Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate to New York at some not quite determined time prior to 1997, before China would regain control of Hong Kong. Even though her mother's older sister has already lived in the US for several years and helped them with all the paperwork, they do not face an easy road. In fact, Aunt Paula takes advantage of their family relationship, putting her younger sister to work in her sweat shop, barely paying her because she has to pay off her debt. She finds them an apartment in a condemned building with no heat, and broken windows. Despite the presence of family, the two Changs are basically on their own, Kim's father having died years before.
Though she had always been a top student at home, Kim struggles with English, and has a hard time in school. It doesn't help that her teacher seems to be burnt out on the whole process and has no interest in putting in any extra work with his students. However, Kim makes one friend at the school, which helps her develop her English. When she isn't at school, she is at the factory with her mom because without Kim's help, there is no way she could keep up with her quota. The Changs are not the only family that have to work together at the sweat shop to make ends meet, and Kim becomes friendly with one of the boys, Matt.
Fortunately, Kim's skills in math translate even in English, and she quickly uses this to get better opportunities and attend a better school. The novel documents her struggle to fit in at a school with privileged children and keep up with the course load while also basically working a full time job. While I think the novel did a good job of describing the difficult life Kim and her mother faced, and the conditions they lived and worked in, in some ways, it seemed like Kim overcame all her obstacles more easily than seemed reasonable. Despite the fact that she barely has time to sleep between all her obligations, at no point does Kim crash or seem to have any struggles staying awake. She worked hard, so it's not as if she didn't earn it, and yet, it seemed impossible for her to actually balance everything. Still, once everything in her life seems on track, she has a few more problems thrown her way.
While it's not a perfect novel, I quite enjoyed it, and thought the comparisons between Kim's situation and the lives of her classmates were well drawn. I think maybe I'm just being a bit nit picky with my complaints as well because the novel does really attempt to show their struggles, and points out instances when Kim gets lucky opportunities. Overall, I'd definitely recommend it, and I wished I'd actually picked it up earlier. I think one reason I kept holding off is because I felt like I would easily be able to predict the entire storyline and ending. While in some ways this was the case, Kwok drew such a detailed picture of poverty and the sweat shops that this more than made up for any reoccurring themes from other immigrant stories.