When my parents and I were in the process of emigrating from the former Soviet Union, I got into a huge disagreement with a makeshift friend about whether we’d be going to the United States or America. Shtatyi, the States in Russian, was a place that our parents talked about in hushed tones. Good for them, I supposed.
I was heading to America.
Even though I’ve lived in this country for over thirty years now (which is amazing, considering how I’m still in my mid-20s) I still get an electric buzz to my soul every so often when I hear the word America. Not the sung version at stadiums, nor the flag waving “love it or leave it” kind, but every once in a while, when I hear the word casually mentioned, I pause, and I remember what it was like to be nine years old, having left most of my family and all of my friends behind and the aura that the very word invoked for me.
My immigration experience was a charmed one. I was with my parents, living for the first few months in my uncle’s house. My biggest complaint was that I didn’t speak English and was mildly alarmed by the laugh track on The Brady Bunch . Everyone was super nice to me because they assumed that I was traumatized from having had to leave my motherland, so to milk their good graces I kept my joy about missing months of school to myself.
But not everyone was so lucky. In Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, Kimberly Chang is 11 years old, and just immigrated to the United States with her mother from Hong Kong. Kimberly’s aunt brings them over, but she is far from benevolent. The aunt sets the mother up to work in a factory in Chinatown, and gets them a heat-free, roach-infested apartment in a non-Park Slope section of Brooklyn.
And yet, there is something about the immigrant experience that is universal and I was happy to read about it. The italicized English words that Kimberly misunderstands (I, myself, in my early English education thought that the teacher was saying Poison Curls when she was in fact saying Boys and Girls), to the whole sense of just how foreign your new friends, and their customs and families are.
Like Kimberly, I was reluctant to invite my friends over to our apartment, because although it was clean, my parents and I shared a studio. “It’s small,” I told my new friends who asked if they could come over to my apartment after I’d been to theirs many times. “We don’t care,” they’d say, and maybe they didn’t, but how could someone who lived in a multi-story home, with each child having her own room, and extra rooms for things like eating and sitting not be shocked to see a one room apartment? It’s not snobbery. It’s otherness.
I’m a little alarmed that Jean Kwok already wrote the book that I’ve been working on, but I’m trying to be an optimist. Because this is America, and anything is possible. Including plagiarism.
Don’t tell anyone.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Girl in Translation from Riverhead Books, in conjunction with my participation in the soon to be defunct Silicon Valley Moms.