Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

“For years, I calculated whether something was expensive by how many skirts it cost. In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts.”

When Kim and her mother move from Hong Kong to New York, they expect to find a better life. Instead they live in an infested, condemned building and work for a pittance in her Aunt’s Chinatown sweat shop. Kim is academically gifted, and wins a full scholarship to a private school where she walks a tightrope between the two halves of her life.

The book seems to be semi-autobiographical – Author Jean Kwok also moved to New York from Hong Kong as a child, worked in a Chinatown clothing factory throughout her childhood, won a scholarship to a prestigious school and went on to study at an Ivy League college.   

From the beginning of time, writers have plumbed the depths of history and cultural tradition in order to create compelling images of our future. For the rest of May, which is Asian American Heritage Month, we will be highlighting some exceptional titles and authors who grapple with the notion of time and place in wholly innovative and powerful ways. From the Silk Road to 1980s Bronx, New York to a futuristic dystopian Baltimore, these storytellers weave rich, engaging tales that speak to some of the most fundamental facets of the human experience: the power of family, of love, of hope, and finding a place in the world to call one’s own.

This is the third and final installation in our Asian American Heritage Month series. Check out our first two picks, then read on!

Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok

One of the most difficult aspects of immigrant life is the constant struggle to reconcile your home culture with your new one–a tricky dance between two worlds that often feel totally incompatible. In this incredible story from the acclaimed author of Girl in Translation, 22-year-old Charlie Wong has not technically emigrated from another country, but was born and raised in Chinatown, now attempting to create a life for herself in the more Western culture she’s surrounded by. Living in her childhood apartment with her widower father and 11-year-old sister, Charlie makes small steps to move beyond her comfort zone–namely, accepting a job as a receptionist in a dance studio. Soon after she discovers the joy of dance and begins to enjoy her new life, her little sister falls chronically ill. Her father is determined to heal her using traditional Eastern medicine, and Charlie must try to intervene in a way that does not feel like betrayal to her family and home culture, but is also true to what she has learned about her own values. This is a riveting, often humorous, and moving tale that will definitely keep you on your toes!

Miles From Nowhere, Nami Mun

You may want to have a box of tissues on hand, but don’t let that deter you from picking up this spellbinding and heart-wrenching story. Set in The Bronx in the 1980s, Joon is a thirteen-year-old Korean immigrant whose family has been torn apart after her father’s infidelity. Her mother is suffering from severe mental illness that leaves Joon completely abandoned, so she decides to set off on her own to see what life has to offer. Through her varied struggles–homelessness, addiction, crime–Joon eventually comes to a greater understanding of her past, her strengths, and her identity. Did we already mention that you would need tissues for this one?

On Such a Full Sea, Chang-Rae Lee

If gritty, futuristic fiction is your jam, this is absolutely the book for you. Set in an America long past the point of decline, citizens are rigidly separated by class. It is the sole responsibility for the central, lower classes to hunt and forage for food that will be served to the outlying ring of upper class citizens. One young woman, Fan, leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (formerly known as Baltimore) and her role as a fish tank diver to go after the man she loves following his mysterious disappearance. Her journey through the wildly dangerous outlying regions becomes both a cautionary tale and an inspiration to the ones she left behind. You won’t be able to put this one down!

On the Noodle Road, Jen Lin-Liu

Jen Lin-Liu was newly married and traveling through Italy with her husband when she began to wonder: where did the noodle originate? The Italian meals she and her husband enjoyed every day brought to mind the Chinese cuisine that she had grown up eating - a realization that sparked a journey, through both space and time, to discover the true origin of a food that has become beloved and ubiquitous in countless cultures around the world. Lin-Liu travels through Western China, across into Central Asia, through Iran, Turkey, and then the Mediterranean, meeting the women in kitchens who not only pound, knead, and bake, but who willingly speak about their lives, their hopes, and the wisdom they’ve acquired. Throughout her journey, Lin-Liu discovers anew a profound appreciation for her marriage, and the winding paths we must take to find the place we were always meant to be.

There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown.
—  Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

This is the second installment in our Asian American Heritage Month series. Click here to see our first pick!

Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok’s debut novel, praised by Entertainment Weekly as “consistently compelling”, illustrates one young girl’s immigrant experience in America in a wholly fresh and captivating way. Born in Hong Kong and emigrated to Brooklyn during the riotous years of adolescence, Kimberly Chang is yanked from a world she’s always known to a new one she must quickly adapt to. Forced to work in a Chinatown sweatshop in secret while somehow trying to maintain her grades in school, Kimberly struggles to gain a foothold in the rapidly shifting cultures and languages she is trapped between. What results is an enduring saga of determination, hope, and adaptation—and not without a smart dose of humor, as well!

Stay tuned for another another recommendation, coming next week!