Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok

Before getting this book I heard some chapters on the radio. When I was listening to some chapters on the radio, randomly, I thought the book was nonfiction. I was a little disappointed to find that it is fiction. However, it is based in large part on experiences in the author's life so I believe we can take many of the details as real.

The main character, Kimberly Chang, arrives in New York from Hong Kong with her mother when Kimberly is eleven. The cost of her trip, as well as the medical care for a recent long illness her mother suffered, was borne by Kim's aunt Paula, and when they arrive Paula sets them up in an apartment and arranges for Kim's mother to work in the garment factory owned by Paula and her husband.

Paula's generosity is only apparent, however, not real. The apartment is in an abandoned building, has broken windows, rats and cockroaches and one old mattress. It is indescribably dirty. Paula keeps saying the two will be moved soon, when a better apartment becomes available that they can afford. They grit their teeth and bear it.

Kim's mother starts work at the factory and Kim goes to school, where she faces cruelty and prejudice because she does not speak very good English and her clothing is very poor and often not very clean. After school Kim is expected to join her mother and help her meet her quotas. It is hard, back-breaking work that goes on for long hours, well into the night, and the pay is for piecework, which is illegal. The pay averages less than the minimum wage and the work is often dangerous. There is, of course, no health plan but instead a doctor who is willing to overlook certain conditions when he treats those who have accidents.

Gradually, because she is "good at school", Kim improves in her studies and gains entrance to a prestigious private school. At work and at school Kim tends to keep her distance from others her age, but does find friendship with a few. She then has to make sure that her friends never come to her apartment, for she is deeply ashamed of it.

Thus we are introduced to an underground world, mostly familiar to new immigrants, and the adversities the immigrants face. Our story is of a young girl who is determined to beat the odds.

It may not be true but it could be true of many, and the details are interesting and compelling. I enjoyed getting to know Kimberly and her mother and seeing how she faced difficult situations, sometimes bravely and sometimes very awkwardly. It is easy and quick to read, enjoyable. 

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