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Review: Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok

Kim and her mother arrive in the United States from Hong Kong only to discover that nothing is what they’d expected.  Kim’s aunt has paid for their passage and their green cards, but she doesn’t allow them to stay in her home, instead putting them in a falling down apartment, charging them excessive rent, and deducting huge portions of their wages for the immigration costs.  Kim not only has to help her mother at work in the evenings but struggles along at school; she’s used to excelling but the difficulty of learning English and the strange environment makes her life very uncomfortable.  As she adjusts to her new environment, she soon learns that she has to choose between her dreams and her love.

I was actually really surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  I managed to read it in one day – a work day, no less – and I found myself thinking about it constantly.  I’ve always been interested in stories about immigrants to the US, no matter when they happened, and this was not at all an exception.  I was very interested in the contrasts between Kim’s and her mother’s attempts to keep their native culture alive – the holidays they celebrated, the food they ate – and her attempts to learn English and navigate the American school system, which is difficult enough for those of us who do speak English and grew up in the US.

The difference is especially highlighted in Kim’s clothing.  She and her mother are so poor that her mother for a time continues to make her clothing.  Her lack of traditional bra and panties causes her a huge amount of embarrassment when the other girls can see her and reluctantly, they’re forced to spend the money on store-made underwear so the mocking stops.

The difference between her time at school and work in the factory with her mother also show how different the two experiences are; Kim’s one school friend just doesn’t believe that such illegal factory work can exist.  It made me sad that they moved to the US for a better life, yet Kim’s mother could never even dream of being a music teacher again.

I think what I liked best about the book, though, was Kim herself.  Her narration is written excellently and really drew me in.  She grows up and changes throughout the book, earning her way to the status she deserved; yet her voice is still believably modest even as she outperforms all of the other students.  Her emotions are so well realized; when she fell in love, I very clearly remembered what it was like myself, and I felt her pain at times like it was my own.

Girl in Translation is a poignant story about a girl who must find her way in a foreign culture and prove her true potential to her new country.  I very much enjoyed it and I would certainly recommend it to someone who enjoys the classic immigrant story.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

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