Currently Reading: Jean Kwok’s “Girl in Translation”

Another 2010 book down. I pat myself on my back to have started borrowing books from the library, even when they are still “ON ORDER”, paying attention to recommendations from AAM, and getting Google Alerts about “asian american literature”!! From the latter, the most consistent recommendations have come from Asian American Literature Fans, a Livejournal blog, an article from which nearly spoiled the novel for me if I hadn’t closed the browser tab as soon as it started to delve into plot points.

I had begun reading Jean Kwok’s 2010 debut novel, Girl in Translation, in Halifax and got about a third of the way through. The last two-thirds, I devoured during one Halifax-Toronto flight (2 hours) and the first hour of a Toronto-Vancouver flight despite operating on just four hours of sleep. It’s that riveting!

I think I’ve been reading some very heavy and dark books during the summer so it was really nice to be completely absorbed in something really uplifting that even made me choke up and want to cry.

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From the book jacket and other brief synopses, you know that at the tender age of 11, Kimberly Chang came to America with her mother from Hong Kong and they both worked in a factory in New York’s Chinatown to pay off crushing debts. The aunt who sponsors their immigration and runs the sweatshop clothing factory is a villian from the beginning. In a brief bio on the book jacket, it tells you that the author worked in a sweatshop with her parents when she first moved to the United States.

The Brooklyn apartment the aunt places them in is described in great and ghastly detail. I have inadvertently stayed in an apartment in a sketchy part of Brooklyn and government housing in Hong Kong, both of which were worlds better than Kimberly’s plight, but I can imagine the rest. The factory is also described vividly as a gruelling and unglamourous place of constant steam, noise, and grime and the community that forms, especially amongst the children who work there to help their parents meet quotas, is captivating.

Matt Wu emerges quickly as the tough but sensitive hero, leader of the sweatshop kids, and a solid contrast to the Kimberly’s precarious world that is surviving school in one of the toughest Brooklyn neighourhoods on her limited English skills. The school is hilariously sordid with some diamonds sequestered in the rough. Given how unfamiliar everything is, it is understandable how even Kimberly comes off like a reticent hoodlum when once summoned to the principal’s office, not to be punished but to be praised.

Navigating school as a brainiac and trying to hide a far-from-“normal” family life is also something I can understand. The kids are merciless and Kimberly evolves from tough tomboy in the sixth grade to her feminine, wary, untouchable high school self. I was definitely rooting for Kimberly in her school trials that ranged from her “weird” assignments, baffling co-ed interactions, initial and tentative success at school, and the eventual freedom it brought. It might seem “too easy” (my recurring complaint about these novels) but I can believe the story of working with your parents until late and still pulling in the marks, pulling a whole family out of the gutter. I know of restaurant kids and shopkeepers’ kids in Halifax who sullenly tended shop and belie that they would go on to be doctors and lawyers, and we’ve all seen the interest articles about “geniuses” who at the bottom of it just worked really, really hard.

One review of the novel remarked on how you can learn how Chinese people think and I think it’s true on the “translation” but lighter on the interpretation. There is translation occurring in two ways: there is the garble that someone who does not originally speak English hears, then there is the transliteration of Cantonese Chinese.

Here is an example of how Kimberly hears things when she initially arrives in the United States, with the misunderstood words highlighted:

“Harrison is one of the best college prepator schools in the country, comparable in terms of the facilies we offer to schools like Exit and Sand Paul, only with the advantage that you don’t need to bord here. We are actually a boring school without the boring.”
She’d used more words I didn’t understand in one breath than she had in the entire time I’d been there. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, only that she was repeating a memorized speech like a person in a play and I should acknowledge that by smiling and nodding, which I did.

As a speaker of Cantonese, the language Kimberly and much of New York’s Chinatown of that time spoke, I understood and enjoyed the transliteration. It would just appear and I’m not sure it was explained well enough to people who did not already understnad it. An example (highlighting mine): Kwok writes, “‘They think I’m sending out the cat.’ Cheating.” And one I have used forever but never really thought about what it meant: “‘You have one big gall bladder.’ He meant I was brave.”

A particularly beautiful aspect of the narrative, I found, was how the prose subtly changed as Kimberly’s English got better and she understood her new world better.

Starting Kimberly at the age of 11, this is, naturally, a coming of age story. Given my issues, I wasn’t sure I would root for her but I really did especially when there was foreboding that something bad would happen (e.g., trouble with the authorities) and I wished it would not be so bad. About two-thirds the way through, it actually became a bit of a normal-high school girl’s story with the acceptance that is conferred to one who is unassumingly intelligent, consistent in her ethics, and knows how to surround herself with good people like Annette, Annette’s mother, and teachers at her second school. The normal-high school girl story is in stark contrast with Kimberly’s Chinatown life where things could fall apart at any moment with a factory accident, eviction, or financial loss.

Meanwhile, a love story was brewing, the frustrating kind that heads in the right direction, but then strays and honour stands in the way. He doesn’t think he’s good enough for her: “Kimberly, my climbing can’t reach your heights,” he ruefully says as he breaks away after their first torrid kiss. An accident forces fate’s hand and the result is what would likely happen in real life, very true to the characters that were developed, and maddeningly not the ending I like (i.e., naively tie a bow on it and call it a happy ending).

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Outside of the love story that tugs at me, there were a couple of other relationships that struck a chord. Jean Kwok introduces you to two kids, children of immigrants, who had to grow up extraordinarily fast. While their parents raised the money and courage to move the family to America, they do not adapt well enough or speak English and the children have to handle all the English business of the household. The other relationship is that between Kimberly and her mother, which they describe early on as “a mother and cub”; in some ways a role reversal occurs because the mother has few opportunities and does not speak English, but she’ll fight tooth and nail for her “cub”, because they only have each other.

A reviewer compared the story with the American classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read sometime in junior high and it stuck with me for a long time. I absolutely would not disagree with this comparison.

So, I finished the book with four hours to go in my flight back to Vancouver and I have to confess that I was in a dreamy state for the remaining hours, like being hit by a heart-wrenching love story. It may tell you what kind of choice I would make, but I desperately wanted to rewrite the ending and felt really helpless! Perhaps I would feel less helpless if I were not just holding a library copy, so Girl in Translation is one novel for me to buy.

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