Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok is the award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling author of three novels. Her work has been published in twenty countries. Jean Kwok has a BA in English from Harvard University and an MFA in fiction from Columbia. Her bestsellers are Girl in Translation, Mambo in Chinatown and Searching for Sylvie Lee.

Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to New York City at the age of 5 and worked in a clothing factory in Chinatown as a child. Her family lived in an unheated apartment in Queens infested with cockroaches. She fell in love with a Dutch psychologist and moved to the Netherlands, where they now have two sons. Jean Kwok speaks English, Dutch and Chinese and she knows how it is to be American, Dutch and Chinese. The interviewer Miki was curious whether Jean ever dreamed of becoming who she is now? How did she experience and escape poverty? How does Jean interpret success, love and being an immigrant? What does social pressure mean to her family and her choices in life? How does she see the role of woman?

Your debut novel, Girl in Translation, is about how a young Chinese immigrant girl coming from a poor Hong Kong family overcomes great hardship to emerge as a strong person. Her drive for academic excellence leads her to a "successful" life. What does success mean to her and to you?

I emigrated to the United States when I was 5 years old. We lived in an unheated apartment infested with roaches and rats. The whole family, including me, started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown right away. I was the youngest of seven children. I realized at an early stage that working in the factory until I turned eighty-five was not what I wanted. My English improved gradually and I started to realize that doing well in school would be the only way out for me. I did not want to follow the route my family planned for me, which was either to work in the factory for my entire life or to find a husband and be a good wife to him. I decided I would go to Harvard instead.

The definition of success is greatly determined by one’s culture. Often, we have to pay the price of success. I realized I’m also different from many writer friends who I met after my debut was published. For many of them, becoming an author was a natural choice thanks to their family support. They often found their passion and talent for writing at an early age. I never dreamed of becoming a writer until I was at university.

In your new novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee (De Perfecte Zus in Dutch), you touched upon the subtle and deep love that Sylvie’s parents feel for her. The novel is about the beautiful and dazzling older sister Sylvie who disappears on a visit to the Netherlands and her shy, stuttering younger sister Amy who must follow in her footsteps to try to figure out what had happened to her. As a Chinese American and a Dutch resident, you have witnessed what family love means. What are your thoughts on this?

Jean grad

The way traditional Chinese parents express their love can be quite different from the Dutch or Americans. My parents’ love was not shown by words or body language. They showed that they cared about me by always being ready to help me or by giving me food.

Both Americans and the Dutch are warm and expressive. The Dutch greet and kiss each other three times on the cheeks. My mom and I never kissed nor did we hug each other. The one time I said “I love you” to my mom, she felt very uncomfortable and became very shy.

In your new book, Searching for Sylvie Lee (De Perfecte Zus), Amy landed in Schiphol and was a bit in shock when she saw tall Dutch women who wore little makeup. What are your views on being feminine and the role of women in family and society?

In general, Dutch women are confident and are highly emancipated. They don’t tend to fuss too much with their hair or makeup. I really appreciate this relaxed way of being a woman after living here for years.

The Netherlands is a high-trust society that is generally safe and open. My two sons are not pressured to achieve top scores at school. This mentality is not something I grew up with but I have adjusted to it. I learned throughout the years also from other Dutch mothers to give more freedom to my kids. It is important for them to be independent and to find out who they are. When I was small, my mom taught me that I would not be able to find a husband because I was not good at household tasks. I am happy that my husband, a Dutch man, shares household tasks with me and respects who I am.

You use your pen to sketch the world you see and to inspire your readers. Themes such as race, immigrant rights, urban poverty etc. are also explored in your books. As an American, Dutch and Chinese author, you are an inspiration for many of us. Do you have any wishes for Asians growing up in the Netherlands?

That’s very kind of you to say. Sometimes it is hard to me to understand that certain things still take place in the Netherlands. (refer to the song from Radio 10) Hanky Panky Shanghai was sung to my sons many times when they were small. I was aware that often the kids and the teachers who sang it did not have any bad intentions and didn’t realize that it could be hurtful.

I hope to see more Asians speak for themselves, to be better represented in the media, in the politics and in the society.

Not in our catalogue: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kinston

Note from Jean to Miki: Maxine Hong Kingston and Celeste Ng are Chinese American. Min Jin Lee is Korean American.

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