An iteration of a quintessential American myth—immigrants come to America and experience economic exploitation and the seamy side of urban life, but education and pluck ultimately lead to success.
Twelve-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong and feel lucky to get out before the transfer to the Chinese. Because Mrs. Chang’s older sister owns a garment factory in Brooklyn, she offers Kimberly’s mother—and even Kimberly—a “good job” bagging skirts as well as a place to live in a nearby apartment. Of course, both of these “gifts” turn out to be exploitative, for to make ends meet Mrs. Chang winds up working 12-hour–plus days in the factory. Kimberly joins her after school hours in this hot and exhausting labor, and the apartment is teeming with roaches. In addition, the start to Kimberly’s sixth-grade year is far from prepossessing, for she’s shy and speaks almost no English, but she turns out to be a whiz at math and science. The following year she earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Her academic gifts are so far beyond those of her fellow students that eventually she’s given a special oral exam to make sure she’s not cheating. (She’s not.) Playing out against the background of Kimberly’s fairly predictable school success (she winds up going to Yale on full scholarship and then to Harvard medical school) are the stages of her development, which include interactions with Matt, her hunky Chinese-American boyfriend, who works at the factory, drops out of school and wants to provide for her; Curt, her hunky Anglo boyfriend, who’s dumb but sweet; and Annette, her loyal friend from the time they’re in sixth grade. Throughout the stress of adolescence, Kimberly must also negotiate the tension between her mother’s embarrassing old-world ways and the allurement of American culture.
A straightforward and pleasant, if somewhat predictable narrative, marred in part by an ending that too blatantly tugs at the heartstrings.