Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jean Kwok

Much of Jean Kwok’s early life mirrors that of Kim in Girl in Translation. When Jean Kwok was five years old, she immigrated with her family to Brooklyn, New York, from Hong Kong. Their apartment was infested with roaches and rodents and had no central heating, and when she wasn't at school, she worked in a clothing factory in Chinatown. She was accepted to the prestigious Hunter College High School after elementary school, which prepared her to later gain admission to Harvard. Though Kwok began her college education studying science, she eventually changed her major to study English and literature. Throughout college, she worked multiple jobs at a time. In between earning her bachelor’s degree and her master's degree at Columbia University, she spent several years working for a dance studio as a professional ballroom dancer. Her experiences there influenced her second novel, Mambo in Chinatown. Kwok currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons, where she writes and speaks about her work. Prior to turning to writing full time after Girl in Translation's publication, Kwok taught English and worked as a translator, as she speaks three languages (Chinese, English, and Dutch) fluently.
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Historical Context of Girl in Translation

Ma and Kim emigrated from Hong Kong as part of a major wave: the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which transferred the British colony of Hong Kong to China's jurisdiction, made it exceptionally clear that Hong Kong residents wouldn't be granted British citizenship. This prompted mass migration out of Hong Kong. Many settled in New York City, where much of the work available was in garment factories in Chinatown. Though the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union would've technically been responsible for advocating for workers like Kim and Jean Kwok's family, the union became relatively ineffective as the demographic makeup of union members shifted to Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Dominican members after World War II. Conditions in garment factories returned, in most cases, to sweatshop conditions like Kim and Matt experience. By the 1990s, factories in New York owned by Chinese and Korean workers produced around 70 percent of the clothing manufactured in the city.

Other Books Related to Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok has written one other novel that also follows a Chinese-American girl living in New York's Chinatown; Mambo in Chinatown tackles similar themes of the immigrant experience and the difficulty of life in Chinatown. Other works that touch on similar storylines or themes include Esmeralda Santiago's memoir When I Was Puerto Rican (the protagonist's mother even works in a garment factory after the family's move to New York) and The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez's novel about Panamanian immigrants in Delaware. Kwok has cited authors such as Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale) as influences in her writing. Margaret Chin's nonfiction work Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry explores the intricacies of the immigrant garment workers' lives and working relationships with their employers, and is based on extensive interviews with individuals who work or employ people in the industry.
Key Facts about Girl in Translation
  • Full Title: Girl in Translation
  • When Written: 2009
  • Where Written: The Netherlands
  • When Published: 2010
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Semi-autobiographical fiction; historical fiction
  • Setting: Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s
  • Climax: Kim receives her acceptance letter from Yale and refuses to cave to Aunt Paula's abuse anymore.
  • Antagonist: Aunt Paula; poverty
  • Point of View: First person, narrated by an adult Kim

Extra Credit for Girl in Translation

It Continues. Today, the cost of making clothes and labor laws in the U.S. means that most clothing is manufactured overseas. Despite consumer pressure for brands to pay garment workers a living wage, garment workers interviewed in Bangladesh and India have stated that they're paid less than half of what they require to support their families. Further, despite labor laws in the U.S., the Los Angeles garment district has repeatedly come under fire for unsafe, sweatshop-like working conditions, even into the 2010s.

A Family Affair. Kim's character is based in part off of Kwok's older brother Kwan, who would've been closer in age to Kim than Jean was. Like Kim and Jean, Kwan escaped a life in the garment district by securing a full-ride scholarship to MIT. He died tragically in a plane crash not long before Girl in Translation was published.