Throughout the novel, Ma and Kim remind each other often that they are like a "mother and cub"; they are all the other has. Because of the many obstacles facing them, most notably crushing poverty, a substandard living arrangement, and inhumane working conditions, both women are forced to sacrifice for each other over and over again as they make their way through life in New York as Chinese immigrants. By exploring the ways in which Ma and Kim make sacrifices for each other, as well as the ways that other Chinese immigrant families find themselves doing the same, the novel ties the act of sacrifice directly to its definition of family—and to the cultural norms that guide the decision-making processes of the Chinese families in question.
The way that the novel handles the idea of sacrifice is directly informed by the Chinese customs and beliefs that the Chinese characters follow. Ma explains to Kim early on that all of one's debts, no matter how small, must be repaid. Along with this, it's also important to note that Ma considers a debt to be absolutely anything that someone might do for her or for Kim, like a fellow classmate inviting Kim over to their house. This belief means that Kim feels pressure, for example, to somehow repay her fellow underage factory worker Matt when he informs her that she'll need to come up with an excuse as to why she didn't show up for work on Thanksgiving Day—at that point, Kim had been skipping school for more than a week and had no idea that there was no school on a Thursday. Though this idea is humorous and charming in Kim's interactions with Matt, it takes a much more sinister feel in the case of Ma's older sister, Aunt Paula. Aunt Paula and her husband, Uncle Bob, financed Ma and Kim's immigration as well as Ma's treatment for tuberculosis in Hong Kong. Ma feels as though she has no choice but to cave to all of Aunt Paula's wishes or desires in order to repay her debt, even as doing so subverts all of Ma's own wishes, desires, or simple hopes for humane treatment. Because Ma believes she owes Paula, she feels she has no choice but to agree to live in a roach- and rodent-infested apartment with no heat and to work unbelievable hours six days per week for around two dollars per hour. Essentially, Ma's cultural beliefs make her feel as though she has absolutely no power to push back and must continue to make sacrifices.
Ma's sense of indebtedness to Aunt Paula is magnified because of their familial relationship and their family history, in particular the fact that Aunt Paula feels as though she's been asked to sacrifice all manner of things for her younger sister since they were teens. Kim eventually learns that because Ma's only remarkable characteristics as a teen were her musical talent and her beauty, Ma was actually supposed to marry Uncle Bob—the idea being that Ma would then be cared for by a wealthy Chinese-American husband and could use her marriage to bring a far more self-sufficient Paula to the U.S. However, when Ma fell in love with and married Pa, a principal at the school where she was teaching music, Paula ended up being the one to marry Uncle Bob. Though Ma believes that Paula ultimately got the objectively better deal (Pa died unexpectedly when Kim was three, while Paula and Bob were able to raise their sons in the U.S. and succeed financially), Paula nurses a grudge against her sister through the end of the novel and presumably beyond. This grudge, and the power that Paula exerts over Kim and Ma, illustrates the consequences of making choices that don't fall in line with the culturally approved conception of sacrifice—and shows that those consequences have far-reaching effects in the long term.
As Kim discovers her pregnancy at the end of the novel, she's once again confronted with choices that seem less like choices and more like givens: Ma expects her to not seek an abortion; Annette expects her to tell Matt; and Kim herself feels it would be unfair to deprive Matt of the choice of whether or not to stay together, while also knowing that she has no choice but to go to Yale as planned. In the epilogue, Kim explains that she made a significant sacrifice, on her part and on her son Jason’s, by choosing to follow through with her pregnancy and break up with Matt without telling him she was pregnant. In doing so, she allows Matt to have the life he wants in Chinatown with Vivian, while Kim is able to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Kim understands that while she and Matt each got some version of the lives they wanted, her choice didn't come without sacrifice: Matt tells Kim when they meet as adults that he knew about her supposed abortion and believes that "their baby paid the price," while Kim and Jason live and grow up without a husband or father figure in their lives. However, Kim ends the novel firm in her belief that she made the right choice and sacrificed the right things for herself, her lover, and her family—and that those sacrifices, while extremely difficult, were the only way they were able to achieve some sense of happiness in their lives.
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Quotes in Girl in Translation
I know how it will go: she already spends all of her time after school at the shop, helping with small tasks like sorting beads; later, she will learn to sew by hand and then on the machines until, finally, she can take over some of the embroidery and finishing work, and then she too will spend her days and weekends bent over the unending yards of fabric.
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.
"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."
"Don't get too close to the other children here. Ah-Kim, you must always remember this: if you play with them, learn to talk like them, study like them, act like them—what will make you different? Nothing. And in ten or twenty years, you'll be doing precisely what the older girls are doing, working on the sewing machines in this factory until you're worn, and when you're too old for that, you'll cut thread like Mrs. Wu."
"Ah-Kim, if you go too many times to her house, we will have to invite her back to ours one day and then what? Little heart's stem, we already have too many debts we can't repay."
Our living conditions didn't change but with time, I stopped allowing myself to be conscious of my own unhappiness.
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.
"I knew you didn't have a lot of money but this is ridiculous. No one in America lives like this."
I stated the obvious. "Actually, they do."
"Does it have heat?"
She looked startled. "Do you mean central heating?"
"Yes, does it have radiators that work?"
"Of course it does. I mean, don't worry, the heat works great."
"I promised I would make a better life for you, Ma. I'm sorry I was so stupid."
Ma's voice broke. "My little girl, you've had to do everything for us. I am the one who is sorry, sorry I couldn't do more to help you."
I kept him from his father all these years. When I gave Matt up, I forced Jason to do the same. For my attempt at nobility, our son paid the price.