Reviewed by Raymond Lum
This is a novel?
About three-quarters of the way through the book, I wanted to know more about Jean Kwok. But the blurb on the back cover revealed only that she had immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong as a child, worked in a garment sweatshop, graduated from Harvard and received an MFA in fiction at Columbia. So why is her first book an autobiography? Then I read the acknowledgements, in which Kwok notes that the book is indeed a novel, based on her own life to date.
Jean Kwok can write, and write well. This immensely readable novel is very convincing and has many unexpected twists and turns (although others are formulaic and anticipated).
The basic story is one that was common when I was growing up in Chinatown and probably is even more common today: a child immigrates to New York with her widowed mother, a musician whose life in the garment industry leaves no time or space for music. They are sponsored by the mother's elder sister and her husband, consigned to underpaid and illegal work in a sweatshop, housed in a roach-infested, unheated dump of an apartment. They are unable to move, unable to contact the landlord (later revealed to be the sister herself), and unwilling or unable---because of their immigrant status, lack of English-language skills, and having to pay the sister for their passage---to contact the legal authorities.
The girl, named Kimberly (not an unusual Western name for a Hong Kong kid), is bright, a good student, hardworking, and dedicated to her mother. Her life at school is severely circumscribed by her poverty and her living arrangements. It is interesting that her ethnic background rarely, if ever, is shown to be a pediment to success, or even an issue. Of course, Kim succeeds in life (otherwise, what's the point of the story?). But how she got there is the essence of this book.
Some children of educated or professional immigrants from China or Hong Kong, or people who have no experience of growing up in Chinatown might think that the story is contrived. Could life have been so hard? Could anyone treat a younger sister and her daughter with such lack of concern, such control, such total lack of compassion? Could people really live among roaches and mice and rats, no heat, and not complain or go to the authorities? Could people labor fifteen or more hours a day for a pittance in salary and no benefits and still be happy to have the jobs? Alas, it's all true.
The Western myth that Chinese take care of themselves, and, by extension, others, is just that: a myth. Here's the Chinatown I grew up in, in Chicago in the 50s and early 60s: no bank, no post office, no non-Chinese grocery stores, no theatres, no child care, no services for the elderly except a once-a-year handout of food baskets by the churches or the local representatives of the Taiwan government, no pensions; more and more substandard housing (our only housing), along with our only park, were taken by the city to construct expressways. We had no high school, no library, only one doctor, and no dentist. And we had roaches, rats, mice, and no recourse. So, who helped us? We helped ourselves. Some were lucky to have mentors or support of the two churches that never interacted or even spoke to each other. The only way to survive was hard work and the only way out was education, for those who wanted out. Not all did.
Jean Kwok's novel is realistic but it is not all bleak and dark. Kim had friends both Chinese and non-Chinese, and she had brains. The dedication of her mother was crucial to her success, and her respect and love for her mother were boundless. Both propelled her towards a better life, but both also held her back. Her mother's debt to her elder sister left them in servitude for far too long, and her reluctance to have the daughter "beholden" to others prevented Kim from accepting the invitations of classmates.
Kwok never presents Kim and her mother as superior to other people, unlike the tiger mother in Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Kim's close friend in the sweatshop, Matt, has an even harder time than she has, with an absent, gambling, womanizing father, an intellectually-challenged younger brother, and a sickly mother.
The story here is the story of all first-generation immigrants who lack skills in English and who have few resources at their disposal. For the Chinese, it takes only one more generation for those initial hardships to be overcome. It is perhaps easier for kids from two-parent families. In the novel, Kim is an only child, but in reality Jean Kwok is one of several siblings. Unlike the popular stereotype of the Chinese immigrant nerd, Kim is talented in intellectual matters, but she does not play the piano or violin (although her mother does), and is not tightly controlled by her single parent (who works all day and well into the night). The lack of total parental control allows Kim to explore relationships with other kids and thereby learn to be American. Getting a telephone helped greatly (I remember our first telephone, installed when I was in high school, and attached to the wall "to save space" for other things that were never to come).
This book gives a view of the life of immigrants that few others have recorded. Visitors to New York City's Tenement Museum, just on the edge of Chinatown, can see, in all its squalor, a better version of the dump in which Kim lived. Immigrants often endure extreme hardships in pursuit of a measure of freedom and a good future for their children. Kwok's book details the process.
The mixture of English and Chinese in the text as Kim talks to her mother and to her friend Matt is realistic and is a part of the transition from being foreign to becoming American.
The cover's photo of the back of the head of a woman with black hair shows a pencil stuck into her hair, a suggested transition of a Chinese woman with chopsticks in her hair into a Western woman with the chopsticks replaced by a pencil, further suggesting education. But Chinese women never wore chopsticks---or pencils---in their hair. Some Japanese women did, but we all look alike, no?
Jean Kwok is a writer to watch. I suspect that her future work will move away from her own story to further expose her literary talents.