Sunday, April 29, 2012
Pages: 293 (hardcover)
Published: 2011 by Penguin
Recommended for: anyone looking for captivating insight into the immigrant experience through the eyes of a girl you can cheer for
UPDATE: I feel very out of practice when it comes to reviewing, so bear with me! I hope more reviews will be on the way soon, but upcoming AP exams and college stuff are once again making my life crazy. This review will be a "quickie", since I'm just now getting to the point where I feel like I have time to post about books I really enjoyed, rather than everything I read (which hasn't been too much recently, unless a review of 5 Steps to Getting a 5 on the AP European History Exam sounds thrilling to you).
Pre-teenage Hong Kong native Kimberly Chang arrives in New York City with limited command of the English language and a mix of anxiety and excitement stirring within her. She and her mother are dismayed by the state of their new Brooklyn apartment (the conditions of which are truly horrible) and the long shifts they must work in a Chinatown sweatshop to skate by on very little money, but resolve to make do however they can. Meanwhile, Kimberly finds herself both intrigued and somewhat repulsed (weren't we all?) by the world of American public school. She was always one of the brightest students in her class back in Hong Kong, but here the rules of socialization and even math, the one constant in her life, are foreign to her. Kimberly realizes that succeeding via her "talent for school" may be the only way she can ever get her mother out of their dinghy apartment and the sweatshop, though, and so she pushes herself to breaking point with dreams of getting into an exclusive private school and graduating at the top of her class. Kimberly's Chinese values and her new-found American ones come to clash in realistic and heartrending ways as she grows older, as she is torn between two boys and two very different futures, yet the conclusion of this introspective novel is all the more satisfying because it is Kimberly alone who manages to rise above her circumstances and achieve her dreams, all the while never losing sight of her values and who she is.
In short, this coming-of-age type novel by debut author Jean Kwok really impressed me-- and it's especially cool that the experiences of Kimberly Chang strongly echo those of Kwok herself, whom, like Kimberly, emigrated from Hong Kong to New York at a young age to work in a sweatshop with her mother. The synopsis of this semi-autobiographical book make it seem like something of a "downer", but it becomes quickly evident upon beginning Kim's story that her struggles will be matched with her triumphs, a strong supporting cast of characters, and a smidget of humor. Girl in Translation is somewhere between the categories of "deep" literature and chic-lit-esque contemporary fiction, but I was surprised to find it somewhat closer to the latter. Kimberly was a narrator I could completely relate to-- not because I've ever relocated to a strange country and dealt with culture-clash in the ways that she did, but because her very Chinese perspectives on American culture and teenagers reminded me a lot of my own high school experiences. As the daughter of a benevolent American tiger mom and an inherently overly serious, respectful person, I remember feeling like an honorary US immigrant during my freshman year of high school! I definitely recommend Girl in Translation-- it's a quick, enthralling read by a smart, talented new author with fresh perspectives on the Chinese-American and immigrant experiences.