Carrie's Reviews > Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
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Jun 21, 12

bookshelves: book-club, effed-up-memoirs
Read from May 11 to June 10, 2012

** spoiler alert ** The book follows the narrator's life from age 10 or 11 (when she arrives in New York from Hong Kong with her mother) through her teens and then makes a 12 year jump ahead to show what happens when she grows up. I mostly loved the main character, Kimberly, who is a brilliant student finding her way in a strange culture with a less-than-perfect grasp of English. She and her mother work incredibly hard at a factory run by her jealous, mean aunt. They live in a crappy, roach-infested slum apartment with broken windows for 7 years while repaying their debt to Aunt Paula. All the while, Kimberly quietly goes without possessions or a social life for the most part. She has one close friend, but is not allowed to hang out with her much because a) she spends most of her time working (even as a kid) and b) Kimberly's mom is dead set against having people see their disgusting home and fears owing people favors she can't return. Kimberly eventually gets interested in boys, but only has one real love of her life, who she breaks up with because she doesn't think it'll work out.

I loved the descriptions, Kimberly's awesomeness, the way she misinterprets a few words she hears in ways that don't make sense, the way she explains Chinese idioms and attitudes, and the bittersweet love story part.

What I hated... I just couldn't buy it. Don't get me wrong. I know poverty like that exists. What I couldn't believe was that a brilliant girl like Kimberly could endure 7 brutally cold winters with no heat and never once decide to board up that broken window. I'm sorry, but even if you are broke you can find something better than a garbage bag to cover a broken window. We are also expected to believe that Kimberly's mother, who was a violin teacher in Hong Kong, couldn't find a job teaching violin lessons in Chinatown and absolutely HAD to work in that sweatshop.

And it seemed a little over-the-top PC, like the author wanted to make sure everything was cool with black readers so she had one friendly black shop owner who interacts with them a few times and one really smart poor black student (who you don't really get to know at all) and one black neighbor lady with a baby who Kimberly admires through the window a few times. Kimberly admires the looks of the black people in the welfare line on her first day and says several times that she identifies more with the black kids in school because they are poor and don't have see-through skin, but I find that unrealistic considering her only friends are white and Chinese. Really it's just Chinese and white characters that have any substantial roles in the book. You would think if one grew up in a black neighborhood they'd get to know more than one black person pretty well. And you would probably meet some black jerks, too. This book only contains white and Chinese jerks.

Finally, although I said I liked the bittersweet love story, I was totally not OK with how it ended. I was OK with the fiction romance formula in the beginning (boy meets girl but it takes a long time for them to get together because someone doesn't express themselves and they don't know the other one really digs them, blah blah blah). But once they did express themselves and it was pretty clear that they were both head-over-heels for each other, how could she make the decision that it wouldn't work without giving it a shot at least? He says he wants to support her on crappy wages and stay in Chinatown, but she wants to go to Yale and become a surgeon. Maybe it's a Chinese thing to pursue success before romance. But I thought she should have at least asked him to consider doing things her way rather than assuming he wouldn't prefer a life with her over a life being the provider of the family with someone else.
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