GIRL IN TRANSLATION

Jean Kwok

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life—like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition—Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but also herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

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When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life—like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition—Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but also herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

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  • Riverhead
  • Paperback
  • May 2011
  • 320 Pages
  • 9781594485152

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About Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong and emigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. Jean received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in fiction at Columbia. She worked as an English teacher and translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and now writes full-time.

Praise

“It’s hard to imagine a more winning character than the girl at the center of this deeply compelling novel. I can’t wait for the next book from the very talented Jean Kwok.”—Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier

“At age 5, Kwok moved with her family from Hong Kong to a New York City slum. . . . She has spun some of her experiences into this involving debut. . . . Kwok drops you right inside Kimberly’s head, adding Chinese idioms to crisp dialogue. And the book’s lesson that every choice comes at the expense of something else hits home in any language.”—People

“Writing in first-person from Kim’s point of view, Kwok cleverly employs phonetic spellings to illustrate her protagonist’s growing understanding of English and wide-eyed view of American teen culture. The author draws upon her own experience as a child laborer in New York, which adds a poignant layer to Girl in Translation.”—USA Today

“Though the plot may sound mundane – a Chinese girl and her mother immigrate to this country and succeed despite formidable odds – this coming-of-age tale is anything but. Whether Ah-Kim (or Kimberly, as she’s called) is doing piecework on the factory floor with her mother, or suffering through a cold New York winter in a condemned, roach-infested apartment, or getting that acceptance letter from Yale, her story seems fresh and new.”—Entertainment Weekly

Discussion Questions

Throughout Girl in Translation, the author uses creative spelling to show Kimberly’s mis-hearing and misunderstanding of English words. How does the language of the novel evolve as Kimberly grows and matures? Do you see a change in the respective roles that English and Chinese play in the narrative as it progresses?

The word translation figures prominently in the title of the novel, and learning to translate between her two languages is key to Kimberly’s ability to thrive in her new life. Does she find herself translating back and forth in anything other than language? Clothing? Priorities? Expectations? Personality or behavior? Can you cite instances where this occurs, and why they are significant to the story as a whole?

Kimberly has two love interests in the book. How are the relationships that Matt and Curt offer different? Why do you think she ultimately chooses one boy over the other? What does that choice say about her? Can you see a future for her with the other boy? What would change?

In many ways Kimberly takes over the position of head of household after her family moves to New York. Was this change in roles inevitable? How do you imagine Ma feels about it? Embarrassed? Grateful? In which ways does Ma still fulfill the role of mother?

Kimberly often refers to her father, and imagines how her life might have been different, easier, if he had lived. Do you think she is right?

Kimberly’s friend Annette never seems to grasp the depths of Kimberly’s poverty. What does this say about her? What lesson does this experience teach Kimberly? Is Kimberly right to keep the details of her home life a secret?

Kimberly believes that devoting herself to school will allow her to free her family from poverty. Does school always live up to her expectations? Where do you think it fails her? How does it help her succeed? Can you imagine the same character without the academic talent? How would her life be different? What would remain the same? Is Kimberly right to believe that all of her potential lies in her talent for school? Must qualities like ambition, drive, hope, and optimism go hand in hand with book smarts?

Think about other immigrant stories. How is Kimberly’s story universal? How is it unique? How does Kimberly’s Chinese-American story compare to other immigrant stories? Would it change if she were from a different country or culture?

Kimberly lives in extreme poverty. Was anything about her circumstances surprising to you? How has reading Girl in Translation affected your views of immigration? How can you apply these lessons in your community?

The story is set in the 1980s. Do you think immigrant experiences are much different today? What has changed? What has remained the same?