The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

After trudging through When Everything Changed, I needed to get lost in a good story. Girl in Translation was perfect! It was completely absorbing.

Given Kwok's bio on the jacket flap, I'm guessing it's largely autobiographical. Like her protagonist, Kimberly Chang, the author emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. as a child and worked alongside her family in a sweatshop. As I was reading, I imagined Kwok's and Kimberly's voices intertwined.

In the novel, Kimberly's father dies when she's very young, and she and her mother come to New York looking for a better life. What they find is hardship after hardship. Neither of them speak English. They move into a filthy, roach-infested apartment in an abandoned building with no heat. Kimberly says, "Even now, my predominant memory of that phase of my life is of the cold. Cold like the way your skin feels after you've been slapped, such painful tingling that you can hardly tell if it's hot or cold. It simply registers as suffering..."

Kimberly and her mother have debts to repay and are forced to work in a sweatshop in Chinatown. The conditions are horrific...the pay is negligible...1.5 cents per skirt. Kimberly calculates whether or not something is expensive by how many finished skirts it costs. She says, "In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts..." After their debts, plus interest, are deducted from their paycheck, they have very, very little money left over. It's hard to imagine circumstances so dire.

But Kimberly is determined to overcome all these obstacles and build a better life for herself and her mother. She is extremely smart and dedicates herself to her studies, earning a full scholarship to a prestigious secondary school, Harrison Prep. She is one of only a few minority students there...the only one who is so poor. Her desperation to fit into the Harrison world...the anxiety...and the embarrassment...are agonizing...But she persists and eventually flourishes.

It is at that moment when a full scholarship to Yale is on the table and everything she's hoped for is within her grasp, that Kimberly is faced with a painful decision. She explains, "There's a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At a time when it seemed that everything I'd ever wanted was finally within reach, I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life." (It's the "Road Not Taken" phenomenon.)

Ultimately, Kimberly sacrifices love, acceptance, and her own happiness for the life she believes she should pursue. She winds up successful, which is a relief, but I'm not sure she's fulfilled. At the end of the novel, she still seems torn between two worlds...

I guess a thoroughly happy ending would have been too trite...I suppose I was foolish to hope for one. Still, Kimberly's (Kwok's?) determination is amazing and inspiring...her voice, captivating...her story, un-put-down-able. It was easy to get lost in Girl in Translation.

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