Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Looking for something a little different to read? Try Jean Kwok’s GIRL IN TRANSLATION.

In the early 1980’s, Kimberly Chang emigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to New York City in search of a better life. They believe they have a shot at something good because Kimberly’s aunt Paula, her mother’s sister, had married an American and together the couple had built a business in the garment district. When Kimberly and her mom see the apartment Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob found for them, though, the fantasy of life in America comes to an abrupt end.

The apartment is in a condemned building and Kimberly and her mother are the only occupants. There is no heat when they arrive in the middle of winter. Two windows are broken in the kitchen and covered with plastic trash bags. Roaches and rats are everywhere.

When Kimberly and her mother report to the factory Paula and Bob own, they discover it’s a sweatshop filled with other Chinese immigrants – some old enough to be grandparents, some much younger than Kimberly’s eleven years. The workers are paid according to how many pieces they finish, not how many hours they work, which is illegal, and Kimberly’s mother is treated the same as everyone else. It doesn’t take Kimberly long to understand that she will have to work in the factory with her mother – after school is out each day – if they have any hope of getting out of the horrible apartment and paying off the debt they owe to Paula and Bob for bringing them to the United States.

From the description so far, the book probably sounds pretty bleak, and, in places it is. Kwok immigrated to the United States when she was a child, coming from Hong Kong just as Kimberly did. With her family, Kwok also worked in a sweatshop, so it’s not hard to believe the horrible conditions under which Kimberly and her mother work – Kwok is writing what she knows.

But as much as the book is a condemnation of modern life in the garment district, it’s also a celebration of the strength and resilience of Kimberly and her mother. Nothing is easy for the two of them. Everything they have – even the stuffed animal material they rescue from a Dumpster and turn into blankets and clothes – is gained through incredible struggles and is held onto with a determination you have no choice but to applaud.

GIRL IN TRANSLATION is a bittersweet story of hope and survival, and, ultimately, success and redemption. It will make you count your blessings.

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