- Kimberly Chang – A Chinese Immigrant and the protagonist of the novel. When Kim is eleven, her and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to live in New York City. Kimberly was always top of her class back in Hong Kong, but after the move to America, she greatly struggled in school for many years conforming to American customs and not speaking English fluently. Through hard work, she eventually earns a full scholarship to a private school, then to Yale University. Kim quickly becomes the head of the household because her mother cannot navigate English-speaking America. Every morning and early afternoon Kimberly spends at school, and every late afternoon/evening working in the factory with her mother.
- Ma – Kimberly's mother who back in Hong Kong used to be a a music teacher, but now works in a garment factory in New York. Ma is a widow, which now makes her reliant on her sister Paula to help her immigrate to America. She strongly holds to the Chinese belief in the importance in repaying one's debts. Ma never learns much English, and believes that her daughter's education is the only way they'll escape poverty. Ma brings her violin to America, but rarely plays it because she is either too cold, or too tired. Ma makes a lot of Kimberly's clothes because they can't afford to go and buy some.
- Matt Wu – Kimberly's only real friend at the factory. In the beginning, he works with his mother and younger brother at the thread-cutting station, but eventually moves up to the steamer station. Matt begins to cut class in order to work a second job as a delivery boy to help his family make ends meets. It's very obvious that Matt and Kim secretly like each other, but Matt ultimately decides Kim is too good for him, thus beginning to date Vivian. Matt is a naturally charming teenager, and is easily able to make friends wherever he goes.
- Annette – Kimberly's first and only friend at school. She is a very pale-skinned girl, which Kimberly finds fascinating. Before Kimberly was fluent in English, Annette would help her by writing Kim's Chinese answers into English for her. Annette is the opposite of Kimberly in some aspects. She is very well off, living in a large house with a housekeeper. Annette is very curious of Kim's lifestyle, and doesn't seem to believe her when Kim says she works in a factory. When the girls grow up and enter high school, Annette becomes very politically aware, protesting for social issues and even considering herself to be a communist. She doesn't learn of Kimberly's poverty until senior year and while she feels betrayed, she wonders why Kimberly never asked for any help.
- Aunt Paula – Ma's sister and Kimberly's aunt. She is the antagonist of the story, who sponsors Kimberly and her mother's immigration fees. She rents them an illegal and completely run down apartment and creates a job at the garment factory for Ma. She consistently abuses her power by threatening to evict or fire Ma if Ma and Kimberly don't follow her bizarre wishes. Keeping the Changs in poverty helps her keep her power. Aunt Paula takes offense to Kimberly's education intelligence, and is embarrassed by the fact that Kimberly is a better student than her own son. She does eventually feel some remorse for her actions, but the Changs cut ties anyway.
- Curt – The only boy at the private high school that Kim seriously dates. At first he would bully Kim, but things changed when she began to tutor him to help get his grades up. Curt spends a lot of his time carving wood sculptures in the art room, which is where most of the tutoring sessions take place. Curt doesn't know what its like to live poor, and is quite ignorant and rude when talking about lower class people. He is unable to recognize how privileged he is, which is why Kimberly knows the relationship will go nowhere.
- Vivian – Matt Wu's girlfriend and later, wife. Kimberly is very envious and jealous of Vivian not only because of her good looks and charming personality, but because Vivian is dating the man she loves.
- Mr. Bogart – Kimberly's very first teacher on her first day of school. His teaching methods make it hard for Kimberly to succeed in class, for example taking away points for correctly solving math problems in ways that aren't exactly how he taught it. He assigns many homework projects that require a vast amount of supplies to complete to do well on, and Kimberly cannot afford them. To top it off, Mr. Bogart is extremely sexist, and doesn't believe his students are capable of succeeding in math or science.
- Dr. Weston – Guidance counselor at Harrison Prep who holds Kimberly's school interviews. She is obviously not used to working with lower class students, as her school is very prestigious. While she is very impressed with Kimberly, not only because she is smart but because she had the courage to come to a school interview without her mother, Kim's behavior made it very clear that she is still a young girl. Dr. Weston ends up giving her a full scholarship and eventually helps her apply to Yale.
