Girl in Translation: A Literary Date Book Review
First up for my literary date book reviews is Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Thank you to the lovely Sarah Smith for recommending it to me.
What is a literary date book review, you might ask? Well, truth be told, it’s exactly what I’ve already done but just doing a little rebrand. This will be when I feature a book to be reviewed and detail the type of literary date the book could inspire.
I like these kinds of posts because you can help me decide what spots from the books to go to and your input will help me in deciding if I should even go on the literary date at all. From now on, not every NYC book I read will inspire a literary date. Why?
Because I want to read a lot more NYC books (and possibly other locations too). I think there are certain elements to a book that we both will discover that would help to make it an awesome literary date. Let me know your thoughts on this.
I’m perfectly fine with rebranding 100,000 times. Ha!
My hope is that I will have more books to share with you and when I go on a literary date, it will be one that you are excited about. I did these kinds of posts for books In Five Years and DeMarco’s Cafe. The pandemic inspired it all. Go figure!
Book Review of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
At eleven years old, Kimberly (actual name, Ah-Kim) and her mom emigrate to the U.S. from Hong Kong. They are resigned to living in an illegal NYC apartment with no heating, a broken window, and a plethora of vermin. Not the life they had back home in Hong Kong but they do what they can to survive.
Kimberly’s life is a delicate balance between excelling at school and evenings spent helping her mom at the “factory.” This story follows Kimberly’s life from her beginning struggles in school into her adulthood.
Kimberly doesn’t get to have a childhood. Despite her circumstances, Kimberly carries on with strength and determination to help her family rise above the cards they are dealt. A love story also weaves itself into this literary landscape.
This is a very compelling and well-written story. One that will stay with you.
There’s a lot to unpack in Girl in Translation that is beautifully brought to life by author Jean Kwok. The element of following the protagonist from childhood through adulthood made me feel very protective of Kimberly. The innocence of childhood combined with the hardships Kimberly (and her mom) dealt with, made for a compelling narrator.
Kimberly captures your heart without a doubt. When she got older, I worried about her future. I often felt nervous about the decisions she made as a teenager and later as an adult.
When Kimberly was a child, I felt the heaviness of the burden she carried as an immigrant to the U.S. who had to learn a new language and a new culture. In the beginning, Kimberly struggled in schools with teachers and classmates who were not supportive (except for one good friend). Kimberly is exceptionally brilliant, which everyone around her soon discovers but not until after she masters English.
And what is eye-opening is how the author shows how her socioeconomic status hinders her. For example, Kimberly had to work evenings at the Chinatown sweatshop with her mother so she failed current events quizzes that relied on watching the 6 pm news. How unfair!
Kimberly and her mom have so much stacked against them so we root for them every step of the way. I love the relationship between mother and daughter, the bond they share, and the complexities of the relationship. I’ve written much about Kimberly but this is a story about her mom too.
I can’t go on enough about how amazing Girl in Translation is. If I shared favorite quotes, this post would be a mile long. This is absolutely a must-read.
Warning: I still don’t know how I feel about the ending. Please read so we can discuss. Let me know if you’ve read it!
A Literary Date with Girl in Translation
Exploring Chinatown is a no-brainer for this literary date. The factory Kimberly and her mom work at is located here and Kimberly bought a wooden sword from a “kung fu store” in Chinatown. According to the book, you’re supposed to put the sword under your pillow to take away your worries and bad dreams.
I need that in my life!
Girl in Translation only gives general locations, which is fine, I’ve done literary dates before without specific locations. It just takes a little ingenuity. See my Modern Lovers Tour and you’ll have an idea of what I mean.
So I’d have to do some research to find a kung fu store with a wooden sword. Does anybody have any ideas? Maybe just walk around Chinatown until I find just the spot?
There is one spot where we have more of a specific location, the factory is in a massive industrial building on Canal Street. The descriptions of the factory aka a Chinatown sweatshop were heartbreaking.
“After less than an hour in the factory, my pores were clotted with fabric dust. A net of red strands spread themselves across my arms so that when I tried to sweep myself clean with my hand, I created rolls of grime that tugged against the fine hairs on my skin. Ma constantly wiped off the table where she was working, but within a few minutes, a layer would decend, thick enough for me to draw stick figures in if I’d had the time.”
It’s unimaginable that people worked in these conditions. The author also depicted the harsh and dangerous conditions of working in the factory with massive hot steamers to contend with.
I’m making it sound like a difficult read now, but don’t let me scare you off. It’s wonderful to follow along their journey and root for them from beginning to end and it is our history.
But on to happier things…
If we’re going to visit Chinatown, we have to experience some yummy food. As you may know, I’m vegetarian so I found a spot, that of course is Asian-owned and sounds delicious.
Buddha Bodai One
This place is mock meat galore! OH Yeah! I eat that fake meat up!
