A couple months ago I won Jean Kwok’s debut novel from a GoodReads.com raffle. Since I’d planned a weekend trip to New York for the middle of May, I decided to read it on my trip. After all, the book is set in New York and GoodReads sent me a paperback galley.
Set in 1980s Brooklyn, the novel centers around Kimberly Chang, a recent immigrant from Hong Kong. Kimberly and her mother are no different from the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants working in Chinatown sweatshops, except they are legal and they work for close family members.
Earning cents for each piece of clothing they package in the sweatshop, Kimberly and her mother spend years paying back their debts to Kimberly’s aunt: immigration, medical, and housing fees–plus interest. They sleep in an abandoned apartment without heat or pest control.
During the day, Kimberly attends school and quickly becomes a scholarship student at a prestigious prep school. She never tells her friends where she lives and makes excuses for not hanging out with them after school and on the weekends, when she joins her mother in the sweatshop, often working until the early hours of the morning.
Over the years, Kimberly develops a close friendship with another factory worker. Matt eventually leaves school, working two jobs and supporting his mother and disabled brother. As Kimberly’s love for Matt grows, she’s torn between him and her ambitions of attending Yale (on full scholarship) and becoming a doctor. In the end, she has to make a choice that will alter the rest of her life.
I enjoyed Girl in Translation because it showed a part of New York most people never think about and a part of Chinese immigrant life rarely depicted in literature. Kwok is an engaging story teller and keeps the reader captivated until the very end of the story.