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Asian Americans began immigrating to the United States in large numbers in the 19th century, during a time when xenophobia and nativism were rife. The arrival of the so-called “yellow peril” led to discrimination and racism against these new arrivals who only sought to better their lives through education (Simon). This narrative of Asian American discrimination and education continues today, though the stereotypes have developed and put Asian Americans in the position of the “model minority,” turning Asians from railroad workers to math-savvy kids who dominate higher education and live and breathe school (Le). This idea is present in Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, a partially autobiographical novel based on Kwok’s own experiences as an Asian immigrant (Castellano). Kwok writes of a girl named Kimberly who moves from Hong Kong to the United States with her mother, both barely speaking English and struggling to survive as factory workers. Kwok explores the theme of education being the pathway to the American dream for many people, especially Asian American immigrants, by characterizing Kimberly as an intelligent student who uses her academic prowess to lift her and her mother out of poverty and into the good life of which they have dreamed.
Kimberly is characterized as a student who fears failure in academics because she is relying on her academic performance to help her and her mother achieve the American dream. At Harrison Prep, a cheating scandal occurs in which Kimberly is the suspect. Desperate to prove her intelligence, she experiences the imposter syndrome, anxiety, and self-doubt when she is given the news that she will have to take an oral test to confirm her innocence: “I was terrified of losing everything Ma and I had worked for. What if I couldn’t understand the English well enough…? What if I happened to make a few mistakes or just did less well than usual?” (Kwok 182). This fear is due to the knowledge of what rests on her shoulders–getting kicked out of school means losing the future for which Kimberly and her mother have sacrificed so much. Many Asian Americans experience a similar feeling today in the need to prove their intelligence through school, which is also in part influenced by the status of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” stereotyped as “the one ethnic minority group that has successfully overcome racism and achieved the American dream, primarily through education” (Le). Academic success being so highly prized in Asian American communities contributes to the students’ fears of failure, as doing well in school is often seen as the only way to achieve the American dream.
One of Kimberly’s biggest motivations in succeeding academically and achieving the American dream is to save her mother from factory life, but this motivation and its effects end up leading to issues in her “translation” across culture. For a while, out of fear of her cruel teacher, she skips school. Eventually, after Kimberly’s mother tells her of their predicament of getting trapped in the factory cycle for the rest of their lives, Kimberly realizes she must return to school if she is to improve her and her mother’s living conditions: “I had to go back to school on Monday. Pa was dead and no one else could save Ma from this [factory] life” (Kwok 51). Kimberly’s commitment to saving her mother leads to her distancing herself from Chinatown’s factory life, assimilating into American culture and learning to be an exceptional student among American classmates, something many children of immigrants do in an effort to conform to cultural standards in a new country. Assimilation“in turn can lead to conflict with their parents if the parents don’t understand these activities and if they feel that their children are acculturating into “mainstream” American society too quickly and conversely, losing their traditional ethnic identity” (Le). However, in order to save her mother, Kimberly must to some degree assimilate and learn to be an American if she hopes to realize their American dream.
Another aspect of Kimberly’s cultural translation is inspired by Kwok’s own mother, who “never really learned to speak English,” and the novel’s autobiographical nature translates this aspect into Kimberly’s mother also never learning English (Castellano). Kimberly realizes, as many other Asian American children do, that she must be the one to learn English and assimilate into their new culture in order to carry them both out of poverty.
Upon her realizations that she needs to save her mother and prove her own ability to succeed, Kimberly commits to academic success in America and uses her intelligence to lift her mother and herself out of poverty. Her first commitment to success occurs when she decides that in order to succeed in the United States, she has “to perfect [her] English” (Kwok 90). And despite the fact that “she’s shy and speaks almost no English… [Kimberly] turns out to be a whiz at math and science… She earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Her academic gifts are so far beyond those of her fellow students” (“Kwok, Jean: Girl in Translation”). Kimberly’s commitment to her success reflects Kwok’s own experiences, as the book is partly based on Kwok’s own life. In an interview, Kwok reveals that she, like Kimberly, “excelled in public school and won scholarships to private schools” and in turn managed to escape the “slums of Brooklyn” (Castellano). Eventually, Kimberly secures a scholarship to Yale and later becomes a pediatric cardiac surgeon. Together, she and Ma escape the slums of Chinatown, achieving their own American dream.The book’s focus on education as Kimberly’s main path to success leads to the conclusion that she owes her success and her achievement of the American dream to her commitment to education.
Through her characterization of Kimberly as a high-achieving student, a caring daughter, and an intelligent hard worker, Kwok depicts Kimberly’s rise from poverty to the American dream. Kimberly’s experiences reflect not only Kwok’s but also millions of other Asian American students’ who regularly balance their school life and assimilation with their own cultures. Education is the uniting factor of both aspects, with its power to lead immigrant families to success in their new society and its prioritization in said immigrant families’ cultures. Especially so in Asian American communities, education remains the way to achieve the American dream.
Castellano, Laura. “PW Talks with Jean Kwok: A Girl Gets off a Boat.” Publishers Weekly, 15 Mar. 2010, p. 35. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw =w&u=cobb90289&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA221601355&it=r&asid=967f105bbd3f52133bd48d2c0d564e03.
“Kwok, Jean: Girl in Translation.” Kirkus Reviews, 15 Mar. 2010. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=cobb90289&v=2.1&id=GALE%7 CA256722200&it=r&asid=7c80c9bd5ccf7b4300aa3f0e0fa48c9a.
Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books, 2010.
Le, C. N. “A Closer Look at Asian Americans and Education.” School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins University, 2016, education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/ strategies/topics/multicultural-education/A%20closer%20look%20at%20asian%20americans%20and%20education/.
Simon, Scott. “Behind The ‘Model Minority,’ An American Struggle.” NPR, NPR, 23 June 2012, www.npr.org/2012/06/23/155622598/behind-a-wave-of-asian-immigration-stories-of-struggle.
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