Girl in Translation

Aunt Paula Character Analysis

The antagonist of the novel, Aunt Paula is Ma's older sister and Kim’s aunt. She moved to the U.S. thirteen years prior to the start of the novel after marrying Uncle Bob. She initially plans to have Ma provide childcare and Chinese lessons to her sons, Nelson and Godfrey, in order to repay her for sponsoring their immigration fees and paying for Ma's tuberculosis treatment. Instead, she chooses to create a job for Ma at her factory and illegally rent them a pest-infested and unheated apartment. This is the first in a long line of injustices that Aunt Paula carries out against her sister. Aunt Paula consistently abuses her power by threatening to fire or evict Ma if Ma doesn't go along with her wishes, and she takes particular offense to Kim's knack for academics. Kim understands that Paula wanted Nelson to outshine her, something he has no hope of doing. Keeping Kim and Ma in dire poverty allows Paula to maintain her control over them, as they all understand they need the work and will do most anything to keep it. To this end, she cuts their pay rate when she realizes that Kim is working fast enough to significantly up her pay. It's no secret that Paula is a nasty overseer to everyone at the factory; the factory kids secretly refer to her as Dog Flea Mama. Near the end of the novel, Kim learns that Paula is bitter towards her sister because she believes that Ma has spent her whole life refusing to do what was expected of her and sacrifice for her family; because of this, Paula thinks of everything she's ever done as unwilling sacrifices in service of Ma. Though Paula does express some remorse for her actions at the end of the novel, Kim and Ma still cut ties with her.

Aunt Paula Quotes in Girl in Translation

The Girl in Translation quotes below are all either spoken by Aunt Paula or refer to Aunt Paula. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Riverhead edition of Girl in Translation published in 2010.
One Quotes

Nelson rolled his eyes. "Welcome to America," he said loudly for the adults' benefit. He leaned in to pretend to kiss my cheek and said softly, "You're a rake filled with dirt." A stupid country bumpkin. This time, his tones were perfect.

[…] I felt a flush crawl up my neck, then I smiled and pretended to kiss him back. "At least I'm not a potato with incense sticks for legs," I whispered.

The adults beamed.

Related Characters: Kim (speaker), Nelson (speaker), Ma, Aunt Paula, Uncle Bob
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
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"Never forget, we owe Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob a great debt. Because they got us out of Hong Kong and brought us here to America, the Golden Mountain."

Related Characters: Ma (speaker), Kim , Aunt Paula, Uncle Bob
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Two Quotes

Aunt Paula walked us to our workstation, passing an enormous table I hadn't seen earlier. A combination of very old ladies and young children were crowded around it, clipping all the extraneous threads off the sewn garments. This seemed to be the easiest job.

"They enter at this table as children and they leave from it as grandmas," Aunt Paula said with a wink. "The circle of factory life."

Related Characters: Aunt Paula (speaker), Kim , Ma, Mrs. Wu
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

As Ma had explained earlier, all employees were secretly paid by the piece; this meant that the work the children did was essential to the family income. When I was in high school, I learned that piece payment was illegal, but those rules were for white people, not for us.

Related Characters: Kim (speaker), Ma, Matt, Aunt Paula
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Nine Quotes

Ma had told me that Pa had been a brilliant student, with a talent for both languages and science, and that I'd gotten my intelligence from him. I used to take comfort from that, but now I just wished he were here to help me.

All I wanted was to have a break from the exhausting cycle of my life, to flee from the constant anxiety that haunted me: fear of my teachers, fear at every assignment, fear of Aunt Paula, fear that we'd never escape.

Related Characters: Kim (speaker), Ma, Aunt Paula, Pa
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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Aunt Paula Character Timeline in Girl in Translation

