In Girl in Translation, Kim and Ma are able to immigrate to the United States thanks to the kindness of Ma's older sister, Aunt Paula—prior to the start of the novel, Aunt Paula and her husband, Uncle Bob, paid for Ma's tuberculosis treatment and sponsored their immigration fees. Ma expects that upon her arrival in the U.S., she'll repay these debts to her sister's family by providing in-home childcare and Chinese lessons for Paula's two sons, but these hopes are quickly dashed; Aunt Paula instead creates a job for Ma at the family clothing factory and sets them up in an unheated and insect-infested apartment in Brooklyn. After setting aside part of her earnings to put towards those debts and housing, Ma takes home around two dollars per hour, keeping her and Kim in dire poverty. This is something that both Ma and Kim are deeply ashamed of, and Kim in particular spends the entire novel attempting to hide her poverty from those around her. By noting the ways in which Kim's poverty is extremely visible to others despite her best efforts, as well as the ways in which her peers and teachers at school fail to grasp the depths of her poverty, the novel suggests that poverty is profoundly isolating and makes one extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
It's not for lack of trying that Ma and Kim are stuck in poverty; rather, their poverty directly benefits greedy and selfish Aunt Paula. Aunt Paula's language betrays that she knows she's abusing her power as a lender, a family member, and an employer. She's also well aware that these abuses of power are illegal. However, Ma believes that she's obligated to repay her debts and do Paula's bidding in order to thank Paula for her "kindness" in sponsoring her immigration, and so she feels confronting Paula to push back against this ill treatment would make her appear rude and ungrateful. This illustrates how Ma's shame at having to rely so heavily on someone else traps her in a situation that's nearly impossible to escape. It takes her until the middle of Kim's senior year of high school to finally pay off her debts to Aunt Paula, at which point Paula attempts to place other conditions on her sister and niece to keep them in her control. However, because Kim has a job at the school library at that point, she and Ma are able to cut ties with Paula and finally move to a better apartment—suggesting that even a modest gain in income can help break the cycle and escape the exploitation that their poverty left them vulnerable to.
Kim tries her best to hide her financial situation from friends, classmates, and teachers, although she admits in her adult narration that this was a misguided and unsuccessful endeavor. Instead, Kim's attempts to hide her poverty only make her situation more isolating. At school, Kim discovers that her financial situation means that she has to work extra hard in order to keep up, especially at her first public middle school. Her teacher, Mr. Bogart, commonly assigns projects such as collages, which require supplies (such as glue or poster board) that are far beyond her capacity to purchase. At one point, he also assigns a writing project in which students are asked to write about their bedrooms and the meaningful objects they have, an assignment that Kim cannot complete given that she owns no luxuries and shares a bare mattress with Ma in their two-room apartment. Though Kim notes that many students at this school are African-American and also receive free lunch (a marker of poverty), Mr. Bogart's assignments suggest that he's blind to his students' financial situations and the ways in which they may impact their academic performance. He often marks her down for the materials she uses, essentially punishing her for being unable to complete assignments as a middle-class student would.
As the injustices Kim experiences due to her poverty pile up—from being teased for her homemade underwear to not being able to read the newspaper to keep up with current events, to not being allowed a social life outside of school due to needing to spend her afternoons at the factory—the novel shows how poverty, and the shame that Kim and Ma feel about their financial situation, trap them and render them paralyzed. Through the kindnesses of those who discover just how impoverished Kim is and then offer to help with tuition, housing, or her library job, Girl in Translation suggests that, at least in Kim and Ma's case, shame and keeping their poverty hidden did them no good in the end. Rather, the novel ultimately proposes that asking for help from those that truly care is one of the few ways to escape poverty.
Poverty and Shame ThemeTracker
Poverty and Shame Quotes in Girl in Translation
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."
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.
Annette was referring to a girl in our class she didn't like because she said the girl was a know-it-all, which she also wrote down for me. It confused me because wasn't it a good thing to know so much?
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.
"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."
I stopped walking for a moment and thought about turning back, going back to who I was. If they knew that Ma made even my underwear for me, that we slept under pieces of fabric we'd found in the trash, they would surely throw me out. I was a fraud, pretending to be one of the rich kids. What I didn't know then was that I shouldn't have worried about pulling any of this off; they weren't fooled at all.
How could I have thought that it had been a personal note for me? I burned with shame at wanting so much to be liked, to belong to a circle of friends, that I had picked up something during a test.
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."
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.
I didn't say anything more, but I thought about the fathers and brothers of the kids at the factory who worked as waiters […] What would they have done if they'd had to pay for such an expensive meal out of their tips? Many of them weren't paid anything but their tips […] Curt had no comprehension of what it was like to be working class.
"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."