I won’t lie to you. I often pick up books based solely on the prettiness of their covers and how catchy the title is. While at the library, I saw Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok on an endcap. It looked pretty, I liked the title, and stuck in my stack of books. I didn’t know if I’d get into it–to be honest, immigration stories or books based in Chinatown or with Asian narrators really just aren’t my cup of tea (case in point, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. TERRIBLE.)–so I saved it for last.
I absolutely love it when books I don’t give much hope end up sucking me into its world so hard I can’t pull myself out. And that’s exactly what this one did. It starts out as seemingly stereotypical immigrant story–eleven year old girl Kimberley and her mother leave their stable life in Hong Kong where Kimberley was a star student and her mother an accomplished violinist to live in the slums of Chinatown and work at a sweatshop. It’s told in first person, with Kimberley as the narrator, and depicts how she feels as a new immigrant, struggling with the English language, no longer top of her class, and having to work with her mother in the sweat shop after school. She works hard to become top of her class, eventually getting into a private school and then an Ivy League college, and has to learn how to navigate both worlds–one of rich American students and one of poor, Chinese laborers.
Her story was hard to pull myself away from. Maybe because it is so unlike my own? More likely, it’s because it is so like the author’s story that I could feel the bittersweet emotions all throughout the story. The book spanned 7 years, with an epilogue at the end, and though I found it predictable at times I still cared about the characters and how they handled each situation.
At times, though, I felt the story lacked depth and details. There’s so much to be said about being eleven and in a new country, learning a new language, being in a new school, with a mother that barely speaks English, living a life completely unlike what she was used to. But instead of diving in and dwelling in details of the story, the book seemed to just barely get into it before moving on to the next event. Most of the book was spent on that first year in America, whereas all of Kimberley’s high school years flew by without a lot of details about any one particular thing.
Even with that, I still enjoyed the story, and promptly picked up the next one of Kwok’s for future reading.