Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Girl in Translation

I just read the final book for the Silicon Valley Moms book club, which has been a great source for books and for discussions. I'm thrilled to see that Linsey is starting a new book club now that SV Moms is closing up shop, and you'll be able to see the posts at From Left to Write very soon I hope. I'm glad to say we ended on a most excellent book, Girl in Translation, which I have to say is also a great title, maybe because it reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Lost in Translation, but that's neither here nor there. The book is a novel, but the author has many similarities with the main character.

The girl in the book, Kimberly, leads a double life. By day she is an excellent student, learning English and struggling to fit in, but excelling in math and science as she did back in Hong Kong. She and her mom have moved to America for a better life, but are in the debt/care of Kim's aunt as they struggle to make their way in this new country. Kim and her mom live in a condemned apartment building and work in a factory for slave wages. Kim, as do all the other children of the workers, must help out for their families to have any hope of making enough to live and to meet their deadlines. It's a tough life, to put it mildly. Jean Kwok does a wonderful job of describing the day to day struggles of this poor family, introducing some great supporting characters and a love interest for Kim.

As foreign as this life is to me, who grew up in upper middle class and have tough time even keeping my home and work life separate, I didn't have trouble believing the story. I like to think of myself as older and wiser now that I'm in my fourth decade, although I hope not too jaded. Reading about a little girl who, on the one hand is afraid to bring a bad grade home to her mom, and on the other does all the adult work for a mom who does not speak English, just tears your heart out. As thrilling as it was for Kimberly to find a fellow outcast friend, she had to hide so much from this girl, who stuck with her throughout everything. I want to tell that little girl it's okay, tell the teacher you have no paper at home and invite your friend to your apartment, but I also sense such a strength within her that makes believe she will succeed, and that she often knows what she's doing.

As you can imagine, Kimberly does not have an easy time fitting into the school, either with the teachers or a lot of the students. Things get worse when she moves to a wealthy school, although she does end up making friends, in some cases using her brains (or wits) to take care of herself. In thinking about Kimberly's life, what came to mind was that I really hope my kids will be the ones that step up to friend and defend the new kid, who see past quirks or how much money someone has. I firmly believe kids need to be taught this, ideally exposed to these situations and learn from them. The idea that innocent children can remain "color-blind" or inherently treat everyone the same is, in my opinion, a myth. People are more comfortable with people the same as them.

My kids go to a Spanish Immersion school, where 50% of their classmates are native Spanish speakers. The English only classrooms are nearly 100% native Spanish speakers, so there is no question they are making friends, or at least interacting, with kids new to the country. (Of course a 6 year old going to school with lots of other kids in their same position is certainly nowhere near an 11 year old expected to excel at school and work illegally in a factory.) I'm doing my best, as I think the school is too, to make sure the kids all learn from each other. I often feel like I'm flying blind, though. The other day Keegan said to me "Carlos* is the smartest of the Spanish speaking kids." This prompted a number of comments and questions from me about how often the Spanish and English speaking kids are grouped together, explaining that kids who have to learn a new language may be very smart but get behind in other subjects. He agreed he wished the kids didn't separate themselves so much, in fact, he said his 2nd best friend was one of the Spanish speakers. "Oh, we should have a playdate" I chimed in. "No, just at school, he's just my friend at school." I kept up my banter until he clearly regretted ever starting this whole conversation, but I told him it was not over, that I wanted to have these conversations, it's important. No, we have talked about it since. My husband spent last week though teaching them how to respond to annoying kids, to focus on what they do well and compliment that. It's a start.

This book was provided free to me as part of the Silicon Valley Moms blog book club, but I was in no way obligated to write anything. Head on over there for more posts about the excellent book.

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