The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

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DEC 10-JAN 11 Issue

A World to Lose

Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation
(Riverhead, 2010)

            Jean Kwok’s debut novel is an immigration tale that reads like a Cinderella story for young adults. Girl in Translation hinges on a reversal of fortunes between a magical, handsome young prince and Kimberly Chang, the story’s protagonist. The suffering of Kimberly and her mother is beyond normal endurance, and the redemption that follows is not only hyperbolic, but also unbelievable. In much young adult fiction, writers often use situations that bring hyperbolic effects at the expense of believability, and make their work ineffective. Such is the case in Girl in Translation.

            It is commendable that Jean Kwok describes the love and struggles of both daughter and mother in such meticulous detail. They work in a sweatshop for pennies from dawn to night. The aunt who sponsors them to come to America is certainly as evil as the black queen in Snow White. But mother and daughter struggle on, loving each other and caring for each other. Despite this carefully wrought depiction of their relationship, this is essentially a young adult book, with many circumstances grossly exaggerated.

            Hong Kong in the ’70s was shooting upwards in prosperity. Students who graduated first in their class every year in elementary school, as in the case of Kimberly, would never have to worry about their future. They would be promoted to a prestigious school where fees were low whether the good student was given a scholarship or not. Despite living in hillside shacks of wood or aluminum sheets, built with their own hands, many poor students invariably ended up as the government officials, lawyers, doctors, educators, or engineers. There is no drastic reason for Kimberly to move to America only to suffer hunger and lack of shelter in such a pathetic way.

            With its huge natural resources and scientific inventions, America rose to be the leading nation after the Second World War. But as a developed nation, its democratic principles and capitalistic dynamics have changed over the years. Its high cost of labor is both an advantage and disadvantage. While Americans can buy more things, they can get less labor from their currency inside their country. Middle-class housewives found it more comfortable to have cheaper domestic labor in the developing countries. It’s a fallacy to say that Hong Kong girls were dying to marry American men in order to gain American citizenship. Quite the contrary, only women of lower social economic strata with little education liked to come to America as wives of cooks and laundry men. Men and women who were dying to come to America were destitute people from China who had to swim the estuary of the Pearl River and had no legal status in Hong Kong.

            Kimberly and her mother’s suffering in New York City’s slums is just one shade above the standard of living during famines in China. One can’t help being sympathetic to what they have gone through, but the exaggeration of the writer for dramatic effects is also evident in their struggle. However, the manner in which Kwok portrays the familial relationship between Kimberly Chang and her mother is commendable. Girl in Translation also has an uplifting conclusion that will appeal to many readers. Kimberly’s intelligence gets her a full scholarship and admission to every prestigious private high school or college to which she applies. Not only that, she easily adjusts to the social environment of each school she attends. It is only in Kimberly’s marriage and love that she makes cultural exceptions as influenced by the West. But still everything ends perfectly for her, emphasizing that Girl in Translation is not a story of complex characters, but a story based on wishful thinking. 


Ida Chung


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

All Issues