Girl in Translation
Education in Translation
Asian Americans began immigrating to the United States in large numbers in the 19th century, during a time when xenophobia and nativism were rife. The arrival of the so-called “yellow peril” led to discrimination and racism against these new arrivals who only sought to better their lives through education (Simon). This narrative of Asian American discrimination and education continues today, though the stereotypes have developed and put Asian Americans in the position of the “model minority,” turning Asians from railroad workers to math-savvy kids who dominate higher education and live and breathe school (Le). This idea is present in Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, a partially autobiographical novel based on Kwok’s own experiences as an Asian immigrant (Castellano). Kwok writes of a girl named Kimberly who moves from Hong Kong to the United States with her mother, both barely speaking English and struggling to survive as factory workers. Kwok explores the theme of education being the pathway to the American dream for many people, especially Asian American immigrants, by characterizing Kimberly as an intelligent student who uses her academic prowess to lift her and her mother out of poverty and into the good life of which they have dreamed.
Kimberly is characterized as a student who fears failure in academics because she is relying on her academic performance to help her and her mother achieve the American dream. At Harrison Prep, a cheating scandal occurs in which Kimberly is the suspect. Desperate to prove her intelligence, she experiences the imposter syndrome, anxiety, and self-doubt when she is given the news that she will have to take an oral test to confirm her innocence: “I was terrified of losing everything Ma and I had worked for. What if I couldn’t understand the English well enough…? What if I happened to make a few mistakes or just did less well than usual?” (Kwok 182). This fear is due to the knowledge of what rests on her shoulders–getting kicked out of school means losing the future for which Kimberly and her mother have sacrificed so much. Many Asian Americans experience a similar feeling today in the need to prove their intelligence through school, which is also in part influenced by the status of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” stereotyped as “the one ethnic minority group that has successfully overcome racism and achieved the American dream, primarily through education” (Le). Academic success being so highly prized in Asian American communities contributes to the students’ fears of failure, as doing well in school is often seen as the only way to achieve the American dream.
One of Kimberly’s biggest motivations in succeeding academically and achieving the American dream is to save her mother from factory life, but this motivation and its effects end up leading to issues in her “translation” across culture. For a while, out of fear of her cruel teacher, she skips school. Eventually, after Kimberly’s mother tells her of their predicament of getting trapped in the factory cycle for the rest of their lives, Kimberly realizes she must return to school if she is to improve her and her mother’s living conditions: “I had to go back to school on Monday. Pa was dead and no one else could save Ma from this [factory] life” (Kwok 51). Kimberly’s commitment to saving her mother leads to her distancing herself from Chinatown’s factory life, assimilating into American culture and learning to be an exceptional student among American classmates, something many children of immigrants do in an effort to conform to cultural standards in a new country. Assimilation“in turn can lead to conflict with their parents if the parents don’t understand these activities and if they feel that their children are acculturating into “mainstream” American society too quickly and conversely, losing their traditional ethnic identity” (Le). However, in order to save her mother, Kimberly must to some degree assimilate and learn to be an American if she hopes to realize their American dream.
Another aspect of Kimberly’s cultural translation is inspired by Kwok’s own mother, who “never really learned to speak English,” and the novel’s autobiographical nature translates this aspect into Kimberly’s mother also never learning English (Castellano). Kimberly realizes, as many other Asian American children do, that she must be the one to learn English and assimilate into their new culture in order to carry them both out of poverty.
Upon her realizations that she needs to save her mother and prove her own ability to succeed, Kimberly commits to academic success in America and uses her intelligence to lift her mother and herself out of poverty. Her first commitment to success occurs when she decides that in order to succeed in the United States, she has “to perfect [her] English” (Kwok 90). And despite the fact that “she’s shy and speaks almost no English… [Kimberly] turns out to be a whiz at math and science… She earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Her academic gifts are so far beyond those of her fellow students” (“Kwok, Jean: Girl in Translation”). Kimberly’s commitment to her success reflects Kwok’s own experiences, as the book is partly based on Kwok’s own life. In an interview, Kwok reveals that she, like Kimberly, “excelled in public school and won scholarships to private schools” and in turn managed to escape the “slums of Brooklyn” (Castellano). Eventually, Kimberly secures a scholarship to Yale and later becomes a pediatric cardiac surgeon. Together, she and Ma escape the slums of Chinatown, achieving their own American dream.The book’s focus on education as Kimberly’s main path to success leads to the conclusion that she owes her success and her achievement of the American dream to her commitment to education.
