecework on the factory floor with her mother, or suffering through a cold New York winter in a condemned, roach-infested apartment, or getting that acceptance letter from Yale, her story seems fresh and new."
-Entertainment Weekly

"The astonishing - and semi-autobiographical - tale of a girl from Hong Kong who, at age eleven, shoulders the weight of her mother's American dream all the way from Chinatown sweatshop to the Ivy League."

"Part fairy tale, part autobiography... what puts this debut novel toward the top of the pile is its buoyant voice and its slightly subversive ending that suggests "happily ever after" may have more to do with love of self and of family than with any old Prince Charming."
-O, The Oprah Magazine

"Dazzling fiction debut."
-Marie Claire

"In Kimberly Chang, Jean Kwok has created a gentle and unassuming character. But Kimberly is also very clever, and as she struggles to escape the brutal trap of poverty she proves indomitable. With her keen intelligence and her reservoir of compassion, she's irresistibly admirable, as is the whole of this gripping, luminous novel."
-Joanna Scott, author of Follow Me

"I love how this book allowed me to see my own country, with all its cruelty and kindness, from a perspective so different from my own. I love how it invited me into the heart and mind of Kimberly Chang, whose hard choices will resonate with anyone who has sacrificed for a dream. Powerful storytelling kept me turning the pages quickly, but Kimberly's voice-so smart and clear-will stay with me for a long time."
-Laura Moriarty, author of While I'm Falling

Patricia Wood
Utterly compelling, grabs you from the first page to the last. It's about people uprooted, taken advantage of, and triumphing in a foreign land. It's a story about the American dream which serves to remind us not to take lightly what we have. The story of Kimberly Chang is not one you will soon forget. This is a book you will press into a friend's hand and urge them to read. I urge you to read it! (Patricia Wood, author of The Lottery)
Min Jin Lee
A moving coming of age story, reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The possibility of Kimberly Chang's extraordinary struggle and achievement is what makes America a great nation—generous, forgiving and full of hope. Kwok perfectly captures the voice and perspective of a young immigrant, and the result is a powerful work about love, sacrifice and faith. (Min Jin Lee, author of the bestselling Free Food for Millionaires)

Meet the Author

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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Girl in Translation 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 248 reviews.
retromom More than 1 year ago
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!
Kay2001 More than 1 year ago
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.
Shearon More than 1 year ago
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.
-JACKI- More than 1 year ago
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!
ChrisLI276 More than 1 year ago
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.
SiobhanMFallon More than 1 year ago
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.
mysteriesformeCA More than 1 year ago
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.
BLUEEYEBE More than 1 year ago
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.
Teacher-Readerdc More than 1 year ago
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.
MarieBurton More than 1 year ago
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.
gl More than 1 year ago
When Kimberly Chang and her widowed mother move to New York from Hong Kong, they are heavily in debt and dependent on her aunt for housing and employment. The adjustment is tough - she'd previously at the top of her class in Hong Kong and well loved but now finds herself looked at with suspicion by her new teacher Mr. Bogart. Kimberly doesn't let Mr. Bogart's disdain keep her down. Her days brighten when she makes friends of her own: Matt, another Chinese kid working at the garments factory, and Annette, a friendly girl in her class in school who shares her sense of humor. The details of Kimberly's life would be depressing but for Kimberly's attitude and spirit. Kimberly and her mother have each other and when they're together, the smallest things cheer them up and give them hope. Living in a condemned and rodent infested apartment without heat, the two Changs somehow make it through. As Kimberly slowly finds ways to improve their situation, you'll find yourself touched by this story of sacrifice, love, loyalty, and perseverance. I loved Girl in Translation - Kimberly's story and her voice stayed with me long after I finished the book. I've been fortunate to find a lot of good books in the last year, but this one stands out. ISBN-10: 1594487561 - Hardcover Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (April 29, 2010), 304 pages. Review copy provided by the publisher.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
tarheelreaderbl More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There was sexual content in the book. Definitely DO NOT recommend!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it, loved it, loved it! Truly inspirational and impossible to put down. The author's life story makes it even more admirable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Paperback_Princess More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed reading this story about hard work and success
umemaru More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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 ,
FalconPirate More than 1 year ago
Love this story.