This spot topped a lot of vegetarian restaurant lists in Chinatown. It has every kind of Chinese dish imaginable, just in vegetarian form. Lots of the dishes are probably naturally vegan as well. All I know is that I want the baked vegetarian meat buns. Yum!
It’s also kosher and has many gluten-free options.
Speaking of buns…
Mei Lai Wah
This place is recommended by my brother. A true story is that I’m not the best New Yorker for restaurant recommendations. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that here, but I usually just go where the books lead me.
However, the longer I do literary dates, the more I will be that kind of New Yorker. 😉
Until then, my brother has always been my go-to for NYC foodie recs. As a former Elite Yelp restaurant reviewer, he is more than qualified. Yes, I wrote former because well, he made one too many owners upset by his reviews so he gave up the biz.
Anyway, for you carnivores, this spot is known for its pork buns. Yum-meee! Well, for you maybe. I would love to go with someone who wants to try the pork buns.
I would not be left out though because I hear the lotus paste buns are really good. There are a couple of others I would try too. I’m game!
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
You know I love ice cream. I don’t care what time of year it is. Give. It. To. Me.
This spot is an unofficial NYC landmark, it’s been in the city for almost forty years. It’s family-run and on its second generation.
Oh my god, please can I try all the flavors? We have lychee, black sesame, red bean, almond cookie, and mango. We have Zen Butter, which is PEANUT Butter, and sesame seeds. Yes, please, and thank you!
Did I mention the coconut fudge? You guys. The list is practically endless. They also have more traditional flavors and they make ice cream cakes. I might go here, order an ice cream cake for myself and you’ll never see me again.
If I’m going to Chinatown, in addition to ice cream, I would have to do some taste testing of some bubble tea. For the sake of research, I will happily try out some spots for you. I’ve found a couple of spots that I need to check out.
Vivi Bubble Tea
Wow. This menu is extensive. The ingredients come straight from Taiwan and they have traditional options and then bubble tea that’s gone mad in a fabulous way. Oreo Crème Brûlée anyone? Or how about a Flaming Brown Sugar Milk with Tapioca? Yes, please!
Ten Ren’s Tea Time
I hear the quality of this tea is really good and the black sugar milk slush sounds like a must. The boba sounds delicious!
Does anyone have any good food recommendations for Chinatown? Are there any other bubble tea places that are a must or any bakeries to visit? Let me know in the comments!
I’ve found a few spots I’d like to check out thanks to Welcome to Chinatown’s Instagram page. Their Instagram page along with their websites that include a Small Business Digital directory has a wealth of information.
Also, in researching for this post, I discovered a bookstore. Yay!
Pearl River Mart
This place moved from its spot in Chinatown to just on the outer edge in SoHo and it looks like it has every Asian-inspired goods imaginable from fashion accessories, ceramics, home decor, to souvenirs. It’s been in NYC since the 70s and some would call it a NYC landmark.
Ting’s Gift Shop
According to How To Chinatown, it’s been open since 1958 and was started by Mrs. Ting who emigrated here from Hong Kong. “The store is filled to the brim with hard-to-find items from Greater China.” I hear this is a tiny shop but one of the most authentic gift shops in Chinatown.
Yu and Me Books
This bookstore is Asian-American, female-owned, and focuses on diverse reads with immigrant stories. The bookstore’s mission is to include books with representation for the diverse community in NYC.
Sounds awesome to me and it’s also a café and bar and it’s brand new only opening this past December.
Grand Tea and Imports
If I’m going to Chinatown, I would love to pick up some authentic Chinese tea. I’m usually a coffee girl but when I visited China some years back, I got into the tea culture there. I strive to be more into tea and the only chance of that is if I drink the real deal.
Nothing beats the tea I had in China, so this could be the spot for me. They also sell tea sets and accessories and cute figurines.
Places to See inspired by Girl in Translation
In late summer and early Fall, this street in Chinatown is pedestrian-only and apparently is covered in a multi-colored vibrant mural. We have to see this! The most recent mural was painted over the summer so hopefully, it is still there.
The Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum has some great tours about immigrants, they show the tenements where they lived and talk about their stories. They also have walking tours of the city. I once went on a tenement tour that showed where a Chinese-American family lived and showed a re-creation of the sweatshop they worked at and all the complexities involved with that kind of life.
The kids would work there and whenever the inspectors would come, they’d have to hide in various spots until they left. I also learned when Chinese kids started school, the teachers forced them to choose an “American” name. That explains why “Ah Kim” became Kimberly.
Most of the above-mentioned spots are places Girl in Translation might inspire us to go to but there are a few spots specifically mentioned in Girl in Translation that we could also go to…
It’s located right next to the Tenement Museum and according to the book, “It was run by true Chinese nuns…and they always served free and delicious vegetarian food…I felt at peace in the temple, as if we had never left Hong Kong.”