Through her characterization of Kimberly as a high-achieving student, a caring daughter, and an intelligent hard worker, Kwok depicts Kimberly’s rise from poverty to the American dream. Kimberly’s experiences reflect not only Kwok’s but also millions of other Asian American students’ who regularly balance their school life and assimilation with their own cultures. Education is the uniting factor of both aspects, with its power to lead immigrant families to success in their new society and its prioritization in said immigrant families’ cultures. Especially so in Asian American communities, education remains the way to achieve the American dream.
Castellano, Laura. “PW Talks with Jean Kwok: A Girl Gets off a Boat.” Publishers Weekly, 15 Mar. 2010, p. 35. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw =w&u=cobb90289&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA221601355&it=r&asid=967f105bbd3f52133bd48d2c0d564e03.
“Kwok, Jean: Girl in Translation.” Kirkus Reviews, 15 Mar. 2010. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=cobb90289&v=2.1&id=GALE%7 CA256722200&it=r&asid=7c80c9bd5ccf7b4300aa3f0e0fa48c9a.
Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books, 2010.
Le, C. N. “A Closer Look at Asian Americans and Education.” School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins University, 2016, education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/ strategies/topics/multicultural-education/A%20closer%20look%20at%20asian%20americans%20and%20education/.
Simon, Scott. “Behind The ‘Model Minority,’ An American Struggle.” NPR, NPR, 23 June 2012, www.npr.org/2012/06/23/155622598/behind-a-wave-of-asian-immigration-stories-of-struggle.
THE MELTING POT
A melting pot is a metaphor for a society where people with different cultures and social statuses blend together as one. Many immigrants find great difficulty when trying to integrate into a western society, causing them to become part of the ‘melting pot’ process. These newcomers face several challenges such as the barrier of language where communication between the two societies affects interaction with one another. Another obstacle immigrants must overcome is cultural differences, where issues such as attitudes towards gender, religious diversity, ethnicity and sexuality differ vastly between countries. The main protagonists, Kimberly Chang, in Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation and Lilly, from Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly, come from cultures where being accepted requires conforming to the norms of others, which is requires in being the “perfect” woman or wife. Kimberly and Lilly face challenges to their own beliefs and values when they are introduced to a foreign culture; a culture where to be accepted one can be themselves and will be accepted no matter what.
Both Lilly and Kim are seen as outsiders in their newly adapted societies. They don’t seem to fit in or belong anywhere they go and are constantly viewed as outsiders. Throughout Sweetness in the Belly, Lilly travels from Harar to England and in doing so does not seem to not fit in anywhere: “I’m a white woman raised in Africa now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present” (Gibb 9). Lilly appears quite foreign to others around her. In Harar, she is called ‘Faranji’, which translates to foreigner, due to the colour of her skin. In London she is seen as strange when she desires to live her Islamic lifestyle as a white woman. In Girl in Translation, Kim struggles with the feeling of exclusion as well, as portrayed when she says, “By the second semester of second grade, I had more trouble understanding my fellow students then I did my teachers. The combination of the kids’ use of slang and my lack of cultural context made their discussions bewildering” (Kwok 145). Kim, being a new immigrant to the country, finds it hard to communicate and fit in with her peers at school. Her lack of understanding of the western culture stops her from emerging into the American lifestyle smoothly. Both Lilly and Kim are seen as outsiders in of their new environments as Lilly cannot be viewed as the typical European or African and Kim experiences a loss of context when communicating with her peers in the western language. The feeling of isolation and not being able to fit in is comparable between both characters. The standing conflict they both face and the difficulty of assimilating is an obstacle both protagonists face and must overcome.
