Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Genre: Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 290 pages
Publisher: Riverhead
Publish Date: April 29, 2010
Setting: Brooklyn, New York

Pregnancy, Drugs, Racism, Classism

It’s been almost a week or so since I read this novel, and yet I’ve still been thinking about it since I put it down. I read it so fast, I mean it was less than 300 pages so I knew it would be quick, but I was still just so emotionally invested in this novel because of how much I could just feel for Kimberly and her mother. It’s honestly so crazy how many times I end up reading about a character with Asian heritage – whether it’s Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc – and I don’t even flinch at what’s going on.

  • I feel like so many people don’t truly understand what it means to sacrifice everything for your children. I just don’t feel that.
  • I don’t know how Kimberly could have done this because I know I couldn’t have done this, especially during this time.
  • People are racist as hell, wtf.
  • Okay seriously people can be just rude as hell.

Good face versus true face

One of the main points that Kwok portrays in the novel is that in the Chinese culture, there are two different faces that people will share to others. Their good face, which is usually the one that is respectful and caring and accommodating, and their true face. I bring this up because for years, Kimberly and her mother felt like they owed a lot more than money to Kim’s aunt because she helped bring them to America. But once they were there, the aunt was complete trash to them and treated them like worse than crap.

I mean, even to the point that Kim’s aunt was going to dictate what schools she should apply for and basically they couldn’t be living any better than her and her family. When you read it, you’ll see what I mean because it’s pretty obvious, and it just angered me so much that she would treat her own family like that.


Again, here is another Chinese character that has to make sacrifices for her family. I’m not even saying that like it’s a bad thing because I honestly wouldn’t expect anything less. Kim’s mom sacrificed her life in Hong Kong to give Kim a better life in America. Kim sacrificed having a social life and a regular childhood to make sure that her mom wasn’t the only one making money and being worked to the bone in the factory. Both sides of their mama-and-cub situation had to sacrifice so much, and that’s just what I know. That’s something that I admire so much. I know there were times where Kim’s mom wished that she didn’t have to have Kimberly working so late at the factory, so that she could have time to study, wishing that they made enough money so that they could buy regular clothes and just everything else that the other kids would tease Kim about.

I was in the middle of saying something and then I totally forgot, but I have a lot of feelings about all of the sacrifices that both Kim and her mom had to make when they ended up moving to America. I mean… to the point that they may not have even survived their first winter in Brooklyn because Kim’s aunt just gave no craps about their heater or their wellbeing at all. Having to go through a dumpster to take discarded stuffed animal material to make blankets and clothes out of so they could stay warm. Even the conditions of that apartment in Brooklyn were freaking brutal.

Kimberly went through so much development and growth during this book. We get to meet her at 11 years old, and then by the time the book ends, she’s already an established adult probably in her thirties if I remember correctly. We see how she learns the nuances of being in America, some of the lingo they use and how she has to hide certain parts of herself because that could get her family in trouble. We see how she ends up becoming fluent in English and just in general seeing how smart she is about learning. There’s so much we get to see from Kimberly even in such a short amount of time. I would say that Kimberly and Annette have really great character development, throughout this novel, and I would have to say that Annette was one of my favorites because of how loyal and how caring she truly was towards Kim. Annette was a true friend to Kimberly, and I honestly hope that they remain friends even through adulthood. That’s the kind of friendship that I see them having.

  • Awe
  • Anger
  • Pride
  • Shame
  • Jealousy
  • Love

The time jump worked out for me because yes, we get to experience Kim’s first year in America slowly, but just enough that we can see that her living situation hasn’t changed like her aunt promised it would. I felt like she was already in high school super quickly since she went to the same middle and high school, but other than that, it worked out for me. I’m kind of bummed we didn’t get to see her in college, but that ending time jump made sense because of how it was left “up in the air” about that final decision. I just thought that this was really well done. I feel like the prose is similar to what’s I’ve read with Amy Tan and Lisa See, but I could just be thinking more about the content rather than the prose.

Again, this was one of the best books that I read this year alone, and I know that January just started for me but honestly I’ve been up in the air about a lot of the books that I’ve read. This one broke my heart so much and I’m just so glad with how the ending turned out. This may have been my first Kwok book, but I plan on reading more of her novels. This also sounded like it could have been inspired by her own life, and if it was I think she needs all of the accolades and kudos because that was a freaking hard ass life. I just could not imagine. Thank you for giving me someone to root for and to strive to be.

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