Review: Girl in Translation – Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation
Book cover: Kimberly’s hair is up in a bun held with a pencil. You can only see her from the back.

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition. Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly’s story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about.

Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant-a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

I decided to read Girl in Translation for the Asian Immigrant MC square for Asian Lit Bingo. It sounded like an interesting read, and I was looking for something emotional.

This book is #ownvoices for Chinese American representation.

Wow. This book was powerful. I was not expecting it to be so strong and direct. It was very interesting to read how Kimberly experienced the US at the beginning and to find out what kind of difficulties she experienced in a new country.

A lot of the experiences that Kimberly had are similar to ones that I experienced in Germany. Before continuing with this review, I’d like to state that Kimberly immigrated from China to the US. I am a second-generation immigrant to Germany on my mother’s side, and left Germany when I was 5 and returned to Germany as a 12-year-old, and again as a 14-year-old (with a year gap) in between. So while some of the experiences I had are similar to the ones that Kimberly had, they are not the same.

I was surprised by her feelings and experiences about English and learning it as a foreign language, because they were similar to mine when I came back to Germany. I had to learn a new language as before coming back I only spoke a smattering of German and hardly ever wrote anything in German, and my grades fell as well. It was interesting to read her descriptions of English as I haven’t ever though much about how certain people might view English, since it is my native language and the language I find the most comfort in.

Kimberly behaves differently depending on whether she is in the clothing factory, thus with other Chinese immigrants or at school, where most of the students are white. She couldn’t show who she truly was at school, because they wouldn’t have understood it. This was very relatable, as I too acted differently depending on whether I was in school in Germany or at home with my family.

Another relatable aspect was that Kimberly felt most comfortable with mathematics. This is so me. When I came back to Germany, I was so confused with the language and it was difficult for me to express myself, but I always knew where I was at in maths, because you don’t need to rely on language as much as in the other subjects. It was mostly numbers, I couldn’t get many points taken off for using the wrong grammar or making other language mistakes, because we didn’t have to do much writing in the exams.

The ending was unexpected and very emotional. My heart went out to Kimberly and all of the stress she had to go through to make sure that she was successful and that her mother and she would succeed in America.

Girl in Translation is a compelling and emotional story about the experience on an immigrant in the US. It’s a significant addition to literature about the experiences of immigrants. A beautiful story.

5 stars

Have you read Girl in Translation? What do you think of the story?


5 thoughts on “Review: Girl in Translation – Jean Kwok

  1. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. I was intrigued by how the language barrier was shown on a couple of pages that I read in the middle (to see if I would like it). I’m glad it’s so good, so I’m going to move it up on my TBR list.


  2. Sounds really interesting. I really connect to the ‘inbetween’ feeling you mention Kimberly feeling. I think this feeling of straddling two worlds is a common strand in diasporic narratives and one I connect to a lot. Will put this in my TBR


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