Cannonball Read #49: Girl in Translation


Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is the story of Kimberly Chang and her mother who emigrate to the US from Hong Kong. Indebted to Kim’s aunt, and neither speaking much English, the pair are set up in a disgustingly squalid apartment with a job in a Chinatown sweatshop. The job and the apartment are surely illegal, but without knowing English, the two are stuck with both.

Kim, however, has an out – school. Her brilliance and intelligence cannot be diminished, neither by her uncaring first American teacher, nor her surroundings. Kim perfects her English, and excels at school, while keeping their crushing poverty from the authorities. Kim manages to make a friend, Annette, who sticks by her throughout all of her difficulties – both with her hidden life, and her school life.

Annette’s room was almost as big as our classroom at school. There was a wall jammed full with toys stuffed animals, board games, building blocks. She had a bunk bed with a ladder for going up and a slide for coming down. No one slept on the bottom bunk, she said, but she had a bunk bed because she liked sleeping high. I climbed up after her and at first I was afraid of getting too close to the edge of the mattress, despite the wooden rail. Once I got used to it, though, it was glorious, heady to be so close to the ceiling, with my shoes off, a friend at my side, and the anticipation of a slide to return to floor level. It was so warm in their house, I could take off several layers and I lay on her bed in just my undershirt. I felt weightless and happy, as if I were in Hong Kong again.

The sheer pleasure of a warm room and a single friend – what luxuries!

Kwok does an excellent job of showing Kim’s confusion at the language and culture, and her determination to make a better life for herself and her mother. As we follow Kim for about seven years, from the age of eleven on, we feel for this smart young girl and root for her to make it through assimilating to America and the hardest place to fit in – high school.

Girl in Translation closely mirrors Kwok’s own life as an immigrant living in New York.  She’s writing from experience, and it shows.  The novel is not preachy or bogged down in details, though, just simple and inspiring.


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