Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok (Review)

bigWOWO Rating: Asian American DO NOT RECOMMEND

I feel really bad about my rating for this book, so let me begin by first saying something positive.  If this had been a review of Jean Kwok herself, she would’ve gotten a gold–her blog is a treasure trove of ideas on how to make it as an author, and she seems like a very nice person who supports the arts.  She’s also really smart, with an undergrad degree from Harvard and an MFA from Columbia.  According to her bio, she grew up working in a factory and then became phenomenally successful–you can’t help but applaud that.  She’s trilingually fluent, as she speaks Chinese, English, and Dutch, since she lives in Holland with her Dutch husband.

Let me also say that if you are a writer, it may not be a bad idea to read this book.  As Stephen King said, you can learn just as much from bad writing as you can from good writing.  Now I’m not saying this book was poorly written–at least not right now, while I’m trying to say something good.  Hell, her credentials are far above mine, and much respect to her.  But you can also learn a lot from writing that…doesn’t sit well with you.

Let me also say a few words about my own prejudices: my tastes may have been unjustly influenced by the fact that the last book I read before this one was the Vagrants by Yiyun Li, which was excellent, and I may have judged this on the Yiyun scale.   It’s not fair to judge a chick lit book after reading literary fiction (although I probably would still have written positively if I had read something like Someone Like Summer.)  Sigh.  I also didn’t want to cut into any of Ms. Kwok’s sales, even if my blog doesn’t have so much traffic that it would make too much of a difference.  Asian Americans need to support one another.  But then I thought about it, and I realized that Girl in Translation is already a NY Times bestseller, and that even if this lone Chinese guy had a critical word for his activist, critical readers, there will always be people who will pay for books like this.  And critical reviews are something that are almost completely lacking in the AA media.  So let me start:

When I finished this book, I wanted to ram my finger down my throat and wash my eyes with turpentine before jumping into a vat of boiling hydrogen peroxide to stop the pain.   Actually, that’s a lie–I wanted to ram my finger down my throat and wash my eyes with turpentine while I was trying to finish this book.  It really was that painful.  There was a recommendation on the back cover by Min Jin Lee (Min Jin, you broke my heart…again!!!), but other than the flat, stereotypical, racialized characters and the main Asian female protagonist Kimberly Chang trying to make out with every Larry, Moe, and Curly, this book had nothing in common with Free Food For Millionaires.  Either something got lost “in translation,” or I got duped once again.  Fortunately this one wasn’t able to break my heart like Min Jin (whose writing style I admire–just didn’t like how her story stuck it to the Asian man).

So where to begin?  The story is about a young girl, Kimberly Chang, who immigrates at age 11 to the U.S. with her mother, works in a factory, and achieves a rags to riches American dream.  If you want to see a world where Cantonese people don’t yell profanities at one another, don’t call White People “Gwai loh,” lack any kind of aggressiveness, don’t have any personal struggles outside of work, and just sit around whining about how bad they have it, “Girl In Translation” is the book for you.  Welcome to Sob Story central, where the narrator complains about how her sweaters are acrylic not wool, where supposedly progressive White worship conflicts with supposedly backward Kwan Yin worship, and where all minor characters sit around waiting for the supposedly brilliant narrator to add meaning to their lives.  I don’t think I’ve read such self-absorbed whining ever; this book made Tito Ortiz look like Nam Phan.  Of course I’m not being unsympathetic to poor people.  I realize that probably a good 50% of the blog-stuff and books I read and like are about people who did not come from money (Minority Militant, Ed Lin, Lac Su, Mondega, anti-social ladder), but it’s one thing to be poor and to reflect on it, it’s another thing to take one’s modern day wealthy outlook and use it to judge or inflate the past.

Like a Hollywood movie, all the black people were modified Magical Negroes whose sole role was to help the protagonist or her mother.  The Asian people all talk funny, and most of them wallow in their victimhood.  There is a bad guy character–Aunt Paula–but she’s so boring and flat that she’s hard to fear or hate, and the dialogue hurt my eyes.  The Asian love interest, Matt, is a stereotyped White boy dyed yellow.  The White love interest, Curt, is a stereotype reminiscent of the Andrew McCarthy character in Joy Luck Club.  All the other White people are walking stereotypes based on their class and profession.  Stereotypes, stereotypes, and more stereotypes.  If you love stereotypes, you’ll love this book.

