Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Wow.  I did not expect to be gutted by this story of a young Chinese girl and her mother.  Having moved to New York expecting a better life, they instead find poverty and hopelessness.  More than many books, Kwok did a phenomenal job portraying the shame built into poverty and the way it affects all aspects of life.  But at the same time, neither Kimberley nor her mother allow their dire situations to stop them from loving each other and ambitiously pursuing a better future.  The sad thing is…Kimberley is extremely gifted.  Not all immigrants manage to get perfect SAT scores.  So while she found a way out of crushing poverty, most do not have the same privilege.

Then there’s the relationship between Kimberley and Matt.  While she struggles to survive the foreign world of private schools, Matt is the one who knows her secret life illegally working at a factory in order to pay for a roach-infested, freezing apartment.  Their friendship is slow and sweet, and the turns they take had my heart in knots.  I appreciated the realistic feel of their choices and emotions, but I never stopped wanting to shake them and say, “Stop living real life!  Just be happy together in a fantasy world!  Why won’t this book just give me what I want!?”

But life doesn’t give you want you want, even when scholarships fall in your lap.  So while Kimberley is blessed with an enormous advantage, she never quite escapes the fact that life is a struggle.

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When young Kimberley Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to America, they speak no English and own nothing but debt.  They arrive in New York hopeful for a better life, but find instead a squalid Brooklyn apartment and backbreaking labor in a Chinatown sweatshop.  Unable to accept this as her future, Kim decides to use her “talent for school” to earn a place for herself and her mother in their adopted country.  Disguising the most difficult truths of her meager existence, Kim embarks on a double life: an exceptional student by day, and a sweatshop worker by evening.  In time, Kim learns to translate not just her language but herself, back and forth between two worlds, between hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

Release Date:  April 2010

Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler

I think I’ve made it clear in previous travel related posts that Japan is at the top of my Wanderlust list.  Reading about Feiler’s year as a junior high English teacher in Tochigi ought to have boosted my interest, but…it didn’t.  Feiler does a great job describing and analyzing the cultural distinctions of the Japanese, especially where education is concerned.  But his account lacks a certain spark.  Although he calls people friends and briefly describes his date-scene failures, there isn’t a lot of life in his recollection.

Perhaps he is imitating the Japanese custom of avoiding offending others.  There are times when his frustrations at constantly being othered as an American appear, but he doesn’t dig into those feelings.  The more I think about this, the more it seems he is honoring his Japanese friends.  But since so much of his book asserted his American identity, I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of his fire, independence, and emotion.

Learning to Bow is great as an introduction to Japanese culture.  But as a memoir, I wasn’t satisfied with the level of self-disclosure.  I suppose that makes me extremely American!  Hmm.  Continue reading