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 Translation. Girl 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.