The style was annoying.  It was written memoir style, stopping every so often to jump forward with “when I was in high school” or “28 years later.”  Someone should have called Adverb and Adjective Protective Services on Kwok–descriptions like “bitterly cold” and “merciless” and “surreptitiously” get beaten to the point of death like pinatas on Cinco de Mayo.   

Let me end on a soft note.  If Jamie Ford wrote the first Asian American romantic novel, this was probably the second attempt.  But you can’t have romance for the sake of romance; just having an AM/AF isn’t enough to negate the need for plot, style, suspense, character development, and the normal requirements of fiction.  There is no doubt that Jean Kwok has credentials.  Harvard and Columbia are both really good schools, and I’m humbled by her accomplishments.  That said, finishing this novel was like death by a thousand cuts.  I think it would have been much stronger as a memoir, rather than a novel.  I am inspired by Jean Kwok’s accomplishments; I am less than inspired by her character Kimberly Chang.  There was more whine/wine than Napa Valley in this book, along with a crazy amount of self-praise and indulgence.  Read at your own peril.

26 thoughts on “Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok (Review)

  1. Wow. First of all, I’d like to say that I really appreciate it that you separated me the person from your review of my novel. Otherwise, I probably would have had to jump into a vat of peroxide myself! I really can’t say anything in defense of my novel because I believe that the text must stand on its own once it’s out in the world. I’m sorry you didn’t like it (to put it mildly) and in the interests of fairness, I’m going to link to this on my Facebook fan page — since I always call attention to the glowing reviews, it seems only fair to direct some traffic to yours. Thank you for taking the time to write about my book — you have every right to your opinion and you clearly did your research beforehand.

  2. Thanks, Jean. Mad mad props for engaging a critic who was critical. I’m glad I said nice things about you as a person, and I’m super glad that I was right. I think if we have a conversation, it probably makes more sense to have it on your facebook, but I’ll repost what I facebook-posted here:


    Thank you for your posting of my review. It demonstrates your strong character (which I already knew from reading your blog.). Most people back away from criticism, confrontation, and the like, and I applaud you for stepping forward and engaging those who have different opinions. As they say online–mad props.

    A point of clarification to Jack Young–my comment about sticking it to the Asian male was NOT in reference to Jean or Girl in Translation but to Min Jin Lee and Free Food For Millionaires. (I linked my FFFM review in the post…you may have to hear her interview to understand why I felt like the victim of a bait-and-switch.) I think Free Food For Millionaires and this book were the only negative reviews I’ve had in my four years of blogging, which actually does say something about Jean’s writing–there have been some books which I’ve simply been unable to finish and therefore unable to review. This wasn’t one of them. I read this book in two days.

    As everyone seems to agree, when we talk about style, it’s a matter of opinion–the text can stand on its own, so there’s little point in debating that, and we all have our own opinions. If I could make one point however: Jack and Jenny bring up a point about me being an Asian male and that that has an influence on me. I would strongly agree with their viewpoints. The way we see the world differs based on our experience, and me being an Asian male definitely influences the way I see the world.

    People will have their opinions, and instead of fighting you all on what I think Asian males are or are not, I’d just like to pose a couple of questions:

    1. Are there experiences that tend to color a culture based on how mainstream America stereotypes or treats minorities differently?
    2 If Asian men are absent or almost absent in conversations about the Asian American male image, or if society discourages opinions from Asian men about our own image, might that not influence how this image is created? How it is read or perceived? Edward Said and Frank Chin have both written at length about this trend. Even here on this Facebook, why are there so few Asian Americans or African Americans to offer ideas about race and racial portrayals?

    Just some ideas to think about. Holly, I may have to take your advice after your review of my review. 🙂

    Thank you again for reading, and Jean…mad props. 🙂!/permalink.php?story_fbid=175316162481325&id=213583280524

  3. Having read both of these books, It’s safe to say that I have a difference of opinion to you in both of these books. In my view, you’re a bit harsh on Free Food for R…Millionaires and not harsh enough on Girl in Translation. While it’s true that in Free Food, white guys gets a lot of free “you know what”, the asian male characters are less than perfect (in fact, some are pretty bad) and that the main female protogonist is selfish, unlikeable and an absolute idiot (hence all the idiotic choices she has made), I actually think it’s not a bad book.

