Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in TranslationI feel like I should read more diasporia/immigrant experience novels because, for the most part, Girl in Translation was a validating, emotionally engaging and a comforting reading experience. I also feel like Girl in Translation has given me the push that I needed to find more immigrant experience literature, in an attempt to understand a variety of perspectives.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok tells the story of Kimberly Chan, a young Chinese girl who emigrates to America from Hong Kong with her mother, and her new life that follow – living in poverty and working in a sweatshop, the conflict of beliefs and worldviews, and the prejudice and experience as a foreigner.

There were so many things that I identified with in Girl in Translation. Although I am not an immigrant but am a citizen in my country, it’s incredible how close our experiences aligned regardless. The language barriers, the alienation and becoming the alienated, or the deep-seated fear of being too different as well as losing yourself in the attempt to be the same as everyone else – these are experiences most diasporic/immigrant children will have at some point in their lives, which is why it is necessary and important to talk about. As Hanisch said, ‘the personal is political’.

Something that Girl in Translation does well is how Kwok, for the most part, seamlessly integrates the Chinese perspective into her narrative. Kimberly’s surprise, naivety and confusion of Western thinking was extremely important – not only for me, because I grew up surrounded by the Western way of thinking – but for others also, as it should challenge what we consider and endorse as normal. The narrative encourages the reader to analyze what we unconsciously normalize and perpetuate as hegemony. In a way, I feel like this is an attempt to dismantle the idea that the Western way is the better and default way. Kimberly’s resistance to these social norms and ideas is important in this book, as it also confronts the reader with the raw experience of what it is like to be a foreigner in a place that is supposed to be your home.

Kimberly’s dedication and ambition to give her Mother a better life was something that really touched me. As an individual that chooses and upholds values of filial piety – the feeling of ‘duty’ to one’s parents and family – this is something that hits close to home. Though this isn’t thoroughly explored, the clash of Western and Eastern values and being caught in the middle can sometimes be painful and extremely confusing, e.g. Chinese ‘face’ versus the Western ‘do stupid shit while you’re young’. Though Kimberly comes out of this conflict a little differently than what I imagined, that resolution and coming to terms with who you are is a rite of passage all diasporic/immigrant should face.

As many reviewers before me have said, though the book starts off extremely well and hits hard on the details of immigrant experience, the further this book progresses, the more it loses its boldness and its way. I hoped that Girl in Translation would remain an exploration of her experiences as a Chinese growing up in America (not just in childhood), but half way it becomes a bittersweet romance. And although one could fairly argue that the romance is a part of growing up and exploration of unique experiences, I had hoped that Kwok would explore psychological and socio-cultural struggles further, because your teenage years are the most confusing identity-wise – and what better time and place to write about them?

The second half felt like a compromise for the poor, poor people who couldn’t bring themselves to understand the trials and challenging perspective of the first half. Furthermore, Kimberly seems to relent to the Western way so easily that it’s amazing she had those emotional experiences in the first place. Knowing my own experience and the experiences of many others, this felt unrealistic to me. This was the most disappointing aspect of the book. The only consolation was that, in the end, Kimberly confronts the Eastern perspective through another character, though this is done so poorly that it’s almost condescending – for anyone who doesn’t understand the character in question’s perspective and why he said the things he did, he would have been portrayed as an asshole, which would have undone any attempt to develop an emotional connection through intimate experience with the reader.

Maybe I expect too much from this book, because Girl in Translation began as the book I never wrote. Maybe I should resolve this by actually writing my own book. Sigh.

Nonetheless, though Girl in Translation has an ending that does its beginning no justice (mind you, it’s not entirely disappointing; there are some merits), it’s an important novel, and perhaps a starting point for people with like experiences to reach out to each other, connect with each other and develop a sense of solidarity through these shared experiences.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Publisher: Riverhead
Pages: 304

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