Jean Kwok's poignant debut novel Girl in Translation, which has been called "reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." The book follows the path of young Kimberly Chang who has just immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn with her mother and Kimberly's double life, trying to learn English and succeed in school while helping her mother in a sweatshop and living in poverty. The main character's struggle mirrors Kwok's own experience: Kwok moved to New York when she was five years old and would go to a Chinatown sweatshop with her family and return back home to a rat- and roach-infested apartment.
Through her hard work, Kwok attended Hunter College High School, later attending Harvard on scholarship and eventually earning her MFA in fiction at Columbia. We spoke to Kwok ahead of her reading at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble tomorrow night and asked her about growing up as an immigrant in NYC, being a professional ballroom dancer after college and more.
What inspired you to write Girl in Translation? I suppose I started by wanting to write this book for my mother. When I was a child and we were working in the clothing factory, she stayed in the kitchen, tying sashes on skirts and tagging pants until late into the night. And no matter how wise she was in Chinese, my mother could only manage a few words of broken English.
We all take the subway, and there are those foreigners on the train with the weird clothes, and they’re holding plastic bags that smell funny, and they can hardly speak English. Well, I’ve been that foreign person and my mother’s English is still non-existent. I wanted to tell the other side of the story, to put English-speaking readers into the mind and heart of a Chinese immigrant, so that readers could experience what it was like to be on the other side of the language barrier. I wanted them to feel how it was to have to struggle to comprehend English, and yet to understand Chinese as easily as a native speaker does. I hoped that maybe the next time someone saw a foreign person on the train, they might realize that that person could be wise, articulate and funny in their own language.
Can you describe some of your experience in New York after you immigrated? For instance, did you really live in a roach- and rat-infested apartment and work in a Chinatown sweatshop? Yes, we did. We’d been fairly well-off in Hong Kong but when we came to New York, we had to start all over again. My family started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown and my father brought me there after school each day. I started when I was five years old. My story wasn’t unusual - there were many children in the sweatshop. I remember the constant layer of fabric dust that settled on my hair and arms, and the incredible heat of the factory due to the steamers. We also lived in an apartment without central heating, where we kept the oven door open as our only source of warmth. I really don’t want to talk about the roaches and rats because I’m still terrified of them!
The unusual part of my story is that we were lucky enough to get out of that life.
Do you think New York opened its arms to you? New York taught me how hard you have to work to be the best that you can be. It showed me an incredible world of art, music and culture. It introduced me to friends from many cultures and backgrounds. It gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, to succeed and to fail.
A friend of mine once told me, “Living in New York City is like living on Krypton. Once you learn how to walk in NY, you can fly everywhere else.”
Your book acknowledges Kimberly's challenges with understanding English by distorting some words to convey how she hears the language. How difficult was it for you to learn English? I remember wishing more than anything that I could speak English. In my first elementary school in Queens, I was completely lost and no attempt was made to help me whatsoever. Every exercise I did was simply marked with a zero, even though it was impossible for me to do them correctly since I didn’t understand a word of English. After we moved to Brooklyn, my second elementary school was much kinder and the teachers made a real effort to help me integrate. I could learn fairly quickly at that point since I was still so young. However, I’m the youngest of seven children and I saw how much harder it was for my parents and older siblings to learn English.
Tell us about attending Hunter College High School. I’d gone to a public elementary school and like Kimberly Chang in my novel, I was tested by several exclusive private schools in sixth grade. I won scholarships to all of them, but I think that it would have been very hard for me to fit in socially at that point in my life. That’s where Kimberly’s story takes place - I imagined what it would have been like if I’d accepted one of those scholarships.
I was thrilled when I got into Hunter, which is a public school for gifted kids. I still felt quite out of place in many ways, because some of my clothes were homemade and there were a number of American customs I didn’t understand then. However, I was in a community of teachers and students who were vitally interested in learning. It was challenging and fun, although I was sometimes very afraid, because I knew that if I slipped and couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class, there would be no one at home who could help me.
From the moment I entered Hunter, I also had the intention of going to Harvard when I left. I wasn’t at all sure that I would be able to achieve my goal, but I understood I had no other choice. If I didn’t get into Harvard or a comparable school with a need-blind admissions policy, it would have been impossible for us to pay any part of the tuition and I wouldn’t have gone to college at all.