    It’s because Casey is a flawed character, and probably written deliberately to be one. Once you’re able to remove your empathetic connection with her (reading her as someone you don’t actually like as oppose to someone you actually are meant to love in most other novels), you actually start to enjoy looking at her train-wrecked herself time after time – you’re meant to read her as a flawed character. And this is actually very refreshing compare to most of the autobiographical character you read in the other novels like the Amy Tans and co. where the female protagonist are good/perfect and all the other characters are bad and threatening to ruin her happiness! (apart from the white savior who’s going to save her, of course).

    In Free Food, which the male Asian american characters are still not great (okay, most are pretty bad), almost every single character in the book is flawed, even the white dudes “who got the free you know what”, which again is quite refreshing compared to the white savior books where the ‘white male leads are perfect romantics’ that is the trend. (And I actually like the Ted character – he has balls.)And I’m fairly okay with the Asian male lead, his flaws weren’t that bad and makes him quite human, and makes him compatible with the very flawed Casey (if he was any less flawed, I would be pissed that he actually stuck with Casey, I’ll just tell him to find another girl!). And the images in the ending scenes was actually quite moving (and brought tears to my eyes).

    A Min Jin Lee talkback thingie:

    Maybe I went with low expectations, but I got a sense of realism in this book, partly because the book is a lot less biographical than some of the Asian american books on the market, you do get a sense that the author was able to ‘trash’ her protagonists a lot more. Yes, it could have been better, but it’s a lot better than the Amy Tan imitations.

    On the other hand, Girl in translation is pretty much just the poor people version of Joy Luck Club. Stereotypes after stereotypes and perfect white male leads. I’m glad I read this on the plane and couldn’t really more adversely waste my time. And I didn’t feel any connection to the ‘struggling characters), I didn’t live a very rich childhood myself – I shared a room and a bed with my elder sister till I was 15/16 and things only start to get better when my estraged father decided to start financially support us again…but we were mostly happy despite being relatively poor and none of the self-pity that seems to filled the early parts of the book entirely.

  4. Thanks, N, and glad you read both books! It’s cool to be able discuss books with people; doesn’t happen often enough.

    I basically agree with most of what you’re saying. FFFM probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed from my review, mostly because of expectations. I had super HIGH expectations with Min Jin’s book, all because of that very interview that you linked where she talked about Asian men, and I felt let down.

    As for characters, it isn’t so much the flaws that I mind; it’s more the depth. Ted, to me, seemed like an anti-stereotype, which, of course, doesn’t make it a real character, simply the opposite of a stereotype. To me, he wasn’t a real person, simply the extension of a philosophical ideal.

    Maybe it’s best to show an example. In Miles from Nowhere (bigWOWO Rating: Asian American Gold), Nami Mun had ONE Asian male character in ONE short story within the WHOLE book–a Japanese American slob who forces an Asian exotic dancer to give him head. Unflattering? Yes. Negative? Yes. Conforms to a stereotype? Yes. HOWEVER…the interplay between the powerless, ugly, socially awkward Japanese American john and the Asian stripper was SPOT ON. Nami Mun described it PERFECTLY. It was real. I could see it happening. In just a few pages, it elucidated the feelings of both characters, who reacted as Asian Americans do to issues of race, gender, and power. It’s different from taking a white character and dying him white. (I don’t think that’s what Min Jin did with Ted, btw. Ted was Asian, but he was more of the extension of a philosophy to me.)

    So for me, it’s not a matter of positive or negative, it’s a matter of real, even if I can’t tell a person exactly what real is.

  5. I haven’t read any of the books so I can’t comment on them but isn’t the real focal point about how Asian males are portrayed? And then there will be another book by some Asian female writer flogging a dead horse with same old overbearing Asian male character—because novels with that storyline or subplot sells? I dunno.

    I’m curious as to how the broader mainstream (ie, white) audience view Asian males after reading these books where the Asian male is once again, the domineering asshole with little or no redemptive traits. Because it seems that storyline gets reinforced, don’t you think? As if the only common central experiences Asian females have are domineering, overbearing fathers or husbands. Wouldn’t the mainstream audience think, “Jeez, another story about some overbearing Asian male characters? Haven’t I read this story before?” And this is the best these Asian female writers can do is to rehash that storyline or do they do it because they know it will sell? Again, I dunno…I don’t know what the publishing world is like.

