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Girl in Translation [Jean Kwok '90]

“I can say that in many ways, PBHA was the beginning of who I grew up to become. It went beyond social work. It helped me grow up. I learned important skills: negotiation, bluffing, tact, organization, budgeting, confidence, compassion.”

The youngest of seven children and a girl at that, I was a dreamy, impractical child who ran wild through the sunlit streets of Hong Kong. No one was more astonished than my family when I turned out to be not quite as dumb as they’d thought.

We moved to New York City when I was five and my only gift, my talent for school, was taken from me. I did not understand a word of English. We lost all our money in the move to the United States. My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown. My father took me there every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust. Our apartment swarmed with insects and rats. In the winter, we kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other heat in the apartment. As I slowly learned English my talent for school re-emerged.

When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I was tested by a number of exclusive private schools and won scholarships to all of them. However, I’d also been accepted by Hunter College High School, a public high school for the intellectually gifted, and that was where I wanted to go. However, I still knew that if I didn’t get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn’t be able to go to college at all. Although I loved English, I didn’t think it was a practical choice and devoted myself to science instead. After the poverty I’d lived through, the last thing I wanted was to become a writer. I wanted a financially stable career.

I was accepted early to Harvard and I’d done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore in physics. I put myself through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so: washing dishes in the dining hall, cleaning rooms, reading to the blind and teaching English. However, the work that changed me more than anything was my involvement with PBHA.

I started as a counselor for Chinatown Adventure in the first year it was founded. After that summer, I was made director. The program was still new and we needed a new location, we needed a much bigger budget, we needed vans, we needed kids. I was only nineteen and visited corporations to convince them to give us money, making sure to wear my glasses, which I didn’t need, so that I would look older. I gave speeches. I convinced Chinese immigrant parents to trust us with their kids, not an easy feat. I hired some kick-butt counselors, who wound up inspiring me as well as the kids. Most importantly of all, I loved and cared about those kids.

I can say that in many ways, PBHA was the beginning of who I grew up to become. It went beyond social work. It helped me grow up. I learned important skills: negotiation, bluffing, tact, organization, budgeting, confidence, compassion. At the same time I was working at PBHA, I realized that I could and should follow my true calling, writing, and switched into English and American literature.

After college, I dared to leave the safer path and set off to become a writer. I hoped I could show someone in a situation similar to mine a flicker of light in the darkness. My debut novel Girl in Translation became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 17 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, an Orange New Writers Book, among many other honors. Many schools and universities have integrated the book into their curricula. It is about an immigrant Chinese girl who works at a sweatshop in Chinatown while attending an exclusive private school.

When readers write me to tell me how they’ve learned from this story, or how their own lives were so hard as well, and that they feel inspired by my book, then I dare to hope that I may be giving something back. And that all started at PBHA.

Jean Kwok ’90

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