Girl In Translation

Girl in Translation (2010) by Jean Kwok is a coming-of-age novel about a Chinese girl English-named Kimberly Chang, from Hong Kong, who is brought to New York by her widowed mother when she is 11. They live in a roach-infested apartment with no heat and broken windows, rented to them by her aunt, who also runs the garment factory/ sweatshop in which they work.

Kimberly has always been good at school, but life in New York is bewildering. Her 6th grade teacher is terrible, but luckily she meets Annette, the only white girl in her class, who helps her understand the English that is so different than what she studied in Hong Kong. She studies hard and goes to the factory every day after school to help her Ma, sometimes until after midnight. But she gets into a private prep school on scholarship, where Annette is going, and continues to do well.

Meanwhile, at the factory, she meets Matt, a Chinese boy with a brother with what seems like autism, and a sickly mother. Matt becomes her only Chinese friend, but he isn’t a good student like she is, and he drops out of high school, while Kimberly does better and better.

In the audiobook, the narrator uses a Chinese accent when narrating Kim’s Ma and aunt’s words, which I initially found grating but later realized that was more realistic because if the characters had been speaking English it would have been with an accent. Told from Kim’s perspective, the rest of the book is spoken with a standard American accent. Also, the author uses many Chinese idioms and explains them well, For example, while riding fast on the back of Matt’s bicycle, he tells her “you have one big gall bladder” and the author explains that “he meant I was brave.”

I couldn’t wait to find out whether Kim and her Ma ever got out of the terrible apartment and whether she got into a good college with a scholarship. But there were some things that were problematic.

In the first ten pages, the author uses “fat” as a derogatory description, once with regard to a school bully, and the second to describe her loathsome cousin, Nelson, an American-born rich boy who doesn’t have to work. When meeting the shop owner below their apartment, who tries to befriend them–Mr. Al–he asks how he can refer to one of his customers–a very fat man–in Chinese. So Kimberly tells him the Cantonese word for whale. The author notes every time a character’s clothing is too tight, describing how the buttons gape across their stomach. Any anti-fat bias is too much, and Girl in Translation had many instances of it. The frequent anti-fat bias marred what would otherwise have been a good read.

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