  6. Chen- I think we all realize that there are a great many, MANY stories that aren’t written with us in mind. We also realize that there are many movies that aren’t made with us in mind, many commercials and ads that aren’t made with us in mind, many TV shows that aren’t made with us in mind, many newspaper and magazine articles that aren’t written with us in mind. And with “us” I mean normal Asian men who aren’t overbearing sexist stereotypes. Don’t worry, we’re perfectly aware that we’re not supposed to exist in the dialogue of Asian American art.

  7. To be fair, I have to agree with Chen….in that Jean was probably writing for “her” audience, which may or may not include us. She is the published one, afterall.

    Having that been said, I don’t believe a writer should ever feel obligated to be politically correct. If he/she writes something, and has an engaged audience, nothing can ever take that away (regardless of how much damage we may perceive it’ll do).

    Look at Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. You can disagree with them all you like, but you cannot deny that they’ve got themselves a willing audience.

    Like you mentioned, it’s just as important to read literature with stereotypical caricatures as it is to read literature that don’t have them. And I believe a smart person will know how to differentiate the two. If Jean is writing to sell books, and is successful at doing it, that’s totally her prerogative.

    But side note, based on your generous character study, I probably won’t be reading this particular work. I’ve sadly read enough Amy Tan that should deserving of a public caning :).

  8. I ought to write a book where the stereotypical AM/AF roles are reversed, and the woman is the overbearing, abusive one in the relationship….and the man is the vict….

    oh never mind.

  9. Ben II, looks like we are going to agree to disagree on a few things (or on most things).
    I assume that you would want a bit of diversity and not see Asian men written as abusive and undesirable in every second book that is published by our Asian American sisters or see the ‘white savior’ in every single book that involves a minority female lead.

    Here’s the original list that I looked at which I did a quick research on the Male characters for books written by Asian American Female Authors (The list was put together by a white guy, I’m told).

  10. @N – I totally understand (and agree) with your point. The question that I pose is this: assuming we take a hypothetical Asian American book where there are no white saviors, and you deal mainly with the AM and AF characters themselves – what kind of role would make these AMs “acceptable” in the eyes of the audience?

    It seems that regardless of whether you make the male leads stronger or weaker than the female leads, nobody is happy.

    I would probably suggest that our fellow AA writers out there to start writing books/stories where the protagonist’s ethnicity/race is simply just one element of the story, and focus on just writing a good story, where the plot doesn’t revolve specifically (or only) around these issues – thus making the story accessible for the masses.

    John Cho’s short-lived role on FlashForward would be one example.

  11. Ben II,

    I agree that Jean was writing for “her” audience, which may or may not include us. And I agree–it doesn’t necessarily have to include us.

    “I would probably suggest that our fellow AA writers out there to start writing books/stories where the protagonist’s ethnicity/race is simply just one element of the story, and focus on just writing a good story, where the plot doesn’t revolve specifically (or only) around these issues – thus making the story accessible for the masses.

    John Cho’s short-lived role on FlashForward would be one example.”

    I don’t know if the media works that way. The movie “21,” for example, had lots of real life Asians, including the main character, and the producers made him White when they filmed it. Same with the Last Airbender. The Facebook story had Asian men in it; the Facebook movie didn’t. Look at Wayne Wang’s adaptation of the Princess of Nebraska–there were no White men in Yiyun Li’s original short story, but the main man became White when they made the movie, thanks to our producers and casting directors.

    In a sense, they only publish stories where the non-White characters conform to stereotypes. Otherwise, they racebend.

    This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to get nonstereotypical characters. Nor is it to say that gatekeepers don’t do a good job of finding quality–I think that in general they do. But the gatekeepers play a big role when it comes to what gets published and how.

  12. @Ben II

    I have no idea what you’re getting it. Who’s not going to happy about what?

    How about an Asian American guy that actually gets the girl in the end, that should make at least half the guys happy.

    And why wouldn’t the Asian American girls be happy? More than half actually marries us. If AFs that date us have no problems with AF/WM relationships in books, then I expect the other AFs to be very happy about reading AF/AM relationships too, right?

  13. i don’t think anybody cares about “flawed” AM characters if they are real. the problem is that when ‘writers’ are terrible and only write cliches.

  14. I agree with you there, MM. The novel in my original post actually wasn’t bad from an activist perspective–the AM kinda wins. But the players were cliche, in my opinion.

    Anyway, I still might look at Jean’s future books if they look more promising.

