Thursday, April 21, 2011

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Kimberly Chang and her mother have immigrated to New York from Hong Kong.  They expect America to be magical, but instead end up living in an unheated apartment and working in a sweatshop.  Kimberly speaks little English, and her mother speaks no English at all.  Kimberly knows that if she and her mother are ever going to have a better life, it's going to be up to her to make it.  Kimberly is determined to excel at school and one day bring her mother and herself out of poverty.

Because the radio and I have been in a fight lately (as in, I'm sick of everything on the radio) I've been listening to a lot of audio books lately.  I enjoyed this one very much.  I found myself sitting in the car for several minutes after I'd arrived where ever I was going because I wanted to hear just a little bit more.  It was read by Grayce Wey, and she was very good.  She captured Kimberly's voice well, and while she didn't do dramatically different voices for other characters, it was always clear who was speaking.

The story itself was excellent.  When I think of sweatshop life, I think New York in the early 1900s.  I don't connect it with modern day sweatshops.  When Kimberly and her mother arrive in New York, they think Kimberly's Aunt Paula, her mother's sister, is going to help them.  And she does, in a way.  Aunt Paula did help them get to America, but she also puts them to work at her clothing factory and sets them up in a horrifying apartment.  Roaches everywhere, no glass in the windows, and no heat.  No heat at all.  New York in the winter is awfully cold.  At the sweatshop, everyone is paid by the piece, so after Kimberly gets out of school, she goes to the factory to help her mother so they can get the shipments out in time.  Kimberly and her mother have to pay Aunt Paula back for the money it took to bring them to America, and she charges them interests.  They have very little money to spare, and no hopes of moving to a new apartment.  They're trapped.

Kimberly figures out much earlier than her mother does that Aunt Paula isn't really trying to help them.  Because Aunt Paula helped bring them to America, Kimberly's mother feels they owe her an unpayable debt, and therefore should not complain, no matter what the conditions are.  As Kimberly learns more about how things work in America, she realizes that it isn't right.  Kimberly is determined to use her "talent for school" to get them out of their terrible apartment and give them a better life, but it's a long time in coming.

Spoilers ahead.

The book starts with Kimberly in 6th grade and takes her through high school.  At first, of course, she struggles, since she doesn't speak very much English.  She still is able to excel in math and science, and is able to earn a full scholarship to an elite prep school.  She eventually earns a scholarship to Yale.

While Kimberly struggles with her family life, she also has the usual issues of a teenage girl.  Wishing she could spend time with friends.  Being embarrassed of her shabby clothes.  And, of course, boys.  She's had a crush on a boy at the factory, Matt, for years.  Matt has a girlfriend though.  When they finally get together at the end of Kimberly's senior year, she's so happy.  They have sex, the first time for Kimberly, and the condom breaks (because she insists on using two).  I was so upset!  Kimberly had just gotten into Yale, she was almost out.  They'd just managed to break free of Aunt Paula and FINALLY get out of that horrible apartment and then this happened!  I was so invested in the characters at this point that I was absolutely devastated to think something was going to happen to stop her from achieving her dream.  I was also all sorts of angry at Matt.  Not because Kimberly gets pregnant.  Matt knows how hard Kimberly has worked her whole life to become something so she can take care of her mother.  Matt wanted to take care of her.  He didn't want her to take care of him, and it pissed me off.  He even asks her not to go to Yale and to stay in Chinatown with him.

After Kimberly gets pregnant, it skips forward 12 years and when it picks up again, I wasn't sure what had happened.  Did she go to school?  Did she have the baby?  Did she have to give up all her dreams?  I was so relieved when it turned out she was in a doctor's office and SHE was the doctor!  She was a pediatric cardiatric surgeon!  Yay!  Go Kimberly!

The ending kind of pissed me off, however.  I wanted Kimberly to be happy with the choices she made.  Instead, she wonders if she made the right choices .  She meets Matt again, and she's still in love with him, and he's still in love with her, even though he's married and has a kid and his wife is pregnant again.  And they kiss, which I didn't like because I hate when people cheat on other people in books, I don't care if you're soul mates.  I feel really bad for Matt's wife.  And Matt accuses Kimberly of sacrificing their baby so she could get a lot of fancy degrees and why couldn't she just be happy being a mother and having Matt take care of her?  And Kimberly feels bad.  Jerk.

It turns out that Kimberly didn't have an abortion.  She has a 12-year-old son who she loves very much.  She broke up with Matt and didn't tell him she was pregnant because she didn't want to trap him into marrying her.  And she did it all, even with a baby.  Kimberly, you are awesome.  Get over Matt and have a happy life.

Another aspect of the book I liked is that there was a lot of explanation of Chinese culture and phrases.  It was really interesting and I feel like I learned a lot.  Really really good all around.

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