“Girl in Translation” illuminates life in sweatshops

Anna Russell, Contributor

This summer, I laid down on the pavement, warm from the noon sun, to read my Summer Read book, Jean Kwok’s “Girl in Translation.” I didn’t rise until the light began to fade, completed book in hand. 

I was drawn in not just by the magnetic characters but the skillful writing transporting me into the story. In this wonderfully unique novel, Kwok expertly weaves together American and Chinese culture without mocking either. Drawing from her own experiences in America, Kwok brings to page the story of countless immigrants straddled between two worlds, all while managing to evade hackneyed clichés.

The novel follows Kimberly Chang and her mother, immigrants from Hong Kong, as they attempt to rebuild their lives in the slums of New York. Far from living the dream she imagined, Kim struggles to find her place in this new world. She finds herself caught between her mother’s traditional ways and the appeal of American culture. With her mother unable to support their family alone, Kim must join her in a sweatshop. Kim and her mother, along with others, suffer in the dangerous heat and chemicals, the air laced with red dust. Rather than paid a standard wage, workers at the shop are compensated for each garment completed. “When I was in high school, I learned that piece payment was illegal, but those rules were for white people, not for us,” she said. 

As immigrants, exploited workers fear they have nowhere else to work and refrain from reporting the shop as they worry it could get them deported. 

Forced into growing up too fast, Kim has little time for fun, balancing her rigorous double life as a student and worker. “All I wanted was to have a break from the exhausting cycle of my life,” she explains, “to flee from the constant anxiety that haunted me: fear of my teachers, fear at every assignment…fear that we’d never escape.” 

Kwok’s vivid details highlight the juxtaposition of Kim’s work and school life, the idyllic picture of America versus the exploitation behind the scenes.  Despite her top rank at her school in Hong Kong, Kim has trouble assimilating in her new environment. She is one of the only Asian students and finds fitting in difficult. At school, she struggles to understand English and her job at the sweatshop results in little time for school work. However, she slowly regains her footing as she attempts to balance her duty to her mother and her desire to succeed. While Kim wants to excel in her studies and have a successful career, she feels obligated to aid her mother because her mother sacrificed everything to give Kim a better life. She feels guilty for becoming more “American” and for having a life while her mother slaves away at the sweatshop. 

“Girl in Translation” is such a powerful novel because it brings attention to real problems occurring not just throughout US history but in our current world. Today’s America is seeing an influx of immigration, only some of which is legal. The Migration Policy Institution reports that from 1970 to 2017, the number of immigrants in the United States has risen from 9,619,300 to 44,525,900. Too often these hopeful men and women are struck down by the cruel hand of greed, as they are forced into sweatshops and fields, creating products for America’s profit without receiving anything themselves. Although the Congressional Budget Office estimates the total annual contribution of foreign-born workers is roughly $2 trillion, about 10 percent of annual GDP, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reports that immigrants make substantially less than the average native-born citizen. 

Constant exposure to media and political issues has resulted in people becoming involved in problems in their communities and country at a younger age. Growing up in a world of hate, violence, and fear, those among today’s youth who feel morally unable to turn a blind eye to the unfairness of their country may particularly find “Girl in Translation” a resonant piece of very real fiction.