Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation Two Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kim begins school in the third week in November. She attends a school that's very far away from the apartment, in a cleaner neighborhood. Aunt Paula set it up so that that Kim will use an address in that neighborhood as her official one, as it'll allow her to go to the nicer school. Ma and Kim struggle to find the school and finally get there late. A black security guard curtly greets them and gives Kim nearly unintelligible directions to her classroom. Kim walks away and feels horrible for not saying goodbye to Ma, but she turns to her task of finding her classroom.
At this point, Aunt Paula's plan to have Kim use a different address for school seems like a kindness and not something sinister. However, it also implies that Paula has some connection to this nicer neighborhood and possibly could've housed Kim and Ma here. This suggests that Paula is possibly using Kim and Ma's poverty to her advantage by making them work harder to get ahead.
Themes
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Kim knocks on her classroom door and enters when the muffled voice tells her to come in. Her teacher, Mr. Bogart, is extremely tall, thin, and unnaturally pale. Kim struggles to understand what he's asking as he asks for her excuse as to why she's late, but finally, she manages to haltingly explain she couldn't find the school. He points her to a desk next to a chubby white girl (Annette) and Kim promptly spills the contents of her pencil case in her nervousness. Annette helps her pick things up.
Annette's kindness suggests that there's a great deal of power in doing these small things for someone. On the other hand, Mr. Bogart's treatment of Kim illustrates the immense power that teachers have over their students, and Mr. Bogart is clearly abusing it. This will eventually instill in Kim a fear of teachers as a whole, given that he never seems to care about her.
Themes
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
As Mr. Bogart resumes his lecture, Kim places her hand behind her back to listen, as is customary and respectful in Hong Kong. When he calls her out for sitting strangely, she notices that her classmates are sprawled in their desks. At lunch, Kim is shocked: her classmates are wild, and because there's no rice with her lunch, she feels as though she hasn't eaten. When she returns to class, Mr. Bogart passes out a piece of paper with a map. Kim can't understand his intent (a pop quiz on capital cities), so she looks at Annette's sheet for a clue. Mr. Bogart snatches Kim's paper away, calls her a cheater, and corrects her grammar when she apologizes. Kim hopes to impress Mr. Bogart when they clean the classroom in the afternoon, but the students race out when the bell rings. Kim follows.
The rest of Kim's day is a lesson in all the things she'll need to get used to going to school in the U.S.: students are disrespectful, loud, and don't care about learning, and Mr. Bogart clearly has little interest in helping Kim figure out what's required of her here. In particular, Kim's hope to impress Mr. Bogart when she cleans the classroom (as is customary in Hong Kong) shows that she believes there's value in practical skills like cleaning. However, this belief in the importance of those skills is something that will erode in Kim as time goes on.
Themes
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Kim holds back tears as she meets Ma outside of the school. She doesn't tell Ma the truth and settles for saying that everything is different. Ma sighs and turns her attention to showing Kim how to take the subway to the factory. Kim is terrified when she notices that the two black boys sitting across from them have a big knife. When they exit the subway station, Kim is surprised that Chinatown looks like Hong Kong.
Chinatown’s appearance indicates that there is one place in New York where Kim will feel more at home. However, it's important to note that the only line of work available to Kim or Ma in Chinatown is sewing, something that the novel is clear doesn't allow anyone a future.
Themes
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
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Ma leads Kim to a freight elevator and then onto the factory floor. The air is hot and thick, and the sound of the sewing machines is a roar. The seamstresses are coated in sweat, and young boys push racks around. A layer of fabric dust coats everything. Ma points out Aunt Paula, who is handing out work to seamstresses. The ones who get larger piles seem grateful. Ma asks Aunt Paula if they can talk for a moment, and Paula leads them to the office. As soon as they're in the office with Uncle Bob, Paula declares that they can't talk for long or it'll look like favoritism. Ma quickly explains that their apartment is dirty and unsafe. Paula warmly assures her that as soon as a better apartment opens up that they can afford, she'll help them move there. Kim and Ma both believe her.
Kim will say it outright later, but when the seamstresses are thankful to receive larger piles of fabric, it shows the reader that employees are paid by the piece, not by the hour. The fact that Paula is handing out work personally indicates that she has a great deal of power to make or break her employees' careers. Similarly, Aunt Paula's insistence that speaking too long with Ma will make her look bad suggests that she's not necessarily a friend; rather, she has little interest in truly helping her sister or niece.
