Jean Kwok is the author of Girl in Translation (my review here) and I was thrilled to have invited her to write a guest post on my blog through the help of her publicist (Thanks, Erin!). Without further ado, please join me in welcoming Jean to Melody's Reading Corner and I hope you enjoy reading the post as much as I did!

Photo credit: Hielco Kuipers

One of my earliest memories is of riding on the back of my brother’s tricycle in Hong Kong. We were speeding along and I was urging him to go faster and faster when we crashed into a fruit stand. Mangos, lichee nuts and star fruit flew everywhere. One of our servants found us and dragged us home to our parents, after paying for the fruit peddler’s losses. Not long after that, my entire family would move to New York City. I never imagined how much my life would change.

I was five years old at the time, younger than my heroine Kimberly Chang in my novel Girl in Translation, and I did not understand a word of English. Like Kimberly and her mother, we lost 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, and in the winter we, like the characters in my novel, kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other source of heat.

Fortunately, like my heroine Kimberly, I also had a talent for school. As I slowly learned English, I started doing better in my studies, even though I was still working at the factory with almost all of my free time. Most of my homework was done on the subway, traveling to and from the factory. Years later, I was accepted to Harvard and it was there that I made the decision to risk following my true calling, writing. I paid my own way through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so. I graduated with honors, then started trying to be a writer.

At that point, I was already quite surprised at how far my life had taken me from first Hong Kong and then my childhood in the Chinatown clothing factory, but life had a few more twists waiting for me. I fell in love with a Dutch guy. He was studying to be a clinical psychologist and his main possession was his second-hand bicycle. When I visited him in Leiden, the Dutch town where he was studying, he took me on tours of the city. I would balance on the tiny luggage rack of his bike while he peddled us through the cobblestone streets. As we bounced along, he would wave his arms around and say, “This wall is very old. And this house, it is also very old.” At least that’s what I remember of his tours. Somehow I was charmed enough by him (and his accent) to move to Holland after finishing my MFA in Fiction at Columbia.

I didn’t think of it as a permanent move. We were trying things out, I thought, and since I was a teacher and a writer and he was a psychologist whose degrees weren’t valid in the United States, it made more sense for me to go to Holland first.

The first thing I noticed about Holland were the bicycles. They are everywhere and if you don’t look both ways before stepping onto the street, you are likely to be run over by one. Lawyers in suits ride on bikes with their briefcases strapped to the back. Mothers balance one child in front and one behind. People haul their groceries, pets, and walking aids on their bikes, while eating an apple and chatting on their cell phones at the same time. During the Christmas season, I saw bicycles whizzing by where the riders were holding their trees under their arms or balanced on their shoulders. Since the Dutch often start biking without side wheels at the age of four and then spend the rest of their lives on the bike after that, they can do anything on a bicycle without breaking a sweat.

Unfortunately, that means they tend to assume that my biking skills are just as good as theirs, which is not true. I first realized this when I was riding my own little bike to my new job teaching English at Leiden University. My building was located on the banks of the lovely Rapenberg canal. I went past a group of students who were relaxing outside their house, and as I passed them, one enormous male threw himself onto the luggage rack of my bike. This idiot and I wobbled for a split second and then crashed into a tree. Thank goodness because if we hadn’t hit the tree, we would have gone right into the canal. In Europe, unlike America, they don’t tend to protect you from your own stupidity so there was no guardrail. If you kill yourself by riding into the water, well, that’s too bad for you.

As we lay there in a tangle of limbs and twisted bicycle parts, I glared at this hulking guy. He was over a foot taller than me, and must have weighed twice what I did. “What were you thinking?” I demanded.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, red-faced. “I wanted to come along.”

After I managed to close my mouth that had dropped open in astonishment, collected my bike and the shreds of my dignity, and stalked off, I realized that I had unwillingly participated in a Dutch courting ritual. You see a likely-looking candidate biking by, you hurl yourself onto their luggage rack, and the two of you ride happily into the sunset. A Dutch girl would have kept her balance, and probably been able to wink at him at the same time.

Now, years later, I too carry our kids and groceries and cats in my own bike – but mine has three wheels. The factory I worked in as a child is still as vivid as ever in my memories but my life is now quite far from that reality. My trying-out of Holland has turned into a second immigration experience. My debut novel’s been published in 15 countries and translated into 13 languages, and when my husband and I drive somewhere in our car, he waves his arms around and says, “This is old, very old.”

Jean's website / Facebook

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5 Responses
  1. Jean Kwok Says:

    Melody, thank you so much for the insightful review and asking me to write this post for you! I really enjoyed it and have linked to this on my Facebook fan page:

    All my best,

  2. Melody Says:

    Jean, thank you so much and I really appreciate your time and efforts in writing this guest post for my blog! And thanks for letting me know that you've linked this post to your Facebook fan page. :)

  3. Came here from FB - any chance to read Ms. Kwok's stories is a joy I will not miss. Love the bike-courting-ritual.... I'd have been in the canal for sure!

  4. The Bookworm Says:

    awww....nice post by Jean! Girl in Translation sounds like a great read.

  5. Violet Says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and the authors experiences. It makes me want to read the book too...

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