|Author Jean Kwok and Jenee aka Cocoa Fly at Book Passages in San Francisco|
Receiving a tweet from an author you admire is cool. Meeting that author in person, who also remembers your Twitter handle, is even cooler.
I recently met New York Times Bestselling author Jean Kwok at Book Passage in San Francisco. The Bay Area was the last stop on her book tour to promote her latest novel Mambo in Chinatown. It’s about a young, Chinese woman named Charlie Wong. She’s a dishwasher turned ballroom-dance studio receptionist. Ballroom dancing appeals to her and she learns the art. But she keeps it a secret from her father who wouldn’t approve of her exposure to this western dance. As she gets more immersed in the dance world, her sister becomes seriously ill.
Jean Kwok hooked me with her first novel, Girl in Translation. That book is about a Chinese girl who immigrates to the United States with her mother. It follows her trying to survive in America, while attain the American dream. Kwok is very passionate about telling the story of working-class immigrants’ experience because they’re often invisiblized.
“There are so many nobody sees, like the people you pass in the taxi, “ she said.
“Or the girl who hands you your food.”
“Or the girl who hands you your food.”
Both stories have elements from Kwok’s own life. Kwok, the youngest of seven, immigrated to the U.S. with her family from Hong Kong when she was five. She said her family was wealthy in China but fled because of a communist revolution. Their hope was to land in America, a place they thought, where the streets were paved with gold. After arriving to New York City, the American Dream seemed more like a myth.
“Instead of finding ourselves in the skyscrapers of Manhattan, we were in the slums of Brooklyn,” she told the San Francisco audience.
Her family lived in a building that was not legally up to code. They were the only tenants in the building. Their apartment was infested with rats and roaches. Add to that, the building was unheated. If you’ve been to the East Coast during the winter, you know how brutal the winters can be.
|Jean Kwok shares her story with the audience|
Kwok and her family worked in a sweatshop, making $.01 per garment. One of Kwok’s brothers gave her a life changing gift, a diary.
Kwok said her brother told her, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.”
I loved when she shared that. Here you have a young girl living in poverty, adjusting to a new culture, dealing with all kinds of discrimination because of her nationality, race and class. And her brother gave her something that was liberating and provided a space for her to discover her power.
“It was revelation to write down my thoughts and dreams,” Kwok shared.
I’ve kept a journal since I was seven, and I understand why this gift was life-changing.
Fast forward years later and Kwok goes to Harvard. There she realizes she wants to be a writer. After graduating college, she works different jobs. She told us she saw an ad for dancers. She had no experience but practiced very hard. Not only did she become a professional dancer with the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in New York City, but was their top female dance instructor.
We laughed as she told us how she was clueless about hairstyling, makeup and fashion when first entering the ballroom-dance world. But she found her beauty and figured out how to apply eyeshadow.
She said, “Beauty is something you unleash from within yourself.”
|Fans and staff from Book Passage pose with Jean Kwok|
I think that’s so true. Sometimes were so busy looking to the outside to empower us when that power comes from within. That brings to mind a quote by Maya Angelou that I keep in my living room, “You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
Jean Kwok’s beauty was her willingness to try and not give up on herself. And that spirit shined on the dance floor.
I have not read Mambo in Chinatown yet, so I have no review to offer at the moment. However, Jean Kwok is a great writer and storyteller. I respect her for enduring so much in her life but not giving up. Plus she’s using her gift of writing to shed light on poverty and immigration. Kwok told us her first book Girl in Translation is read in high school and college classrooms around the world.
I know someone who is very successful but, feels inferior because they grew up in the ghetto. It’s not about where you come from, but where you’re going. And there’s a difference between being poor, and thinking poor. Kwok didn’t buy into the labels of “poor,” “immigrant,” “unstylish,” “novice dancer.” She persevered. I asked her about this in a Twitter change you can see below.
Kwok’s story reminds me that we can’t allow labels stop us from reaching our dreams and goals.
Jean Kwok was really sweet and funny. I’m glad I got to meet her. She made me laugh. She inspired me to aim higher, and just dance.