Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation

  • 42-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 14 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Girl in Translation Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 14 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Defining Success and Presentation of Chinese Language vs. English Language.

Plot Summary

Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation details the first decade of the lives of Kimberley Chang and her mother after they emigrate from Hong Kong to New York City in the 1980s. The novel is told from Kim’s perspective. Each chapter corresponds roughly to a year of her life, beginning in early elementary school and ending shortly before Kim goes to college. Kim struggles as she attempts to balance her doublelife as a brilliant student during the day and tireless factory worker at night. As she grows up, she feels the weight of her family’s dependence on her to make a better life for them, and must choose between her obligations to her family and her desires for herself.

The novel begins as Kim and her mother arrive in New York City with the help of Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob, Ma’s sister and brother-in-law. They move into a rundown apartment in a largely-abandoned neighborhood in Brooklyn, the surplus of structures there set to be demolished at any time. Kim starts public elementary school and Ma goes to work in the Chinatown clothing factory owned by Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob. Kim joins her there to work afterschool. They both work six days a week for measly wages. They face pests, filth, harsh weather, and extreme poverty during their first ten years in the country.

Kim’s transition into the American school system has many bumps along the way. Although a gifted student in math and science, she struggles to catch up with her peers in subjects that rely on knowledge of the English language. She deals with bullies and alienation because of her status as an immigrant living in extreme poverty. In addition, she must continue to balance her efforts in school with her job working with Ma at the factory.

Just before middle school, Kim’s efforts in school are rewarded when her principal encourages her to set her sights on a prestigious private school. To her surprise, Kim is accepted into Harrison Prep on a full scholarship. Once there, she dedicates herself to her studies in the hopes of getting into a top university, becoming a doctor, and building a better life for herself and Ma. During high school, she falls in love with Matt, a fellow Chinese immigrant her own age, who also works at the factory. By the time she realizes she has feelings for him, though, Matt has started seeing another girl.

Around this time, Kim learns, much to her excitement, that she’s been accepted to Yale. Matt’s mother passes away shortly after, and he turns to Kim for comfort. The two of them have sex and Kim becomes pregnant. Matt urges her to keep the baby, forego Yale, and start a simple life with him in Chinatown. Though she believes it might make her happy, she knows she’s worked too hard to give up her dream. She decides to break up with Matt, but can’t go through with the abortion she’s scheduled.

The novel ends twelve years after the break-up. Kim is a heart surgeon and lives in a grand house with Ma, along with her and Matt’s son, Jason. When she recognizes one of her patients’ fathers as an old acquaintance of Matt’s, she asks him to pass her business card to him. Matt shows up at the hospital where Kim works and the two of them talk about how they both regret their decision to break up. Kim takes him back to his apartment on her motorcycle and gets a glimpse of his life with his wife, Vivian. Despite her regret, Kim realizes that she made the best decision for herself, Ma, Matt, and her child.

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