As Girl in Translation follows Kim and Ma's journeys, it pays special attention to the ways in which both of them, but particularly Kim, think of and handle their status as Chinese immigrants. For Kim, being an immigrant entails rejecting many of the conventions surrounding how to be properly female and Chinese in order to be successful at school. For Ma, the difficulty and foreignness of life in the U.S. provides the justification for clinging to Chinese customs and language as much as possible. For both women, the experience of being an immigrant is one that's isolating and in Kim's case, makes her feel alone in both her very Chinese life at home and her very American life at school.
For both Kim and Ma, being in the United States means having to learn a new language. The way that Kim experiences language in particular encapsulates some of the difficulties and complexities of being an immigrant. From the start, Kim struggles to come to terms with the fact that while she was a star student in Hong Kong and the top of her class, in the U.S., her inability to understand English means that she receives extremely poor grades (except for in math and physical sciences) for the first few years in school. She also receives poor grades due to her inability to complete certain assignments in light of her poverty, as when she's unable to complete any of Mr. Scoggins's assignments about current events—he tells students to read their parents' newspapers or talk to their parents, two things that Kim knows would be impossible for her. Ma, however, never truly learns English; she remains unable to say much more than "please," "thank you," and "I'm sorry." This is notably due to the fact that she spends most of her time in a factory with other Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrants. Learning English isn't nearly as pressing of an issue for her as it is for Kim, who seeks to enter the prestigious (and English-speaking) worlds of school and medicine.
Another consequence of not knowing English that's almost more damaging to Kim is the social price she pays for not knowing the slang, social customs, or etiquette rules of her new home. This is exacerbated by the fact that Hong Kong was a British colony, which means that the little English she does know is British English. This results in her asking her teacher for a rubber only a week into school, not understanding that in American English she asked for a condom, not an eraser. She's also completely lost when Annette explains various American slang terms, most notably that being called a know-it-all is an insult, something that goes against everything Kim has ever been taught about the importance of education and knowledge.
Similarly, Kim also discovers that her life doesn't at all fit with the neat vision of immigrant life that her classmates appear to believe. Early on in her friendship with Annette, Kim mentions that she spends her afternoons helping Ma at the factory. When Annette returns to school the next day and informs Kim that according to her father, it's illegal for kids to work in factories, and so Kim must've made up a story, Kim also learns that she has to keep important parts of her life secret. She believes it's impossible for middle-class, white Annette to understand what's it's like for an impoverished Chinese immigrant struggling to pay back crushing debt, so she simply omits these truths from her public-facing life in order to appear more American.
All of this, from the struggles to hide her poverty at school to her struggles to keep her social life secret from Ma, works together to make Kim feel absolutely alone in her world. Notably, Kim isn't able to feel truly at home until she's forced to admit her poverty to Annette and her pregnancy to Ma. In doing so, she finally allows her family and closest friend to see that she is truly caught between cultures and as a result, is finally able to ask for help in reconciling her Chinese identity with her American identity. The fact that she's able to go on to become a doctor, have a seemingly well-adjusted bilingual son, and care for Ma in a fancy house in the epilogue is a testament to the power of openness about her conflicting identities to remedy some of the struggles she experiences as a result.
The Immigrant Experience ThemeTracker
The Immigrant Experience Quotes in Girl in Translation
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."
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."
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.
"Honey, look at me."
I was so startled by the word "honey" that I obeyed. I had heard Mrs. Avery using it for Annette. This was not a word principals used back home.
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."
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."
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 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 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."