“I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort. It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit in it. This is not to say that my education was easy for me. When Ma and I moved to the U.S., I spoke only a few words of English, and for a very long time, I struggled.” (p. 1)
“But in a way, now that my English was fairly fluent, I didn’t find my academic achievements to be so remarkable. I simply did what the teachers assigned as best I could and regurgitated what I had learned on the tests. Sometimes I had to do all the preparation at the last moment because I had no choice, but I always got it done. School was my only ticket out and just being in this privileged school wasn’t enough. I still needed to win a full scholarship to a prestigious college, and to excel there enough to get a good job.” (p. 206)
The teenage years can be turbulent years. But they prove to be all the more challenging for young immigrants who come to a new country with their families in pursuit of their dream of a better life. Not only do they usually have to learn a new language, but they also have to learn to fit in while at the same time doing as well as possible in school. For most immigrants, school is their “ticket out,” the ticket to a life of financial security that they need to build for themselves and their loved ones.
This is how Kimberly Chang, the main protagonist of Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, views the value of her education. The “ticket out” is one of the promises that going to school should eventually fulfill. After coming to New York from Hong Kong with her mom at age 11, she works hard to make sure that the sacrifices she and her mom had made by immigrating to America were worth it. She learns English, excels in her primary and secondary school studies, goes to an Ivy League college, and then to a prestigious medical school, and becomes a medical doctor in the end.
Without a doubt, Kimberly’s story would be quite a boring one if this trajectory of success were simply viewed on the “straight line” mapped out above. Kimberly’s success is all the more impressive because it occurs against a backdrop of exploitation and fear as she and her mom work in a factory sweatshop in Chinatown during their first years in New York and live in an apartment in Brooklyn that would have been condemned if the New York City Housing Authority had known that people were actually living in it. Although she makes friends in school, Kimberly leads a life of secrecy that prevents her from opening up to them for a very long time and keeps her in a world apart. Her life as an immigrant definitely takes its toll.
Jean Kwok has written Girl in Translation with the Hostos reader in mind. The author touches a raw nerve because she knows how to bring forth in her writing situations that communicate the very depths of the human condition. It is not possible to read her story without understanding the trials and tribulations that often characterize the lives of immigrants and others as well who strive to change their situation in life. In this gripping novel, in which Ms. Kwok deftly shows how people can maintain their dignity while carving out a new identity and destiny for themselves, her own story finds resonance in Kimberly Chang’s voice.
Like Kimberly, Ms. Kwok immigrated to New York from Hong Kong as a child, lived with her family in a roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn, worked in a sweatshop, and excelled in her studies; she graduated from Hunter College High School and then went to Harvard University in quest of her B.A. degree. Ms. Kwok holds an M.F.A. degree in fiction from Columbia University, and now works as a full-time writer.
Jean Kwok has written short stories and two novels: Girl in Translation is her début novel and Mambo in Chinatown is her second novel. Ms. Kwok is a New York Times bestselling author whose work has been published in 17 countries and read by students in high schools, colleges, and universities all over the world. She has received numerous awards for her writing, among them the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers award.
It is therefore an honor for us to be able to present Girl in Translation as the book of the semester for Spring 2015. We hope you enjoy the reading experience.
For guidance in reading the book, go to “Study Guide.”
To participate in an on-line conversation forum with students, faculty and staff members, go to “Discussion Board.”
To see the schedule of activities, go to “Calendar of Events.”
If you have any questions or comments, please address them to Professor Robert F. Cohen, Director, Hostos Book-of-the-Semester Project, by phone (718-518-6592) or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).