- Jason – Kimberly and Matt's son. Matt does not know he exists, and Jason knows nothing about Matt even though he looks just like him. Jason can fluently speak both English and Chinese.
- Uncle Bob – Aunt Paula's husband. He's a wealthy Chinese immigrant who traveled to Hong Kong to find a wife, which Kimberly finds out is because he is barely disabled and needs someone to look after himself and his assets. Uncle Bob owns the garment factory where Ma spends her days working.
- Mr. Al – Black man who lives on the same street as the Changs. He owns a shop and apartment complex and is very interested by Chinese culture. He learns some words and phrases in Chinese from Kimberly and repays her for this by advocating for them at the grocery store.
- Pa – Kimberly's father and Ma's husband. He died of a heart attack when Kim was three and his character never actually appears in the novel, but is spoken about a lot. Kimberly constantly imagines life with her father, and wishes he were around to help out.
- Immigrant Experience – While the novel touches on both Kimberly and Ma's challenges being a Chinese immigrant, Kimberly's trails and tribulations are the core focus. Kimberly learns throughout the novel that being foreign entails rejecting many of the conventions surrounding how to be a young woman and relearning new ways to make her successful in school. Ma's immigrant experience makes her cling to Chinese language and customs as a justification for the difficulty of being an immigrant. For both, the immigrant experience is equally isolating.
- Both Ma and Kim need to learn a new language. Kim struggles with the fact that back in Hong Kong, she was alwasy #1 in her class every year, but in America, however, her inability to understand English makes it really difficult for her to get even decent grades during her first few years in school. Ma on the other hand, never even learns english. Phrases like "please," "thank you," and "I'm sorry" are the only ones she really knows. This could be to the fact that every minute of each day she spends around Chinese Immigrants in the factory.
- Kim also pays a social price for being an immigrant. Because she doesn't speak fluent English when she first comes to America, the slang, social norms, and etiquette are things that she cant quite grasp. The biggest shock to Kim was the idea that "know-it-all" is an insult in America, where as in Hong Kong, it's what you strive to be.
- Kimberly struggles with keeping a majority of her life secret from her friends. Knowing that it is illegal for children to work, she must conceal the fact that after school she spends each night working in the sweatshop in Chinatown to help her Ma get by. Kim knows that middle-class white students would never understand what it is like to be a financially struggling immigrant.
- Family and Sacrifice – Ma and Kim are all each other have for the majority of the novel. Because of the many obstacles faced, both women are forced to make sacrifices to make life easier in New York City. The novel surrounds itself with the idea that sacrifices are directly related to different Chinese customs that Ma strongly believes in.
- Ma strongly believes in the idea of repaying debt. This isn't only related to money, but also actions. Because Aunt Paula helped get Ma and Kimberly to the United States, Ma's indebtedness is magnified because they are family.
- Kimberly also sacrifices her own education and sleep for her family. After spending all day at school, she rushes over to the factory to help her mother until late at night. Because of this, she is forced to stay up all night to accomplish her homework, thus getting no sleep at night.
- Kimberly makes a huge sacrifice at the end of the novel by decided to go through with her pregnancy and breaking up with Matt so he could live a better life. Kim knows that while she and Matt were both able to live some version of the life they always wanted, it didn't come without sacrifice.
- Education vs. Work – Ma and Kim work in Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob's garment factory in Chinatown. The labor is intense and low-paying, and most nights they spend at the factory really late. Kim understands that this isn't right, and learns that education has the power to change the fate of her family.
- As Kimberly begins to make friends in the factory and at school, Ma reminds her that she cannot get too close. Kimberly doesn't have the time for friends, as school work is too important for their future. Also, by getting too close to the factory workers, Ma believes nothing will set Kim apart from them, and she will grow up and work in sweatshops too.
