Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time (or at least that is what I thought when I read it almost two months ago). I devoured this book on the megabus to NYC (note: bolt bus is a thousand times better). I was immediately drawn in, but also immediately outraged. I found myself feeling deeply distressed, deeply angered by the injustice of the situation that Kim and her mother found themselves in. I literally had to call a friend at one point during my reading binge, as I felt so riled up by the unfair treatment suffered by the immigrants in this story. And that is the thing, the story was so human and real, that the injustice felt fresh and amplified. Knowing that Kwok's own story parallels the novel somewhat made it that much more heart-wrenching.

Girl in Translation provides a fascinating lens on immigrant life. I could imagine sharing it with my former students. While the main characters are Chinese the overall story speaks to an experiences shared by a variety of cultures. It speaks to the experience of immigrants who come to America expecting the modern day equivalent of streets paved with gold. It speaks to a world of abject poverty, where no one is there to translate the comments of your child's teachers or fight your landlord to ensure you have heat. Kim is left to be her mothers eyes and ears, and that leaves her in a position where she has no one to advocate for her against the elementary school teacher who belittles her or to help her show that she didn't cheat on an exam she scored incredibly high on. It gives her freedom but it also leaves her in a precarious position.

The book made me incredibly intrigued by Chinese culture. I love the way Kwok peppers the book with Chinese idioms and her detailed depictions of China town.

Laura Moriarty writes in her blurb: "I love how this book allowed me to see my own country, with all its cruelty and kindness, from a perspective so different from my own. I love how it invited me into the heart and mind of Kimberly Chang, whose hard choices will resonate with anyone who has sacrificed for a dream. Powerful storytelling kept me turning the pages quickly, but Kimberly's voice-so smart and clear-will stay with me for a long time."

Yes, yes, yes. What a different viewpoint on America, what a different viewpoint on the immigrant perspective.

Additionally, I found the chapters detailed to Kim's time at a fancy private school (while also working at a sweatshop) fascinating. Here is a child who didn't fall through the cracks in the New York City system (too many do) and somehow made it to a school that can provide her with a path to college, and there she is being accused of cheating when really she is just off the charts brilliant, while also finding a way to lose her OTHER status and being invited to a party by a rich popular boy who once teased her, and yet she is living a life as far on the spectrum as possible from these other students. The story seems to clearly enumerate that people are often able to hide their true realities and lead a double life and that it takes a totally different skill set for children of poverty to succeed in an upper class school.

I think I am still trying to figure out how I feel about the ending of the novel. Potentially I will have to read it again to figure out if I think the ending was too sudden or out of character. It didn't end the way I imagined but I was happy for that.

I highly recommend this book and would love to hear what others thought of it.

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