Lilly and Kim face a number of challenges with their own personal beliefs while attempting to merge into their new societies. They come into contact with new situations where they must find a balance within their own culture and their new one. One of Lilly’s greatest challenges occurs when she arrives in contact with her true love, Aziz, as she explains that, “Nothing in my life up to that point – not grief, not illness, not dislocation – had interrupted my religious practice. But then no one has ever challenged it.”(Gibb 88). Lilly is often conflicted by finding such a balance, and her love for Aziz tests her faith to a great extent. Kim’s challenge comes into play when she is faced by a boy: He thought about this second. ‘ “Eat a bite?” I hesitated. It isn’t Chinese to eat from someone else’s food. No kid in Hong Kong had ever offered any to me. The boy waved the bun under my nose. “Come on,” he said. He ripped off a clean piece and held it out. “Thanks,” I said, and popped it in my mouth. It was as delicious as it smelled.’’ (Kwok 41). The rules that govern a “good Chinese girl”, in fact, frequently oppose American social norms and cultural ideals. Kim goes against her own beliefs because of the boy’s American societal influence. In both novels the main protagonists, Lilly and Kim, go through many instances where they have to cope with having their faith tested by earthly love. They both face struggles such as balancing their culture’s rules in the presence of men who they strongly feel for and threaten to challenge everything they have known all their lives resulting in their faiths being tested when they are forced to choose between their earthly love and religious and cultural responsibilities.
In both cultures that Lilly and Kim are raised in there is a belief that to succeed you need to fit the image of the “perfect” woman with no flaws and to please all of your husband’s needs. When Lilly lived in Harar she learned and adapted to their culture and their rules. She did not, however, accept some rules such as, “They say you are not a true Muslim if you don’t have absuma” (Gibb 87). In Harar, where Lilly lives, they bridge religion with culture. They believe that a woman who is not circumcised is not a “good Muslim”. Lilly believes, the most absurd ideas are found believable in their culture and society. Kim also feels the same about some concepts believed in Chinese culture that are practiced: “In Chinese culture then, having a disability in the family tainted the entire group, as if it was contagious” (Kwok 187). Kim tells us in Chinese culture having a disability is almost like having a curse, not only on you, but your entire family. This illogical idea is strongly believed in her society. Lilly and Kim’s culture are both similar in the sense where outlandish beliefs are practiced and believed. Throughout the vast majority of the societies in both novels, both protagonists also do not believe that in order to be the “perfect woman” you must be free of all flaws and practice life-threatening procedures.
The premise of finding common ground between oneself and those in an adopted community is one that is carried over from both Lilly’s and Kim’s past and present as an outsider in Harar as well as America. Lilly turns to God in times when she seeks comfort from the feeling of being alienated and times where she needs reassurance: “This is where we are reassured of our place in the world. Our place in the eyes of God. It is the one thing that offers me hope that where borders and wars and revolutions divide and scatter us, something singular and true unites us.” (Gibb 34). In a world where Lilly is seen as a foreigner she can’t help but feel isolated and lost. Kim can also relate to all the emotions and feelings Lilly is going through when she is moved to a new country. She feels as though she is an outsider when she says, “In Hong Kong, I’d had a light blue and white uniform for school, as soon as school was over, I’d revert to sandals and bare skin in the sun. I was used to seeing the tips of my toes, my bare calves and shoulders; now they had to be constantly covered, I missed myself.” (Kwok 60). Kim reminisces about her old life back home. She expresses to the reader how she misses her old self, where she could be carefree, and how living in America, trapped within a different atmosphere and culture makes her feel lost and absent in her own body. The problems that Lilly and Kim encounter in both of their settings are essential in exploring many different facets of finding and maintaining one’s identity in a culturally diverse setting.
Lilly and Kimberly Chang faced several obstacles that challenged themselves and the lifestyle they are born into. Their personal beliefs contradicted the societies beliefs in which they moved to. Moving and adapting to a new society helps them see past their own personal views, and allows them to open up to a new world view where you can be who you truly are. This was a totally unfamiliar idea and concept to both girls as they had been brought up in a much different way. Girl in Translation and Sweetness in the Belly helps open an individual’s eyes to see the real struggles and hardships immigrants must go through in order to smoothly emerge and fit into a brand new society. In spite of all the challenges immigrants face, these individuals find a way to seamlessly submerge into their new societies and assimilate with the new the culture and society they must now live in. Kimberly Chang and Lilly are perfect examples of immigrants who had to experience personal challenges in order to settle into new countries. They faced the obstacle of adjusting their personal views and emerging into a completely different society than their own where being the “perfect” woman is not the norm and being oneself is.
Gibb, Camilla. Sweetness in The Belly. New York: Penguin Press New York. 2006.
Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. New York: Riverhead Books. 2010.