Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling author of the award-winning novels Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in 18 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. She has been selected for many honors including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers. Jean’s writing has been featured in Time, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, People, Real Simple and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others.
Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood while living in an unheated, roach-infested apartment. In between her undergraduate degree at Harvard and MFA in fiction at Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and three cats, and is working on her next novel. A Dutch television documentary with English subtitles was filmed about Jean and her work.
Hello Kimberly! It’s lovely to finally meet you! How are you?
If you could shapeshift into any animal, what animal would you choose?
Kimberly: A phoenix. I’d soar into the sky, free and powerful, and burn to ash before being reborn – stronger than ever.
What does your perfect free day look like?
Kimberly: I love this question. We never have any free days. Ma and I work seven days a week. Even when we’re not at the factory, Ma brings home bags of clothing to work on. I see her every night, falling asleep as she works, then jerking herself awake again to keep working. She often sits by the open oven, which we leave on day and night, because we don’t have any central heating in our roach-infested apartment. There’s ice on the inside of our windows all winter long.
I would love to have a day where Ma and I could go shopping. Not for anything useful, just for fun. I’d take her out to a lovely breakfast, maybe at a diner so I could introduce her to American dishes like pancakes and waffles. Ma’s never used anything but chopsticks so the cutlery might be an issue but we’d laugh about it. Then we could wander through stores and try on pretty dresses and perfume.
If you could experience any day of your life again, which day would you choose?
Kimberly: That day when Matt, the cute boy from the factory, took Ma and me sightseeing was pretty magical. Riding the Staten Island Ferry, seeing the Liberty Goddess in real life – my breath caught in my throat. And then we were in the music store and people were eyeing us like we didn’t belong, but Ma, in her plain clothing, sat down at the piano and started to play. It was so beautiful, I think everyone had tears in their eyes. Matt’s golden eyes, his smile. That’s a day I’ll never forget.
What kind of hobbies do you have? What calms you down when you’re stressed?
Kimberly: I don’t have time for any hobbies. I wish I could take dance lessons like the other girls but there’s no time or money. When I’m stressed, I close my eyes, take deep breaths, and I think about how fortunate I am, to have people in my life who love me and to be able to love them back. I have a healthy body that can work hard, I have a mind that functions well, and the freedom to use them. I’m so grateful to the goddess Kuan Yin for giving me these things.
What makes you happy?
Kimberly: Working my hardest to utilize my talents to their fullest extent. Of course, I enjoy being lazy too but I’ve found that the deepest happiness comes from doing my absolute best with what I’ve been given – there is no greater satisfaction than that.
Thank you so much for participating Jean!