An alternate reality

An SV Moms Group Book Club post: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Immigration has been a extremely charged topic in American politics for decades.  President Obama and Senator McCain heatedly debated the issue of immigration reform during the 2008 election, when the Latino vote was believed to be crucial.  And Arizona’s draconian new law targeting undocumented workers is only the latest scuffle in a conflict that polarizes our country like a border.

Behind the political debate there are, of course, the immigrants themselves, many of whom risk their lives and sacrifice their well-being to come to America in the hopes of building a better life — one of freedom and economic opportunity — for their children.  All parents understand in the abstract why some parents make these kind of sacrifices for their children.  But those of us who were lucky enough to be born in this country have not experienced what it means to leave our native land, and move to a foreign place, where we don’t speak the language or understand the customs, in the hopes of giving our children access to the American dream.  While the dream may be the same for everyone; the reality is not. “America” holds within its borders many truths and many realities.

I would bet that many of my readers know, as I do, some recent immigrants to this country.  Just about every cleaning lady, babysitter or nanny that I have ever employed has been a fairly recent immigrant.  My children’s babysitters have come from the Czech Republic, Romania, China and Poland.  By the time I meet these women, their English is fluent, they live in nice apartments, and they are thriving.  They are cheerful and upbeat, grateful for the opporunity to work and go to school, and delighted to have come as far as they have.  But what stories of hardship and sacrifice are they not telling me? What were their lives like in their native countries? What difficulties did they encounter when they arrived in America? What do they really think about me and my life of ease and privilege? I know their American dream. What is their American reality?

My Czech nanny, Janet, once told me about when she first came to this country: she landed in New York, not speaking any English, and immediately  took a 20-hour bus ride to Florida, where supposedly a job cleaning houses was waiting for her. She had no idea how long the bus ride would take and became increasingly panicked as the hours wore on.  She came from a small country in Central Europe; she could not even conceive of driving for a full day and still being in the same country.  She was laughing as she told me the story, but I can’t even imagine how terrified she must have been. And, naturally, the cleaning job did not turn out to be quite as advertised.

My Chinese sitter, A., has never told me about how she came to America because the story involves her ex-husband and that piece of her life she keeps very private.  There is undoubtedly a story of hardship there, but I will never know it.  A. has told me what her life was like back in China, where her family essentially gave her up for adoption because they could not feed her.  Like Janet, she laughs as she tells me about how they had nothing to eat but sweet potatoes.

By telling me this story as if it were a joke, A. is really telling me — in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson — that I can’t handle the truth.  Sitting in my kitchen in suburban Cook County, listening to A.’s story, can only give me the smallest glimpse of what A.’s life has really been like; I will never understand that kind of poverty; I will never understand the desperation that brought her to this country.  Nor will I ever understand what it means to be an immigrant.  Secure in my rights and confident in my ability to navigate in this country, I will never know the terror of being at the mercy of the people who brought me here, or those who would take advantage of my weaknesses.  The truth is, on the underside of our America is a reality of exploitation and intimidation that flies in the face of such American concepts as rights and liberty.

Realities that are beyond the ken of most Americans is an important theme of Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in TranslationGirl in Translation is a story of a mother and daughter who are brought from Hong Kong — which is about to revert back to Chinese hands — to Brooklyn by relatives.  Kimberly, the daughter, is an exeptionally intelligent young woman, who attends an exclusive private school by day and works in a sweatshop and lives in a condemned slum by night.  She essentially lives a double life that her white, affluent school friends know nothing about.  Yet the signs are there the whole time. At one point, Kimberly tells her best friend Annette that she works in a factory after school.  The next day, Annette tells Kim that her statement was “silly” because Annette’s dad assured her that children don’t work in factories in America.

Annette and Kimberly are both living in America, but in different Americas.  In Annette’s reality, there are child labor laws which protect children from being forced to work for pennies in a filthy sweatshop and there are housing inspectors to make sure that no one lives in unheated, squalid tenements.  In Kimberly’s reality, the sweatshop and the filthy apartment are the only way out of a crushing debt that she and her mother assumed by coming to this country.  Even when Kimberly becomes fluent in English and learns that her working and living conditions are illegal, she does not complain or protest.  That is a luxury reserved for the other America, the one that Kimberly and her mother aspire to join.

Years later, when Annette, who has been a loyal friend to Kimberly all along, finally finds out the truth about Kimberly’s double life, she is furious: Why had Kimberly not told her? She could have helped! But could she have, really? Would Kimberly and her mother have even accepted help? Or did they view their reality as the price that they had to pay for their American dream?

An SV Moms Group Book Club post.  In conjuction with the book club, I received a free copy of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.


  1. Lisa says

    Great post! I was also frustrated by the idea of an America and an “other” America. It weighed on me, but there’s no making sense of it. Thanks for putting it into words.

    • Emily says

      I don’t know how well I put it into worlds, but I am struck by in a country the size of ours, how many little, insular worlds there are that never touch one another.

  2. Marketing Mommy says

    Excellent post, and far more insightful than mine, which is all about me, me, me. (My very minor experiences with culture shock upon moving back to America, that is.)

    • Emily says

      I found it a hard book to connect to my life — and then I tried to access it through the character of Annette. I too went to a fancy private school in a city, but I doubt anyone there was working in a sweatshop by night.

  3. Pamela says

    I love reading all of the SV Moms Book Club posts, each one so diverse. Mine is very different than yours. I have noticed one trend though, the positive attitude of immigrants. Americans should realize how lucky we really are! We look at something and see the negative in it before we see the positive.

    • Emily says

      Yes indeed. It astounds me what Americans take for granted. Like people who don’t vote. Don’t they know that people in other countries fight and die for the right to vote!

  4. Jean Kwok says

    Thank you for this very insightful post. This was a big part of the reason I wrote this book — to talk about worlds that most readers never see. I loved your comments about the different Americas that we all live in, and your thoughts about the immigrants you know and wondering how much of their lives are hidden. If my novel makes more people think likes this, I’ll be very happy.

    Jean Kwok

    • Emily says

      Thank you, Jean, for taking the time to read my response to your novel. And congratulations to you on this accomplishment, the publication of your first novel! I look forward to hearing more from you.

  5. Emily says

    Excellent post. I too was particularly struck by the moment when Annette finally sees where Kimberly lives. “No one in America lives like this.” “Actually they do.”

  6. Julie says

    I loved how naive Annette was about the “other” America, because she was portrayed so real, like so many American’s (like me). This book opened my eyes so that I can begin to no longer be an Annette in this world. (Though I’ll still hang on to the really, really good, supportive friend part of Annette.)

    BTW, yes, I think Annette’s family could have helped Kimberly and her mom. Because that was the personality of her family. They didn’t send her to private elementary school, they wanted to open her eyes to her neighborhood. Annette’s mom could have helped them to find a suitable home sooner. And could have helped Ma to find a decent job, utilizing her musical skills. Yes, I believe in fairy tales. I think this one would have come true.

    • Emily says

      I feel that Ma’s sense of obligation to Aunt Paula, as disappointed as she was in Aunt Paula, would have prevented her from leaving the factory or the apartment, or doing anything else that would have angered Aunt Paula. I think it is one of those cultural differences that is hard for us to fathom.