Themes
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Aunt Paula leads Ma and Kim through the factory. They pass a large table with old ladies and young children gathered around it, trimming threads. Paula proudly explains that employees begin at that table as children, and end their tenure there as grandmothers. Finally they reach the finishing station, where she explains that Ma and Kim will hang, sort, and bag finished garments in time for the next shipment. Ma quickly gets to work, and Kim begins sorting pants by size. Neither of them wears their face mask, as the air is too stifling. Kim surreptitiously reads from a Chinese paper as she works.
Paula's tone when she describes the thread cutting table implies that she sees nothing wrong with people spending their lives at work in the factory from the time they're small children. This demonstrates a shocking lack of regard for childhood and education, as those children definitely don't have time for fun activities or school.
Themes
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Blue quotation bubble icon linking to an important quote associated with this summary and analysis.
After an hour, Kim smells a pork bun in addition to the fabric stench. She notices a boy about her age eating a bun. The boy comments that Kim can still read Chinese and offers her a bite of his bun. He tells her she can't tell anyone about it, as he swiped it from "Dog Flea Mama's" station. When Kim looks confused, the boy mimics Aunt Paula's habit of scratching her neck. Kim gasps and says that Paula is her aunt, and the two begin to laugh. The boy introduces himself as Matt.
Any suspicious observations the reader might have about Paula were seemingly correct: she's not liked and is actually mocked. Mocking her, however, is a comparatively ineffective way to get back at Paula, which again reinforces the fact that Aunt Paula has an immense degree of power to control her employees' lives.
Themes
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
When Kim takes a break, she finds Matt at the thread cutters' table. He's sitting with his mother, Mrs. Wu. Mrs. Wu notices Kim's flat chest and cropped hair and asks Kim if she's a boy or a girl, embarrassing Kim. Kim greets the little boy next to Mrs. Wu. He doesn't look at her and ignores Matt as well. Matt explains that Park is shy and doesn't hear well, and then declares he's taking a break. Other kids join Matt and Kim near the soda machine. Kim understands the other kids are like her: not real employees, just there to help their families, as employees are secretly paid by the piece. Kim later learns that piecework is illegal in the U.S., but says “those rules were for white people, not for us.” After ten minutes, the children return to their stations. Later, Ma and Kim have dinner at their station and don't leave until nine. Kim later learns that this was an early night.
While Kim is embarrassed by Mrs. Wu's question, her question points to the liminal space Kim inhabits between being truly Chinese (and femininely demure) and being American (and having the potential to be more masculine and independent). This push and pull between being properly Chinese and female and being American and more masculine will haunt Kim throughout the novel, and both sides of the scale punish her in important ways. This suggests that because of the situation Kim is in, she can't truly win.
Themes
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Blue quotation bubble icon linking to an important quote associated with this summary and analysis.
The next morning, Kim feigns illness and insists she needs to stay home from school. Ma knows that Kim is lying. Through tears, Kim tells Ma about how mean Mr. Bogart had been to her the day before. Ma offers to speak to Mr. Bogart, but Kim realizes this won't help. She promises to try harder but decides secretly to skip school instead. Kim spends her day huddled in the living room, watching television. She's too afraid to make herself lunch; she knows everything must be cooked fully and fears the water will give her diarrhea. She fantasizes that Pa is still alive and thinks about Ma at work at the factory.
Remember that Kim was an exceptional student in Hong Kong. Knowing this, her decision to skip school makes it clear just how damaging it is to be treated like a stupid outsider by Mr. Bogart when Kim's only crimes are not knowing the language or cultural expectations. The fact that she fears the water in New York (which is likely safe) suggests that she has many things still to learn about the cultural landscape.
Themes
Poverty and Shame Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Kim decides to go through Ma's things. She finds an old record of an Italian opera with a photo inside, and remembers hearing this record once before in Hong Kong. The music had made Ma cry, and Kim had learned then why Ma relied on music. Ma's parents had been killed during the Cultural Revolution after getting Ma and Paula into Hong Kong, and then Pa died in his early forties. Music is how Ma processes her grief. Kim studies the photograph of her with both of her parents. She doesn't recognize the handwriting on the back and reasons that it must be Pa's. Kim understands that as much as she misses Pa, Ma's grief must be far worse. Kim carefully puts the record back and then leaves for the factory.
Kim shows her maturity in that she is able to understand how Ma must be drowning in grief for the death of her parents and her husband. Though she's only eleven years old, Kim is already growing up and becoming mature beyond her years, trying to better help Ma make it through life. This is reinforced when Kim still leaves for the factory at the appropriate after-school time; she understands she can't get out of her promises to help Ma.
Themes
Family, Choices, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Work vs. Education Theme Icon
Independence and Coming of Age Theme Icon