Immediately upon their arrival in the United States, Chinese immigrants Ma and Kim begin working at Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob's garment factory in Chinatown. There, Ma and Kimberly perform backbreaking labor putting finishing touches on garments and hanging them in garment bags, often staying at the factory until late into the night. As Kim helps Ma at the factory, she quickly becomes aware that the factory offers roles for every member of one's family through every stage of life, while never paying factory employees enough to ever be able to do anything but work at the factory. However, Kim's trajectory shows clearly that education has the power to not just save Kim from a lifetime of factory work, but to save Ma and future family members from the same fate.
As Kim makes friends with Matt, a boy her age who also works on the factory floor with his mother and brother, Ma cautions Kim to not become too close to Matt or any of the other children at the factory. She insists that if Kim does so, there will be nothing to set her apart from them, and she'll therefore spend the rest of her life working in a factory, as Ma expects those other children will. With this, Ma shows that she has a very clear grasp of the way that the factory traps entire families. Though Kim as the adult narrator notes in hindsight that it was technically illegal to pay by the piece instead of by the hour, she explains that Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob aren't the only factory owners to get around this law by simply converting piece payment to a corresponding "hourly rate" to abuse employees and keep them in dire poverty. Because of this payment system, it's imperative that adult employees bring along their children whenever possible to help with the work, as more hands mean it's possible to get through more items. This in turn introduces young children to the factory system and starts them on a lifelong trajectory in which they begin as thread cutters, graduate to sewing, steaming, or finishing, and finally, as elderly people, return to cutting thread—while bringing their own children into the factory system as soon as they're old enough.
Ma, Kim, and even Aunt Paula all understand that the only way to truly break this cycle is for a child to receive a quality education, specifically through scholarships or grants given that factory pay is nowhere near enough to fund an education at a New York City private school. Fortunately for Kim, she has a natural aptitude for academics, specifically science and math, which allows her to secure a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious Harrison Prep high school and later, to Yale. However, even as Kim understands that working hard in school is her ticket out of dire poverty and factory life, she struggles to complete her schoolwork or to truly devote herself to academics exactly because Ma continues to require her help at the factory. Because of this, Kim's ability to quickly understand material without truly studying becomes her only saving grace. She's able to perform well in school while only doing homework on the subway to and from the factory and fortunately doesn't need to dedicate her afternoons to studying in order to achieve high marks, as Annette and her other classmates seem to do.
In the struggle between work and education, Matt acts as a foil for Kim. He begins skipping school early in high school to take a second job delivering Italian food, and he drops out for good later to devote himself to his jobs. Notably, however, he also doesn't see his laborious and often illegal jobs as a bad thing: he sees them as stepping stones to find better work eventually, but he has no interest in using education to find other work. This conflict comes to a head when Matt and Kim's romance finally develops fully when Kim is a senior. They begin a relationship and even discuss getting married and starting a family, though their ideas of what their future should look like differ dramatically. Kim wants to follow her academic path and move to New Haven so she can study to become a doctor and go on to support their family. Matt, on the other hand, wants to remain in Chinatown and vehemently rejects Kim's desire to be the primary breadwinner. When Kim discovers she's pregnant with Matt's child, she keeps her pregnancy a secret from him, breaks off their relationship, and implies she decided to have an abortion so she wouldn't "trap" Matt in a life he didn't get to fully choose—she insists she couldn't give up her dreams of attending Yale, and she couldn't bear the thought of condemning herself and her child to a lifetime of factory work in Chinatown. However, in the epilogue, Kim reveals that she did indeed choose to continue her pregnancy, as well as become a doctor. She suggests that her son Jason's life in a big house, with access to good schools, after-school sports, and the luxuries she never had as a child far surpasses the life she believes that Matt's daughter will lead, as she believes the five-year-old girl will grow up working in the bridal shop where Vivian works. In this way, the novel shows clearly that while choosing education absolutely entails making sacrifices, it is truly the only way to escape the cycle of poverty that the illegal factory work guarantees.
Work vs. Education ThemeTracker
Work vs. Education 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.
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.
"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."
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 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.
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."
"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 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."