Yesterday, bestselling author Jean Kwok visited ISA for a meet and greet session with grades 10, 11 and 12. It was a wonderful opportunity for a few of the ISA Upper School students, some of whom are studying Jean’s internationally successful novel Girl in Translation as part of their English B course, to ask in-depth questions about the book and the author’s life.
As a follow up to the formal meet and greet sessions, four students were given the opportunity to attend a small, intimate lunch with Jean as a reward for their hard work and to ask her questions about her twin passions–writing and dancing. Having all danced from a young age, three of the students discovered that Jean shared their passion and gained insight from her about the competitive nature of professional ballroom dancing.
For most ISA students, Jean is a highly relatable figure. A Chinese immigrant to the US at the age of five, Jean left behind everything she knew at home and arrived into a whole new world, with an alien language and culture. Not only did the students have a chance to learn more for their coursework, but they also received some powerful and inspiring life advice from Jean.
Jean began by telling the story of her own life and the extent to which Girl in Translation is based on reality. She discussed her experience as an impoverished immigrant in the US, where her entire family worked in a clothing factory for as little as 1c per piece of clothing they produced. She described feeling ‘all wrong’, with her handmade clothes and short hair, which left her feeling isolated and an outsider to American culture. This is reflected in her protagonist Kim’s own feelings in the novel.
The picture of squalor Jean paints in her book, including the apartment ‘from hell’, filled with roaches and rats, where Kim and her mother have to ‘seal the windows in the kitchen with garbage bags’ for ‘a bit more protection from the elements’ is absolutely true to life, Jean explained.
Before meeting Jean, it might have been easy for the students to dismiss Jean’s experiences as unique or rare, or to argue that times have changed since her childhood. However, with an estimated 170 million children across the globe still engaged in child labour, with many of these employed in the clothing supply chain, Jean’s emphasis that ‘this can and does happen’ certainly remains pertinent today. She explained that her work is for people without a voice; for the working-class people who don’t have their stories told.
What was really striking about Jean’s talk was her passion and enthusiasm, not just for writing, but also simply for life. Jean argued that while hard work itself is not fun, the deepest happiness comes from the knowledge that you are fulfilling what you were meant to do, to the best that you can do it. Everybody fails at things, she said, but success comes from resilience; successful people are the ones who get back up again. Her most powerful advice to the students: you’re the only one who can give up on yourself.
To find out more about Jean, you can visit her website: http://www.jeankwok.com/
Written by Megan Amelia