Book Review: Girl in Translation

Stephanie Ulan reviews "Girl in Translation," an honest look at Chinese immigrant life.

The books that seem to sit with me the most are the ones I don’t expect to. The “I was walking through a bookstore because it’s the only place with AC on this hot ass day in NYC” type of books. The “well damn this is on the discount counter for only seven bucks” kind of books. The ones that you buy on a whim and then you regret it because you have to carry it around for the whole day kind of books. But then you get home, and realize that damn this is a good ass book kind of book.  Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok was one of those books.

The story opens to the main character, Kimberly, arriving in New York City from Hong Kong. Set in the late nineties, Kimberly and her mother arrive in the United States hoping to evade the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. With a job and an apartment secured through a family member, their hopes are high, and Kimberly especially is excited to start her new life. Unfortunately, as they step foot in their new home to find cockroaches scurrying away in a panic and the wind chilling them to the bone through the broken glass of their windows, they both are shocked to discover that what had been promised to them did not exist. Suddenly, Kimberly and her mother are in poverty, outsiders to people who speak a different language, and there seems to be no end in sight to the endless factory hours and sleepless nights.

However, Kimberly is determined. Kimberly knows the one asset she has, and she knows that it will be the only way to save her and her mother and give them a better life: her intelligence. And so begins Kimberly’s double life. By day she is a straight A student, teaching herself English and then quickly excelling in all of her classes. By night, she is at her mother’s side at the clothing factory, working long hours into the night, yet somehow still finding the time keep up with her schoolwork and her crush on another young man at the factory.

Written by someone who emigrated to the United States from Hong Kong herself, Kimberly’s story is the story of millions of immigrants who come to the United States pursuing more. The children who spend their entire lives in translation, from one culture to another, one context to another, balancing their two lives like professional acrobats. Kwok perfectly captures this experience, blunt in her descriptions of living in poverty as a child in New York City and honest in Kimberly’s reflections of what it’s like to handle that life and yet still go day to day as if she was like every other student in her high school as if her heart and her soul weren’t regularly being pulled in opposite directions. The story is told with such stunning clarity that you can’t help but wonder how much of Kimberly’s story is fiction, and how much of it may have been autobiographical retellings of Kwok’s own childhood. And although I found one aspect of the conclusion so infuriating and heart-wrenching I simultaneously wanted to cry, throw a tantrum, and write Kwok a very stern angry letter, I would still stand by Girl in Translation as an incredible piece of contemporary fiction. She provides a perspective that most are never exposed to and gives voice to those who arrived in the United States and suddenly found themselves voiceless, and are still voiceless today.

So if you are looking for fiction with a purpose, or an inspiring story that won’t bore you to tears, I highly recommend Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Regardless of whether it’s by accident when you find yourself in the library or you directly search it out on Kindle, I promise you that you will agree that it is one of those “damn, this is good” type of books.

This article was written by Stephanie Ulan. Please send an email to to get in touch.

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