- Because of the Poor payment system at the factory, it is imperative that parents bring their young children along to work to make ends meet. The only way to end this, is to get a great education, which is only possible for the family through scholarships. Kimberly works hard, this getting her a full scholarship to the most prestigious high school in New York, while Aunt Paula's son doesn't. This makes Aunt Paula angry, and in turn, Ma faces the repercussions.
- Soon into the novel, Matt is the only member of his family that is able to work. He begins to skip school so he can get a second job to make ends meet. He knows his education will get him nowhere, and ends up dropping out of school all together to work as many jobs as he can to provide for his family.
- Poverty – The Changs are able to immigrate to the United States because of Aunt Paula. Throughout the novel, Kimberly and Ma try to navigate their new world with extremely limited resources, which provides much shame to the family.
- Because Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob helped sponsor the Changs to the United States, paid for Ma's tuberculosis treatment, found them an apartment, and got Ma a job, may feels immense pressure to repay her debts. After setting aside all the money to be used for repayment, Ma ends up making around two dollars an hour.
- Kim spends the majority of the novel hiding her poverty from her peers. Her poverty is very visible, however. Because Ma cannot afford to buy clothing, she is forced to make bras, underwear, shirts, and skirts for Kimberly to wear to school. This causes bullying and deep shame and embarrassment to Kimberly.
- Ma and Kim live in an illegal, rundown, heatless, and roach infested apartment. They open windows during the summer, and open the oven for heat during the winter. They ravage dumpsters to find anything they can to keep them warm at night, and Ma and Kim both share one mattress in the middle of the floor for years.
- Independence – Kimberly is eleven years old when she comes to America, and is basically forced to have to become independent and the woman of the house. This robs Kim of a childhood, which makes her rebel as a teenager.
- Kimberly used to help her mom of simple tasks in Hong Kong, but in America, Ma needs Kim's help in almost every aspect of life. Kim performs work of an adult employee at a young age, and the factory is not child safe.
- Because Ma spends all her days at the factory, Kimberly is forced to take her education into her own hands. She travels to school alone, and also takes herself to the Harrison Prep interview and school tour, which shocks Dr. Weston. She begins to forge Ma's signature on assignments, lying about report cards, and excluding her from school meetings. Kim's principle is the only person to realize that Kim is genuinely on her own.
- Kimberly is the only one who can understand English in her house, which makes her the only one who can represent them. She is responsible for filling out tax returns, shopping, and anything else that would require understanding English.
Aunt Paula showed us al her furniture and a closet full of linens but what impressed me the most was the hot water that came out of the taps. I'd never seen such a thing. In Hong Kong, the water was rationed. It was always cold and had to be boiled to make it drinkable. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 9
I didn't see any other Chinese people on the street, only blacks and a very few whites. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 15
I suspected that most of the other kids were at the factory for the same reasons I was. They weren't officially employed by the factory, but there was no place else for them to go, and their parents needed their help. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 35
"I'm sorry I brought you to this place," she whispered. It was the closest Ma would ever come to expressing regret at her choice to come to America. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 50
Cooties were the only thing that transcended racial lines. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 59
We were paid 1.5 cents per skirt. For years, I calculated whether or not something was expensive by how many skirts it cost. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 61
I was beginning to see the importance Americans put on a kind of general athleticism, which was new to me. Back home, a student was praised if she did well in her classes at school, but for these kids, good grades were not enough. They were also expected to play sports and an instrument, and have straight teeth as well. I too would be expected to become attractive and well rounded. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 132
Our living conditions didn't change but with time, i stopped allowing myself to be conscious of my own happiness. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 163
Harrison kids looked at me with mingled respect and jealousy, but not with what i longed for, which was friendship… I wanted to be a part of things, bit I didn't know how. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 207
I was not beautiful and i was not funny, nor was I a good buddy or a particularly good listener. I was none of the things that girls think they need to be for boys to love them. ― Girl in Translation, pg. 213
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Taylor Vaca ’19