After her move to New York from Hong Kong, eleven-year-old Kim is immediately faced with having to grow up and become independent long before she's truly ready to do so. By exploring the many instances in which Kim is forced to either act alone or prematurely act like an adult, as well as the consequences of this on such a young child, Girl in Translation ultimately suggests that being forced to grow up so fast robs Kim of her childhood and sets her up to rebel as an older teen in devastating ways.
Though Kim explains that she helped Ma around the house in Hong Kong with simple tasks such as cleaning up after meals and folding laundry, Ma requires Kim's help in a very different way at the factory, encumbering her with adult work and responsibilities at an early age and essentially depriving her of a childhood. Despite the fact that Kim is technically just Ma's helper in the finishing department, she performs the work of an adult employee from her first day on the job. The factory is loud, hot, and dangerous in innumerable ways—it's clearly no place for a child. However, because of Ma's debts to Aunt Paula, Kim has no choice but to dedicate every afternoon and evening after school to working at the factory to help support her family. In addition, Kim's expanding grasp of English means that she's responsible for tasks such as filling out Ma's tax returns and doing much of the family's shopping, as she's able to more easily navigate the English-speaking world. This puts Ma and Kim's relationship in a strange place in which Kim very nearly takes on Ma's place as the head of their household, given that she's the only one capable of representing the family in the public sphere. This puts a great deal of pressure on Kim, and she notes at several points that she simply refused to allow herself to think too hard about it—as a child, she's well aware that she's being forced into a role she not only doesn't want, but oftentimes puts her in situations that are far outside her still youthful understanding of the world.
When it comes to school, Kim is again forced to take her education into her own hands. Though she begins by actively excluding Ma by forging her signature, lying to her about report cards, and not mentioning meetings, it soon becomes clear that Ma is genuinely unable to be involved in Kim's academic life. Kim's principal at her first school, Mrs. LaGuardia, is the first adult to realize that Kim is functionally on her own when it comes to navigating the world of prestigious middle and high school admissions. When Mrs. LaGuardia realizes this, she does as much as she can to help Kim apply to Harrison Prep without Ma's help. Kim's admissions interview at Harrison Prep is a poignant example of the liminal state she finds herself in: Kim and her interviewer, Dr. Weston, are both embarrassed by Dr. Weston's assumption that Kim's mother must be parking the car, as it's unthinkable to her that a child would attend an interview alone. Kim aces her interview questions in math and science but to end the interview, Dr. Weston asks Kim to draw a picture of anything. Kim draws a picture of a fairy-tale princess, impressing upon Dr. Weston that though Kim may present herself maturely and as capable of operating alone, she's still very much a child.
This independence becomes easier for Kim to handle as she moves through her teen years. As she becomes romantically and physically involved with boys, she discovers that her independence allows her the freedom to fool around without Ma (who is sure to disapprove) knowing and reminding her that "good girls" don't kiss boys like Kim does. Essentially, Kim is fully aware that as she reaches a point where teens normally begin to actively seek independence from their parents, Ma would finally attempt to stop her and make her feel like a powerless child—despite the fact that Kim has been acting like an adult for years by this point, just not in a sexual way. This culminates in Kim and Matt's decision to have sex, an event that's framed as an inevitability thanks to coursing teenage hormones and years of repressing their attraction to each other. However, even as they take the very adult step to sexual maturity, they do make the dangerous (and stupid, in Kim's later opinion) choice to use two condoms at once, which causes them to break. When Kim finally tells Ma that she's pregnant, Ma handles the news surprisingly well: rather than blame Kim for youthful stupidity, Ma blames herself. She essentially frames Kim's pregnancy as a natural consequence of being forced to grow up too early and without proper parental guidance.
Though Kim notes that she was unable to make up for the childhood she lost, her relationship with her son in the epilogue suggests that the way she grew up taught her the true value of having a childhood unencumbered by work. Because of this, she's able to give Jason what she never had: an involved parent and an involved grandmother to love him, guide him, and do the adult work necessary to allow him to be a child.
Independence and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Independence and Coming of Age 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.
"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."
She asked me what I did after school, and when I answered that I was usually working at the factory, she went home and asked her father about it. The next day, she told me it had been a silly thing to say since kids didn't work in factories in America […] that day, I began to understand that there was a part of my life that should remain hidden.
I said to her once, "Ma, you don't have to play for me every week. You have so many other things to do."
"I play for myself too," she'd answered. "Without my violin, I'd forget who I was."
Our living conditions didn't change but with time, I stopped allowing myself to be conscious of my own unhappiness.
I held my breath when we finally got a good view of the Liberty Goddess. She was so close and so magnificent. Ma and Matt were right next to me. Ma squeezed my hand.
"How long we've dreamed of this," she said.
"We're here," I said. "We're really in America."
"Annette. Stop it […] This is not some abstract idea in your head. This is my life. If you do something to protest, we could lose our job."
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.
School was my only ticket out and just being in this privileged school wasn't enough; I still needed to win a full scholarship to a prestigious college, and to excel there enough to get a good job.
I was just a poor girl whose main practical skill was bagging skirts faster than normal […] I was good at school but so were many of the other kids, most of whom had been groomed since birth to get into the right college. No matter how well I did in my classes or how well I managed to fake belonging to the cool circle, I knew I was not one of them.
"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."
When she saw us, she seemed heartbroken, her grief so complete that it left no room for anger. I thought, I never want to love someone like that, not even Matt, so much that there would be no room left for myself, so much that I wouldn't be able to survive if he left me.
"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."