Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok‘s Girl in Translation is a coming of age story involving immigrant Kimberly Chang, who comes to America with her mother from Hong Kong and finds that the land of opportunity is what you make it.  Kimberly is a smart girl and was often praised by her teachers in Hong Kong, but when she and her mother were forced to come to America following the death of her father, she finds that school is harder for her.  Facing a number of obstacles to her successful education from the language and cultural barriers to misplaced accusations of cheating and teacher bias, Kimberly must work ten times as hard as her fellow students.  But her hardships do not end with her new school, she and her mother also must repay Aunt Paula and her family for bringing them to America by working diligently in a clothing factory.

“A sheet of ice lay over the concrete, I watched my rubber boots closely, the way the toes slid on the ice, the way the heels splintered it.  Ice was something I had only known in the form of small pieces in red bean drinks.  This ice was wild ice, ice that defied streets and buildings.”  (page 5 of ARC)

Told from Kimberly’s point of view as she looks on her past, readers retrace her steps as a young girl finding her way into adolescence.  She has many of the same challenges of her American counterparts, but as she matures, finds boys attractive, and searches for peer approval, she must overcome her “foreign-ness,” cultural norms she’s grown up with on how to act ladylike, and her self-imposed separateness.

“Even now, my predominant memory of that phase of my life is of the cold.  Cold like the way your skin feels after you’ve been slapped, such painful tingling that you can hardly tell if it’s hot or cold.  It simply registers as suffering.  Cold that crept down your throat, under your toes and between your fingers, wrapped itself around your lungs and your heart. ”  (page 44 of ARC)

Kwok’s prose is full of imagery, emotion, and passion that weaves a vivid tale of poor Chinese immigrants in New York, who face a number of financial hardships — even at the hands of their family.  As depressing as their situation becomes, there are lighter moments when Kimberly remembers the joy her mother felt playing music and the awkward moments of bra shopping when her mother does not speak English and she barely speaks it.

Unlike other Asian-American stories, including those from Amy Tan, Kwok relies less on the mystical beliefs and traditions of Chinese culture and the clash between mother and daughter and more upon the love between mother and daughter and a daughter’s determination to improve their situation to craft a memorable story of growing up.  In spite of those obstacles, Kimberly maintains a sense of self.  One element that readers will enjoy is the use of skirts to quantify the Chang family’s purchases of new shoes or gum, which emphasizes the youth of the narrator.

“There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time.  Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown.  I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions.”  (page 1 of ARC)

Overall, Girl in Translation provides a look at the life of a poor immigrant and her family and the determination that it takes to adapt and mature enough to create their own future.  Readers will become absorbed by the Chang’s plight and cheer them on as they make headway against the forces working against them.  Kwok’s novel could generate hours of discussion for book clubs as it demonstrates cultural differences, the harsh realities and bravery required to emigrate to another country, and the consequences and regret that sometimes accompany the hardest decisions we can make in our daily lives.

***If you missed yesterday’s guest post from Jean Kwok, please check it out here.


This is my 16th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.




This is my 7th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.


  1. I’ve heard so many good things about this book. I have it on my shelf. Hopefully I’ll find some time to actually read it.

    • I hope you make the time to read it. Kwok’s writing is excellent and Kimberly is a character that you can really feel for…there are such heavy burdens on her little shoulders.

  2. I must read this – I love immigrant stories and am hosting the Immigrant Stories challenge. Thanks for the great review!

  3. What a well-written review….I have a copy of this one so I’m really looking forward to reading it!

    • Staci, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I really loved it and Kimberly is so strong a character. I look forward to your review when you get to it.

  4. Your review is fantastic! I can tell how much you enjoyed this one. I remember reading it on the train to New York for BEA last year. I absolutely loved it!

    • I didn’t think the review was that great, though I loved the book. I had so much to say, but didn’t want to bore everyone…lol

  5. I really enjoyed this novel. I love the quotes you pulled out for your review.

    • Thanks for checking out the review. I really loved those quotes. Her description is just fantastic…you can really feel the cold in this novel…you’re huddled there with Kimberly and her mother.

  6. Oh, how I love a great immigrant story! This one sounds fabulous!!

    • I think you would love this one. You should read it. Booking Mama’s review really inspired me to move it up the TBR list.

  7. I really enjoyed it as well. I had the pleasure of attending a reading by the author – she was great!

  8. Glad to see you really enjoyed it. I like immigrant stories, so I’m glad that I won this in a blog giveaway awhile back. Now I just have to make time to read it. Great review!