Jean Kwok’s debut novel simultaneously subverts and challenges the stereotypes of migrant experience of young Asians. The transition from rags to riches is not a Cinderella tale, and the effort of ‘translating’ – both literally and figuratively – old ways and new lies at the heart of this engaging narrative. Kim, the narrator of the is moving from Hong Kong to the Golden Mountain – as her Chinese schoolmates jealously refer to the United States. In a matter of fact voice that immediately endears her to readers, she states ‘I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school.’ This is quite literally all she has – a prodigious proficiency in learning, and the hope that this will bring her a measure of happiness and success in her new life. The problem is, though, that neither she nor her mother speaks any English, and proving her intelligence at a new school where she is the only foreigner is not an easy matter.
While Kim’s journey is that of a Chinese migrant living in America, Australian readers will readily relate to her predicament. Torn between making her mother happy and asserting her own wishes, Kim is sharply perceptive of the small though stinging slights she faces as an outsider in an English speaking world. School however, is not her biggest obstacle; her mother’s decision to relocate to America was based on an invitation made to her by her sister – but this sister proves to be a veritable Cruella DeVil. Forced to repay the ‘invitation’ by working in a sweatshop after school hours, living in a roach-infested unheated apartment in an insalubrious neighbourhood, mother and daughter struggle on. Kim’s determination to succeed eventually pays off, as she gains a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and thence to university, much to the chagrin of her aunty.
This is much more though than a moral redemptive tale about the power of hard work and perseverance. Kim has a raw, very honest voice that draws you into her life – you experience her outrage when she is accused of cheating in the national mathematics examination; wince with her when the cool girls laugh at her home-made underpants; and rejoice with her when she finally extricates her mother from the clutches of the wicked aunty. As with the best first-person narratives, it is tempting to assume the author wove in some of her own personal experiences into this migrant journey.
I would have no hesitation recommending this book to secondary students, and not just girls, as the author explores issues that are relevant to all young people through Kim’s adept ‘translation’ of the dual cultures she navigates between. The novel highlights questions of identity and belonging, the shifting boundaries between assimilation and retaining inherited traditions and the pressures of a competitive educational system.
Read an extract or watch author video with Jean Kwok here.