THERE IS NO STORY quite as remarkable as the story of immigration. As trite as it may sound, reenacted countless times throughout cinema and literature, I find myself repeatedly compelled by the obstacles that immigrants to the United States have had to overcome, and each tale leaves me painfully aware of the ease with which I've existed in this country.
Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation is no exception. Like many, the book's main character and narrator, Kimberly Chang, and her mother travel from Hong Kong to New York City in search of a better life, only to find themselves impoverished and working long hours in a clothing factory. Always an exceptional student, Kimberly makes it her personal mission to learn English and excel academically, in hopes of brightening the future for her family. She earns a full scholarship to a prestigious high school, and from there she goes on to achieve what she initially set out for (and then some).
While there is little within the plot structure that sets Girl in Translation apart from other novels with the same premise, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Kwok's execution. Her prose is straightforward and clean cut; there is no decorated language and Kimberly, though emotionally present, is never melodramatic. Rather, Kwok relays the experiences of a foreigner with tangible detail. For instance, when Kimberly first attends school and interacts with her new teacher, we are exposed to her difficulty with English by way of phonetics: "'Our new student, eye-prezoom?' He gave a strange smile that made his lips disappear, then he looked at his watch... 'You're very late. What's your exsu?'" It is in these minutiae that Kwok best entrenches readers in her story, though we are left to wonder: How much of Girl in Translation is actually Kwok's story?
The book's foreword mentions that Kwok was also a young Chinese immigrant who worked in a clothing factory and did well in school, though it's never made clear whether the book is based on Kwok's life. I suppose the answer would only allow for the reader to draw parallels between the experiences of Kimberly and Kwok—and perhaps that is precisely why the author failed to provide us with this information.