  15. @jaehwan

    Not really Bryan. The message I got was even though you might be attracted someone of similar physical appearance and heritage during your youth, the one that really understands you, loves you with all his heart and the only one that is capable of being your life companion will have to be white (and is perfect and romantic in every way).

    I really don’t expect Jean to move away from the white romantic love interest anytime soon.

  16. N,

    Haha! Well, Matt was kind of a sexist, wasn’t he? He said something like, “No, I’ll support you, that’s how it works.” Although I wasn’t sure if it was his sexism or his lack of character development. I really felt like the poor dude had no soul.

    Maybe I’ll skim through when her new book hits the bookstore, and maybe we can decide then.

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  18. This post keeps pinging my blog, so I had to come back and see what the deal was, lol.

    My thing is, if you don’t believe/support the themes that are prevalent in the mainstream media, then turn it off. These publishers make their money from selling an idea. If that idea fails to gain an audience, then that idea ceases to propagate amongst the masses. Nobody’s force-feeding you these ideas. I see the same stuff you see; racism, AFs going for the alpha WMs, workplace glass ceilings – but the difference is that I don’t internalize those alleged shortcomings. And guess what, I still get what I wanted in the end – with the usual struggles that most people experience regardless of color.

    You can argue that those kinds of hurdles shouldn’t be there in the first place. But these hurdle is there for any minority in ANY society. If you were an alpha male in a predominantly asian society, the alpha male in the majority still wins.

    I know the current environment of mainstream american media isn’t friendly to the AM, but that has never stopped me from doing anything I’ve ever wanted to do. And like most of you, I don’t agree with those ideas of AM inferiority – but if you seriously think that your failures in life/women/dating/work are attributed to some “public image” problem that is prevalent in the mainstream, then you own every ounce of those failures.

    If you are sincere about changing those stereotypes about the AM, then do something about it (in real life!) – as opposed to griping about it anonymously on a blog. It’s as simple as not reading those books, and not supporting those writers and actors – dispel those myths with your own circle of friends and associates first. I don’t know what kinda audience this blog commands, but do you think it compares to the audience that these shoddy writers have with the piece-of-crap literature filled with hackneyed cliches?

    When you personally attack me merely because my views differs from yours, it tells me that you’re either trolling or insincere about finding a solution to the questions you pose – and simply just looking for a soap box to air your grievances. Especially when you do it on this particular forum, you’re simply just preaching to the choir. If you want to make a difference, then DO IT in real life. Man up against your enemy (the WM) who keeps taking “your” women. Man up against all the inequality that you face in life.

    Talking about it here might make you feel better, but it’s no different than throwing out a few final verbal potshots when the fight’s already over, and your opponent’s already walking away. And taking pot shots at me (or anyone else who doesn’t agree with you) might make you feel better, but I can tell you right now that it’s definitely not constructive if you’re trying to build solidarity among your AM brethren to rise up against the “evil” WM.

    So what if there’s some idea out there that AFs prefer WMs, both in the media as well as real life? What will YOU, as the individual, do about it to change that?

  19. @Ben

    I don’t know who you’re referring to, but I’m pretty sure that most people that disagree with you are actually happily dating a girl. It’s interesting that you automatically think those not agreeing with you is because they are whinging because theya re dateless losers – that’s not a great start to your argument at all.

    Sorry to break it to you, but media, whether it’s literature, film, television, print media and advertising plays a huge role in the self esteem of young people and how their peers preceive them. Young kids is a lot less free-thinking than they think and hence their ideologies and reasoning is affected greatly by the media that they consume. I might have a kid in the next 5-8 years, why should I be happy that if he’s a boy than he’ll need to work 20% harder than the white kid next door in EVERYTHING?

    I remember your stance on the I-phone thing so I understand you’re fairly happy about Asian Americans males and especially Asian American couples being under-presented. I know a lot of young, attractive, trendy and loving Asian american couples, so why are we treated as second class citizens to the other couplings?

    I’ve had people said to my face that ‘Asian American couples are less progressive and will produce less attractive offsprings’. If media didn’t play a major role in affectign their thinking, then I’ll like to know why they would think that my baby is going to uglier than theirs just because his/her parents are both Asian.

  20. AF doing alpha WM? lol

    where are you seeing these power couples?

    unless you consider Wendi Deng and her grandpa husband Rupert Murdoch the power couple

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