Teacher Toolkit for Girl in Translation
Welcome to Primary Source's teacher toolkit for the novel Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. We hope the materials here entice you to read Kwok's book—a powerful work of semi-autobiographical fiction—and consider using it in the classroom. Our toolkit includes four components: a multimedia resource guide that recommends fiction, non-fiction, memoir, films, primary sources, maps, research studies, and websites on the novel's content and related curriculum topics; a set of discussion questions, suitable for high school classes or teacher discussion groups and book clubs; classroom activities that build off of themes or situations in the novel; and writing prompts that allow students to explore their own responses to Kwok's novel. Click the orange tabs above to navigate through this toolkit.
Girl in Translation speaks to many topics that are of pressing concern to students and teachers today. These include immigrant rights, workplace exploitation, and urban poverty; race, culture, and identity formation; and the challenges faced by immigrant youth in school and family and peer relations. The novel can be used to anchor curriculum units in literature and social studies that pertain to immigration history, Asian American experiences, U. S. History post-1945, economic justice, and urban studies.
About the Novel
Girl in Translation is steeped in the life experiences of Chinese newcomers to the United States. The immediate context for Kwok's tale is the wave of Chinese immigration that began in the 1980s, with New York and California its two primary destinations. Brooklyn, for example, where the novel's protagonist Kim settles with her mother, saw an almost four-fold increase of Chinese-born residents from 1980 to 1990. You can learn more about this recent history using some of the titles and links you'll find here in our toolkit.
Kwok's story is just one chapter in the two-century history of Chinese immigration to the United States, a history characterized by marginalization and exclusion as well as resilience and success. Kim and her mother joined a tradition of Chinese men, women, and children whose labor under difficult conditions helped construct the country, from the railroad and canal laborers of the 19th century to the sweatshop workers featured in Kwok's book. As seen in the novel, linguistic and cultural barriers, poverty, and racism have frequently relegated Chinese immigrants to work and residence in marginal or segregated areas. Though Kim and her mother were fortunate to obtain legal entry into the U.S., illegal status has also been a factor contributing to the marginalization of Chinese newcomers.
Kwok's novel is also a tale of resilience and survival, a coming-of-age story that updates the struggle for the American dream for a new generation. In this sense, her determined heroine Kim fits into a long line of American protagonists, from Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass to Jeanette Walls in our own time. For Kwok, as for others, education has been the key to mobility, access, and self-awareness. Students who read the book are likely to engage with the many related questions it raises: what is success in American society? What makes it possible for one person or family to overcome adversity while another sinks under its weight? Students may also relate to the school themes in the novel, most notably, what makes a school or peer group supportive of differences, and when are schools or classrooms hostile to students who in some way fail to conform? Readers of all ages will be drawn into Kim's struggles and the tough choices that life requires her to make.
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