Underdogs Unite

'Girl in Translation'

by Catherine Ramsdell

15 June 2010

If you like literary underdogs and unlikely heroes, prepare to fall in love with Kimberly Chang, the main character and hero of Jean Kwok's amazing debut novel.
cover art

Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok

(Riverhead Books)
US: May 2010

Unlikely heroes and literary underdogs are some of my favorite characters. Sam and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, Westley from The Princess Bride, and Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables are characters I have cheered for, cried over, and laughed with.

Whether it’s in real life (I’m also a Chicago Cubs fan) or in literature, there’s just something about an underdog. Jean Kwok gives us a fabulous underdog/unlikely hero in her book Girl in Translation. Simply put, Kwok’s Kimberly Chang is one of the best characters I’ve met in a long time. After all, who wouldn’t love a character that can quickly answer the question “The E. coli genome is 4.8 million base pairs compared to a human genome of 6 billion base pairs. How many times larger is the human genome than that of E. coli?” but knows she is “really in trouble” when handed her gym uniform?

We meet Kimberly when she and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to the United States. Kimberly’s Aunt Paula, already living in the United States, makes all the arrangements, and Mrs. Chang, Kimberly’s mother, is particularly, and perhaps overly, grateful to her. Kimberly and her mother arrive in New York City in the fall, and it is cold, both literally and figuratively.

After a family dinner, Aunt Paula quickly deposits Kimberly and her mother at their new “home”—a small apartment in a vacant apartment building with no heat and few window panes but with plenty of cockroaches and rats. Aunt Paula also provides a job for Mrs. Chang in a local clothing factory (sweatshop) that she (Aunt Paula) manages. Mrs. Chang and Kimberly, who helps her mother after school, are paid by the piece, and for years Kimberly “calculated whether or not something was expensive by how many skirts it cost”:

In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts.

For Kimberly, school is little better than the apartment or the factory. While it may be warm, kids, and sometimes even the teachers, can be cruel. On her second day of school, Kimberly asks to borrow a “rubber” from the teacher, and from there, her fate as “different” is sealed. While Kim is clearly intelligent, she struggles with many of the assignments in school. Her teacher gives the students “fun” projects such as making a collage about the Reagan presidency with pictures from magazines or writing a paper describing the “emotional significance” of the objects in the their bedrooms. Kimberly’s bedroom is a mattress she shares with her mother and the cockroaches.

Pick whichever cliché you like, but Kimberly and her mother clearly had the deck stacked against them. On their first day of work, Aunt Paula gives Kimberly and her mother a tour of the factory, and they pass by a table with children and the elderly snipping threads off finished garments. Aunt Paula says with a “wink”: “They enter at this table as children and they leave from it as grandmas… The circle of factory life.” In the beginning of the book, this seems to be Mrs. Chang’s fate and Kimberly’s future.

However, Kimberly, who is quickly morphing into the more Americanized Kim, is determined to provide a better life not only for herself but also for her mother. Kwok fills Kim’s journey with both highs and lows, and at many times, Kim’s journey becomes all of our journeys. While Kim’s experience as an immigrant may be quite foreign to some, her schoolmates provide universality to the text. The quintessential popular kids, whose hair always seems to fall perfectly, whose faces never seem to break out, and whose lives seem simply impossibly perfect, tease Kim unmercifully at first. However, in a scene that almost rates a fist pump, Kim plants a quick kiss on the lead bully and firmly puts him in his place. He never bothers her again.

Aunt Paula, however, is a more formidable opponent than the school bully. When Kim finds a way to finish more pieces per hour, Aunt Paula reduces the amount they are paid for each piece. When Kim and her mother complain about the lack of heat, the filth, and the bugs in the apartment, Aunt Paula responds, “If you’re really so unhappy there, no one is stopping you from making other choices.” After this, Mrs. Chang stops asking, and Kimberly notes:

We were still paying Aunt Paula back and it was clear that she simply did not care to move us. As far as she was concerned, it was most convenient and best to leave us where we were. And the truth is, caught up in the vortex of work and school, we had become too exhausted to fight against the roaches and mice, our frozen limbs, the stuffed animal clothing, and life in front of the open oven. We had been forced into acceptance.

Despite Aunt Paula’s oppressive nature, hope still radiates from the book, in large part because of a cast of minor characters. Kim’s best friend Annette Avery, another social outcast because of her frizzy hair and outspoken nature, and her mother prove to be valuable allies. After a visit to Annette’s house, which is warm and full of wonderful things like Ritz crackers, Kim thinks, “Sometimes, when I felt the most alone and overwhelmed, I had the fantasy of going to Mrs. Avery for help. Even just the possibility of it gave me real comfort.” Sometimes hope came from strangers rather than friends—at one point in the story one of the socially elite students stands up for Kim when she is accused of cheating and does so simply because it is the right thing to do. 

Girl in Translation is a moving story filled with lively and believable characters. It is an extremely well told story with wonderful syntax, vivid descriptions, and subtlety placed humor. It’s a story with important themes concerning family, determination, and sacrifice. Still, the best part of the novel is the fact that it made me cheer (occasionally out loud) for Kimberly Chang.

Girl in Translation


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