The timeline below shows where the character Aunt Paula appears in Girl in Translation. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
One
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
After a drive in which eleven-year-old Kim searched futilely for skyscrapers and the Liberty Goddess, Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob park the car in a run-down, dirty neighborhood. Everyone gets out of... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...but a stained mattress, a flaking dresser, and a wobbly coffee table. Kim realizes that Aunt Paula lied: it's clear nobody has lived in the apartment for a while. Kim believes that... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...back, Kim explains that she and Ma spent their first week in the U.S. in Aunt Paula 's house on Staten Island. Kim met her Uncle Bob for the first time and... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...teapot and an inexpensive box of green tea on the counter. Ma told Kim that Aunt Paula left the cheap tea out on purpose; the special tea was never truly meant for... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Aunt Paula returned around lunchtime, sat with Ma and Kim at the table, and complimented Kim's intelligence.... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...into bed, wrapping her in coats and one thin blanket, and promises to speak to Aunt Paula about the state of their apartment. Then she pulls out her violin and plays a... (full context)
Two
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...She attends a school that's very far away from the apartment, in a cleaner neighborhood. Aunt Paula set it up so that that Kim will use an address in that neighborhood as... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
...young boys push racks around. A layer of fabric dust coats everything. Ma points out Aunt Paula , who is handing out work to seamstresses. The ones who get larger piles seem... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Aunt Paula leads Ma and Kim through the factory. They pass a large table with old ladies... (full context)
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...he swiped it from "Dog Flea Mama's" station. When Kim looks confused, the boy mimics Aunt Paula 's habit of scratching her neck. Kim gasps and says that Paula is her aunt,... (full context)
Three
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...also discover that they're the only ones living in their trash-filled building. Later, Ma asks Aunt Paula about the heat, and Paula assures them that she's already asked Mr. N., the landlord,... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...can't bear the thought of Ma cutting threads as an old lady. She thinks of Aunt Paula saying that Nelson will be a great lawyer someday. Though Kim has no idea what... (full context)
Four
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...allowed to work, she still gets paid in cash like the illegal workers so that Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob can take their debt payment directly from Ma's paycheck. By the time... (full context)
Five
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...translates what Mr. Al said about the block being condemned. Ma insists it means that Aunt Paula will soon move them, but Kim believes that it means that Mr. N. will never... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Ma sternly tells Kim that they have to repay their debts to Aunt Paula , even if Paula is flawed. Kim asks if Paula has always been like this.... (full context)
Six
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Aunt Paula excuses Ma from work on the morning of Kim's graduation ceremony. Kim wishes she could... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...the factory, where they have a great deal of work to catch up on. Strangely, Aunt Paula invites them to her office. Kim catches Matt's eye on the way and laughs when... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Aunt Paula is furious that Kim and Ma applied behind her back, but she composes herself quickly.... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...from camp over the summer. Kim gives Annette her real address, as she doesn't want Aunt Paula to handle the postcards. Kim writes to Annette that she's getting to relax and read... (full context)
Seven
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Kim does her best to avoid Aunt Paula at the factory. One afternoon, Paula invites Ma and Kim to her house for dinner... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
At Aunt Paula 's house, Kim notices that Nelson is wearing his school uniform too. She realizes that... (full context)
Eight
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
...of how horrible her living situation is. Ma brings up the subject of moving with Aunt Paula , but Paula's reaction scares Ma into not asking again. With the difficulties of surviving,... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...bag skirts in seven seconds. Kim tries her best to look industrious in front of Aunt Paula . One afternoon, Matt helps Kim and Ma in his free time. Ma tells Matt... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...steamer. Several men help Mr. Pak release his hand, and Kim tries not to look. Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob arrive, and Paula yells at Mr. Pak to not be so clumsy.... (full context)
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Later, Aunt Paula approaches Ma and Kim and tells them that the rate for skirts is going to... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Matt butts into the conversation, and Aunt Paula suggests that he take over for Mr. Pak. Matt accepts nonchalantly, and both he and... (full context)
Ten
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
...about crushes with Annette. She tells the reader that she gave up long ago that Aunt Paula would move them, and she knows there's little chance that anything will change. (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob invite Kim and Ma to accompany them to see Nelson's debate competition.... (full context)
Eleven
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Several days later at the factory, Aunt Paula starts yelling that the inspectors are coming. She and Uncle Bob race around, cleaning up... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Uncle Bob begins spending less and less time at the factory, and Aunt Paula effectively takes over running the factory. One afternoon, Paula brings Kim an envelope containing her... (full context)
Twelve
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
...is appalled that Kim asked at all. Though they've finally paid off their debts to Aunt Paula , Kim knows they have to save every cent in order to move for school. (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Aunt Paula still receives Kim's score reports in the mail. Though Kim and Ma try to keep... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
...of paper, and it's not that much more than Kim and Ma had been paying Aunt Paula for their debts. (full context)
Thirteen
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Ma and Kim aren't surprised when Aunt Paula calls them to her office; they know that they should hear from Yale soon. When... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Aunt Paula says that Ma and Kim are ungrateful, points out that she sacrificed to get them... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Aunt Paula suggests that Ma and Kim leave the factory and the apartment if they feel taken... (full context)
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
...Ma allows them to go. On the way, Kim tells Matt about what happened with Aunt Paula , but leaves out her acceptance to Yale. They wait in line for a moment... (full context)
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
...ever worried about marrying Pa. Ma explains that when she did, she never imagined that Aunt Paula would still bring her to the U.S.—Paula had said cruelly that Ma would die in... (full context)