Girl in Translation Summary

Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation

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Girl in Translation Summary

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Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok, combines elements of a bildungsroman – a “novel of education” – with a classic immigration narrative. Kwok’s novel tells the story of 11-year-old Ah-Kim and her mother, Ma, who emigrate from Hong Kong to New York in search of a better life following the death of Ah-Kim’s father. Their journey is financed, in part, by Ma’s sister, Aunt Paula, whom they must repay by working in her illegal clothing factory. The relationship between Ma and her sister is a difficult one, as Paula is clearly exploiting her relatives; as well as working their debt off in her factory, they are forced to live in a squalid apartment in Brooklyn with no heating.  Ah-Kim, who becomes Kimberly when she arrives in New York, can see this clearly, but Ma’s reaction to her sister’s behavior is more ambivalent and more obviously constrained by Chinese cultural values.

As a child, and someone who speaks English, Kimberly finds it easier to adapt to life in America than her mother. However, this adaptability brings certain disadvantages, as she must then take on many adult responsibilities that her mother cannot because of her limited English. This role-reversal between mother and child is difficult for Kimberly but she bears it with grace, and her concern for her mother and the anxieties this brings, act as an extra barrier between herself and her new classmates. Despite speaking English more fluently than her mother, Kimberly is not immediately at ease with this second language. While Kimberly learned to speak English in Hong Kong, her classes did not prepare her to understand American accents and, despite her academic talent, she struggles to keep up at school. Kwok cleverly transliterates — or writes phonetically — what Kimberly hears when her teachers and classmates speak, so that the reader gets a sense of the language barrier that Kimberly has to deal with.

Her struggles at school leave Kimberly feeling humiliated and alone, so she starts skipping school. At the factory, she meets and becomes friends with, a boy called Matt, who works there to help support his family. Having a friend her own age, one who is similarly impoverished, helps Kimberly feel better. However, watching her mother work in the factory to provide her with a better future prompts Kimberly to return to school. With her new determination to do her best, Kimberly’s grades soon improve, but her language classes are still difficult. Her burgeoning friendship with her classmate Annette also makes things easier, although Kimberly makes sure that their friendship stays at school: she cannot risk inviting Annette to her home and exposing her living conditions. Nonetheless, Annette gives Kimberly a small Christmas gift: a panda hair clip. Kimberly subsequently gives this clip to Matt, as she has nothing else to give him. This exchange highlights the importance of these friendships to Kimberly; her first Christmas is not so much about material gifts as it is about the opportunity to affirm the relationships that make New York home.

After Christmas, however, things take a turn for the worse: Kimberly and her mother learn that their apartment is going to be demolished and that they have been living there illegally. When they confront Aunt Paula about this, she feigns innocence and assures them that she will find them another place to live. The instability of her living situation affects Kimberly’s behavior in school and she gets into a fight with a classmate. Summoned to the principal’s office she dreads being expelled, but in fact the principal encourages her to apply for a scholarship to a prestigious high school—the same high school Annette will be attending. Kimberly duly applied for, and wins, the scholarship but life at her new school brings new challenges. She is teased for her odd clothes and is wary of making new friends who might discover just how poor she and her mother really are. Despite these problems, Kimberly has access to an English tutor at her new school, which makes her academic life much easier.

In fact, Kimberly’s academic performance improves so much that some of her teachers suspect her of cheating. When one teacher catches her picking up a cheat sheet from the floor, these suspicions get worse, but she does not name the real culprit, a boy named Curtis. Instead, she agrees to take an oral exam to prove that she’s not cheating and passes with flying colors. As a result, she’s asked to tutor some of her classmates, including Curtis, who quickly begins to flirt with her. However, Kimberly’s relationship with Matt is moving from friendship to something more and she’s honored when he invites her to meet his father. This is a sign of how much Matt trusts her because his Dad is an alcoholic; their difficult home lives are something Matt and Kimberly share.

Their burgeoning romance is cut short with the arrival of a pretty new girl, Vivian, at the factory. As a result, Kimberly accepts Curtis’s invitation to a dance and the two soon begin dating, even though she doesn’t love him the way she loved Matt. Kimberly’s romantic life is further complicated when, during a raid on the factory, Matt kisses her and confesses his feelings for her as they hide from the police. She is confused because, at this point, Vivian has become her friend too and Kimberly doesn’t want to hurt her, so she rejects Matt. However, when Matt tells her of his mother’s death and his realization that she was the only one he trusted to talk to about his grief, Kimberly gives in to her true feelings and they sleep together.

In the meantime, Kimberly’s academic success continues and she wins a scholarship to Yale. Discovering that she is pregnant with Matt’s child, she is torn between Yale and staying in Chinatown with Matt and their child. Discussing her dilemma with her mother, she realizes that she can’t give up the chance at a better future for her own child and, breaking up with Matt, she goes to Yale. The epilogue informs us that she meets him years later and discovers that he is married to Vivian, who is expecting their second child. She never tells him about their son.

Translation is an important theme throughout this novel and Kwok uses it to refer, not only to Kimberly’s navigation of two languages, but of two cultures as well. In her relationship with Matt and the contrast between their respective ambitions we get a glimpse of how difficult it can be to realize the ambitions that motivate immigration and the sacrifices some will make to keep those ambitions alive.