It looks like they have classes in Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Qigong, Buddhism, and children’s Kung Fu. Unfortunately, it might be currently closed due to the pandemic.
Staten Island Ferry
Kimberly wants to see the “Liberty Goddess,” which is how she refers to the Statue of Liberty. Kimberly learns that the best way to get up close is to take a ride for free on the Staten Island Ferry. I can’t remember how close up the ferry goes to the Statue of Liberty but I do know it is one of the best views of the city.
Kimberly lets the reader know that Times Square is known as Tay Um See Arena in Cantonese. When she dreamt of living in New York as a child, she thought she’d be living in Times Square, not in the squalor that she ended up living in. Kimberly finally at least got to visit and felt at home as she marveled at the “sea of people,” the hustle and bustle much like Hong Kong.
I’m always open to visiting Times Square if seeing a Broadway show is part of the deal.
Kimberly and her mom live in Brooklyn and her school is also somewhere in Brooklyn. However, Girl in Translation doesn’t give specific spots, so I wasn’t able to figure out which neighborhoods in Brooklyn to potentially go to.
I know there are areas like Sunset Park and Bensonhurst that have a big Chinese population but I’m not sure if either of these is the setting in the book.
Therefore, I’m leaving Brooklyn out of this potential literary date unless I somehow learn the correct locations.
Thoughts on a Girl in Translation Literary Date
After I write these kinds of posts up, they make me want to do all the things. What sounds good to you?
I think it would be great to go support local businesses in Chinatown. I know they’ve been hit hard by the pandemic and by the awful Asian hate that has been going on. It’s tough to think about all of that but I think it would be great to explore Chinatown and give the area some love.
So even though Girl in Translation doesn’t give us too many specific spots to go to, I think it could still inspire a pretty sweet literary date. What do you think? What sounds cool and exciting or intriguing?
And please, if there’s anything in Chinatown that you know is awesome, please share in the comments. This potential literary date is just a rough idea and subject to change based on your thoughts and/or if I learn about something else to see. I also forgot about haggling for knock-off bags on Canal Street. That’s always a possibility too!
Thank you all for reading and for giving me your input!
Happy New Year and soon Happy Chinese New Year! Year of the Tiger.
Buy the Book:
This is a fantastic book. I remember reading the parts of working in sweatshops and thinking of my mother working similarly to make extra money on the side when I was a child. I also spent a lot of time in these factories cause my mom couldn’t get a sitter. Sometimes I even helped out… but nothing I’d call laborious… I actually enjoyed it as a little girl because I thought it was fun and entertaining. HAHA.
Honestly, can’t compare my life to this book as their struggles were definitely on a whole other level. But I definitely identified in some ways.
By the time I finished, I was finished with this book I was especially proud of Kim. She did what she had to do. I admired her. I could sit here a debate a couple of things that just seemed not right, but sometimes we have to put ourselves first.
A fun literary date for this book (for me) would be going out for dumplings, bubble tea, shopping at the small business-owned shops in Chinatown and the Staten Island Ferry.
Interesting that you had that experience and glad it was a positive one for you. And you’re right about putting ourselves first. I like that. We do need to put ourselves first sometimes. We are the only ones who can truly look out for ourselves and our own needs. So many try their best to support and it falls short or it’s misguided support based on their own experiences and what works for them.
Thanks for adding that perspective!
Thank you for adding your thoughts for the potential literary date. That all sounds great to me! Thank you for reading!
This has been on my to-read list for a while so I’m super excited to read this! I loved eating my way through Chinatown in NYC while I was on the east coast! I’ve been to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, Vivi, and Ten Ren’s but I definitely need to check out the other spots! I’d especially love to hear about Yu and Me Books + Grand Tea and Imports if you end up going there! *-*
Suuuper excited to see how your upcoming literary date goes for this one! They’ve definitely been hit hard so I’m all for the support! <3
If you're at all a fan of skin care stuffs, I used to pop by oo35mm on 81 Mott St on the 2nd floor. 😀 My friend and I randomly decided to get $5 face/fortune readings across the way from there for funsies too, haha.
You are awesome! You’ve been to all the spots. I love that! I read about that skincare place too when I was researching for this post. I am a fan of skincare stuff and always looking for anti-aging stuff! Ha! I think I didn’t include it because I was afraid I would buy out the store. But now I definitely have to go and I need my fortune told too!😂 I’m overdue for that.😉
Thank you thank you for reading and helping me figure out what to do for it!
hahaha, that’s how I felt whenever I went into that store. It’s pretty hard to resist. :D… I wonder if the fortune reading lady is still there! It was a fun little stop, hehe. Looking forward to reading about your adventures there! <3