Even though you loved English and literature, you devoted your high school studies to science, because you didn't think English was practical and you needed to get a full financial aid package, which Harvard gave you. Then you changed your major from Physics to English. What did your parents think? How did you manage? You have to understand that although I did quite well in school, I was a disaster as a Chinese daughter at home. I burned and spilled everything in the kitchen, took apart appliances I wasn’t supposed to, and was (and still am) the worst housekeeper anyone had ever seen. My family didn’t think I was smart, because I was dreamy and impractical. My parents were absolutely stunned when I got into Harvard, especially since it was by early admissions.
They were so relieved by the Harvard thing that they were quite calm about the switch from physics to English. I was already putting myself though Harvard then, working up to four jobs at a time. I started by banging dishes in the freshman cafeteria, then cleaned rooms (which I was also very bad at), read to the blind, and worked in the library. I also wanted to give something back to the Chinese community and taught English as a Second Language to adult immigrants, worked as a Big Sister, and became the director of a summer program for Chinatown kids. I loved that program because we tutored the kids and took them to beaches and museums. It was an alternative to going to the workplace, whether that was a sweatshop or a restaurant, with their parents.
It was only at Harvard that I realized I never would have to go back to the factory. I felt safe enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was to become a writer.
You worked as a professional ballroom dancer in NY after college. How did you get started at that? Do you watch Dancing with the Stars?
I’ve always loved to dance and I think that if I’d been trained when I was younger, I might have become a professional dancer. I took a lot of dance lessons as soon as I was able to, and after I left Harvard, I started looking for a job that would give me enough space to write at the same time.
There was an audition for a major ballroom dance studio on midtown New York. I was terrified, but I went. We started in a large room and were taught several combinations. About twenty of us were picked out to be “trained.” That was, of course, another part of the selection process. In the three-week long training, we learned the entire Bronze syllabus, all ten dances, man’s and woman’s part. Every day, some people from my training class disappeared. I never saw anyone talking to any of us. They were just gone. Our group got smaller and smaller until one day, I was the only one left. I thought, “OK, either I disappear now too, or I have the job.” I had the job.
I spent about three years doing competitions and shows, and teaching, and most of all, being trained to dance well.
I have seen “Dancing with the Stars” and it’s a lot of fun, but the truth is, I have no time so I almost never get to watch television. My dream is to have a new TV show called, “Dancing with the Writers.”
And then you went to Columbia for your MFA. How was that experience?
I realized when I was in ballroom that I was spending about ten hours a day dancing and one hour writing, when it needed to be the other way around. I’d been accepted to a few programs but when I visited Columbia, it was so New York: diverse, edgy, smart, and challenging. I knew it was where I wanted to go.
The Columbia Graduate Writing Division taught me to be a professional. It was wonderful to have those years mainly to write, although I held other jobs as well to support myself. I learned so much there about craft, language, and passion. I don’t think I could have become a professional writer if I hadn’t gotten my MFA, although many writers do very well without one.
Someone compared Girl in Translation to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. What do you think? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of my favorite books when I was growing up, so of course, I’m honored by the comparison. I really can’t judge my own book at all. I can only say that it was sincerely my best attempt to write something meaningful. I wanted to create a work of fiction that would show people some of the different worlds I had seen myself.
Your life is like the embodiment of the American Dream. Do you think your life and its success would be possible in another country? I think that success is obviously possible in many different places, but America was the Golden Mountain to my parents’ generation. It was the place to follow your dreams and something that I do think is very American is that ability to believe. The idea that someone can be a child working in a factory one day and a successful novelist a number of years down the road is a powerful one, and in America, we’re not afraid to believe in it.
You now live in Holland. What do you miss about New York City? I really love Holland, but there are a lot of things I miss about New York. Most of all, I miss my New York friends and family. I miss the feeling of complete freedom you have on the street, where you could dance along in a huge yellow chicken outfit and no one would really notice you. I miss the musicians that perform in the subways and on the street. I miss the cab drivers who all have their own stories. And of course, I miss the bagels.
Kwok will be giving a reading at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble tomorrow night (April 29) at 7 p.m.