America, Baby

by Marinka on June 22, 2010

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.

One year ago ...

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

christy June 22, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I certainly hope you really don’t let this stop you – your book will be a huge hit! I can’t wait to read it. (and I might pick up the book you mentioned too.) Poison curls made me laugh. And this entire post made me smile. Your humor posts may be what makes you famous, but stuff like this is my fave.


Sophie@Fabrications June 22, 2010 at 3:27 pm

“It’s not snobbery. It’s otherness.”
I really like that. It says a lot.


Tiffany June 22, 2010 at 3:29 pm

‘it’s not snobbery. it’s otherness.’–such a simple yet near perfect explanation.

sometimes while reading i’ll feel like the author somehow hacked into my computer and stole my novel and scored an agent before i did. if only we’d split the profit, i might be okay with it.


Karen at French Skinny June 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I love this story. And I can’t wait to read your book. You are amazing.


ingrid June 22, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I was in a writing group here in A’dam with Jean. I heard bits of the story in its genesis over a couple of years, but haven’t read her book yet. The early renderings were amazing, so now I have to read it!


Jean Kwok June 23, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Thanks for this, Ingrid! Best of luck with your own writing too!

Jean Kwok


ingrid June 23, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I am phenomenally happy for you. 🙂 I grin every time I think of your fantastic and now recognized talent.


Awesome dude June 22, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Not only you was charmed.


Erin I'm Gonna Kill Him
June 22, 2010 at 11:01 pm

As a person who spent too many weekends in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, I loved this post. I love immigration stories. And I love your use of ‘otherness.’

Your sense of humor has far surpassed that of most native speakers:)


June 23, 2010 at 12:16 am

I loved the italicized misunderstood English words, too! I’m sure your book will add even more to the conversation and look forward to it!


dusty earth mother June 23, 2010 at 6:29 am

Don’t let it go, Marinka! EVERYBODY knows that Russia is much more interesting than China. (Sorry, Jean Kwok.) You are a superb writer and I always want to know more about you. Poison curls.


June 23, 2010 at 7:58 am

Best piece I’ve read in weeks. Although I’m not an immigrant, I sometimes get chills up my spine when I hear America spoken too. I’d read your book in a heartbeat.


Pamela June 23, 2010 at 8:43 am

Sophie above, she totally stole part of what I was going to say. I suppose I too could plagiarize! But I really do love that line…

As an American by default, I take it for granted, what life has dealt to me. By reading and “reviewing” this book myself, I see how spoiled most of us are. I enjoyed reading your post and hope you are going to continue on with the SV Moms Group Book Club…. you’re very inspiring!


June 23, 2010 at 8:48 am

And then I can take healthy portions of YOUR book to make my book about immigrating from North Dakota to Nevada more exciting.


The gold digger June 23, 2010 at 9:35 am

I am American, but I grew up abroad on military bases in countries that had dictators (Franco in Spain, Torrijos in Panama). I also worked for two years in post-Pinochet Chile. I just about kiss the ground every time I return home after a trip overseas.

We moved to Spain when I was five and lived in Madrid for a few months until we got base housing. I played with a Spanish girl in our building. She didn’t speak English; I didn’t speak Spanish (but we both spoke Barbie). When she told me to ven aqui (come here), I went to the door looking at the lock, trying to figure out what she was talking about.


Sharon June 23, 2010 at 9:49 am

I wonder if your charmed immigration experience is the exception or the norm for most immigrants. Possibly it was charmed because you were a child?


June 23, 2010 at 11:03 am

is it possible always to feel “other” even when you have been born and raised in a country? i remember in junior high feeling like i had missed a memo (or a hundred) about what to wear, who to be friends with and how to act (and dance at the dances). i often still feel that way. and nothing compares to the sense of triumph i feel when i get it “right” (e.g. wearing an outfit similar to everyone else’s).


June 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I ADORED this book. I’m just mad at myself for dragging my feet on the last chapter in mine, b/c she has now told my story.

Loved this book, cover to cover.

I’m sad to see SV moms groups disappear, too, they provided so many opportunities for writers.

Followed you over from comments on the book review today at SV moms.


June 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Lovely… Another immigration store i really liked !! 😀


Jean Kwok June 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Hi Marinka,
This is a wonderful post and thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’re so right that the immigration experience is universal. I’m sure your book will be wonderful — and watch out for those plagiarizing authors! ; )
Jean Kwok


June 24, 2010 at 12:23 am

LOVED the italicized misunderstandings. What a kick I got out of many of those. This book totally opened my eyes. So glad to have read it to learn about experiences that immigrants may have.


Steph June 25, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I want to read this book I just haven’t gotten to the point where I will try re-entering the library with my 3 y/o.

I am fascinated with immigration stories so I for one will DEFINITELY read your book too!!


Kate Coveny Hood
June 26, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I still look forward to reading your book. Even if some elements to immigrant stories overlap (and are sometimes universal), how could anything YOU write not be original? I’ll have to check out Jean Kwok’s book in the meantime – it does sound like a good one.


Colleen (Books in the City) June 27, 2010 at 7:42 am

“Otherness” is the perfect word to describe the immigrant experience. Great post – thanks for sharing it!


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