In this post, I am participating in the Silicon Valley Moms Blog Book Club. We read "Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok. (Yes, I know that I just wrote about the Silicon Valley Moms Group closing up shop, but the book club has some unfinished business.)
It is rare that I read a book and have so many thoughts and reactions to it -- primarily, "Here; read this." And when you do, keep reminding yourself that this is a novel, a work of fiction; but remember that you read the author's note, which will make you wonder how much of her is in the lead character, as both worked in sweatshops as children in the U.S.Protagonist Kimberly, who we see first as a child and raise through adulthood, is foreign-born, but she becomes her family's first American. In her plight, I see a lot of the story of first-generation Americans, including my own husband, son of a Polish immigrant mother and a Greek immigrant father. Reading this story, I reflected on how different my life path -- as an American mixed from a handful of European ancestries from people who've lived here a long time -- is from my husband's, and how different both of our paths were from Kimberly's. For example, growing up in my family in West Virginia, everyone who wanted to work could. We could check the right boxes, so to speak: white, local, etc. If we had a trade (farming, coal mining, breadman, teacher), we could work in our field. My in-laws had a harder time. My mother-in-law became a U.S. citizen early on, but she never did work in her field; holding a graduate degree in chemical engineering, she retired from work in sales and catering at a luxury hotel recently. Compare her to Kimberly's mother in the story, a former music teacher in Hong Kong who becomes a factory slave in America: she is beholden to her big sister, Paula, who has Issues. But no one can really take Paula to task, for, culturally, they are beholden to Paula for bailing Mrs. Chang out multiple times, from marrying her intended to paying tuberculosis-related medical bills to bringing them to America ... to forcing them to work in a sweatshop to pay off these debts with interest, to forcing them to live in a condemned, heatless building ... things that any American would find legally actionable. The concept of honor pervades the story: honoring debts, honoring familial ties, honoring education, honoring being in America, honoring one's own life path while choosing not to mess up someone else's. And I submit that the longer an American has been off of the boat from another land (the more generations that have passed), the lower the commitment to honor. My family would have never spent one night in Aunt Paula's condemned apartment nor one minute working in a sweatshop. My in-laws would've tried both, perhaps, but they, too, would've abandoned it, realizing quickly that they did not come to America to live and to work in squalor. Kimberly's family honors their commitments until their debts are paid and beyond; but that honor exacted some pretty steep prices, too. (You'll have to read the book to find out more about that.)
All of these thoughts on honor inspired me to think: how many people stick together -- specifically, how many people stick to horrible situations -- because their sense of honor outweighs their common sense?
I've known someone in that situation lately and, let me tell you, it is an ugly place. Heck, I've been in that situation lately; haven't we all? Can we honor requests from people who treat us badly? I know that I cannot. And worse, what about people who are bad to our children? That's the part of this book that tugged at my heart the most: I can understand how Kimberly's mom owed a debt to her sister, but it was pretty hard to stomach Kimberly, a child, having to pay that debt, too. Not only would I never be able to honor someone who mistreated my children, I'd find it hard not to make their lives hell. And that is another piece of beauty of "Girl in Translation": Mrs. Chang doesn't once fight back, but she wins, in the end, anyway, just by doing the honorable thing, getting through the circumstances life threw at her, and moving on to a better life, devoid of the person who made it hell. There's a lesson in that for all of us.
I always add a note at the end of my book club posts regarding whether or not I'd recommend this book, and I enthusiastically note "Yes!" regarding this one. I'll be gifting it to folks, even; it's well written, the story is compelling, and, like I mentioned, there are valuable take-aways in it, which one doesn't always glean from works of fiction. It was a real privilege to read this book.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book. I did not commit to reviewing the book, let alone favorably, and am not being compensated otherwise for this post. The opinions and reactions above are mine alone.