I have just returned from a trip to New York City where I attended the New York Musical Festival. In additon to seeing fourteen musicals, I also saw a Matisse exhibit at MOMA and spent every morning walking in Central Park. Whenever I go to NYC, I am reminded of all the wonderful movies and books which are set there. Recently, I read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok which takes place in NYC and tells a contemporary immigration story filled with predictable struggles and amazing success.
After her father’s death, Ah Kim, 11, leaves Hong Kong in the 1980s and moves with her mother to the US. Her mother’s older sister, who owns a garment factory in Brooklyn, gives Ma a job bagging skirts and an apartment in the slums. Ma winds up working 12-hour-plus days in the factory. Ah Kim, now known as Kimberly, joins her after school hours in this hot and exhausting sweat shop. They return at night to the unheated apartment which is teeming with roaches. When Kimberley starts public school, she speaks little English, but she is a whiz in math and science. The following year she earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school. She does so well in her classes that she's given an oral exam to see if she is cheating. Eventually, she ends up at Yale and then Harvard Med school.
More intriguing are the relationships she develops at school and at the factory. Clearly an outsider without money for the luxuries her classmates take for granted, she finds an understanding best friend, Annette, who gives her advice on how to fit in. She also has an Anglo boyfriend at school who is not her intellectual equal, but is very sweet. Matt, a Chinese-American boy who works at the factory, is her true soul mate, but he is threatened by her academic success. However, her struggle to rectify her new American life with the old world expectations of her mother, are the heart of the story.
The book is based on the author's own experiences as an immigrant from Hong Kong; however, Jean went to Harvard and Columbia, while Kimberly attends Yale. Kwok effectively conveys the hardships of the immigrant experience, yet shows how a character with determination can overcome the odds and succeed. This book would be a great choice for a unit on cultural diversity or the immigrant experience.