Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok, photo by Chris Macke

Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok

Mrs. Kasindorf, Jean's principal
Jean and Mrs. Kasindorf, Jean's principal

Jean Kwok and her mother
Jean and her mother

Jean Kwok
Jean dancing with Jungie Zamora, photo by Montage Production

Jean Kwok at CNN
Jean Kwok at CNN

Jean Kwok at CNN
Jean on cargo bike, photo by Hielco Kuipers

about jean

Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia. In between her degrees, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer for Fred Astaire Studios in New York City.

Her debut novel Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010) is about a gifted immigrant girl who lives a double life between school and sweatshop. It was a New York Times bestseller, has been published in 17 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, an Orange New Writers Book, a National Blue Ribbon Book, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and an Indie Next Pick, among other honors.  It was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. Girl in Translation has been assigned in universities, colleges and high schools across the world.

Her second novel Mambo in Chinatown (Riverhead, 2014) is about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing. It will be available on June 24, 2014. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons. A Dutch television documentary with English subtitles was filmed about Jean and her work. 

For a full list of Jean’s honors and awards, click here.

Jean’s Story

The youngest of seven children and a girl at that, I was a dreamy, impractical child who ran wild through the sunlit streets of Hong Kong.  No one was more astonished than my family when I turned out to be good at school.  We moved to New York City when I was five and my only gift was taken from me since I did not understand a word of English. 

We lost all our money in the move to the United States.  My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown.  My father took me there every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust.  Our apartment swarmed with insects and rats.  In the winter, we kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other heat in the apartment. 

As I slowly learned English my talent for school re-emerged. When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I was tested by a number of exclusive private schools and won scholarships to all of them.  However, I'd also been accepted by Hunter College High School, a public high school for the intellectually gifted, and that was where I wanted to go. 

By then, my family had stopped working at the sweatshop and we'd moved to a run-down brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that had been divided into formerly rent-controlled apartments.  It was a vast improvement, but there was still no money to spare.  If I didn't get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn't be able to go to college.  Although I loved English, I didn't think it was a practical choice and devoted myself to science instead.  In my last year in high school, I worked in three laboratories: the Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology labs at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center and the Biophysics/Interface Lab at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brooklyn.

I was accepted early to Harvard and I'd done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore in Physics.  It was in college that I realized that I could follow my true calling, writing, and switched into English and American Literature. I put myself through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so: washing dishes in the dining hall, cleaning rooms, reading to the blind, teaching English, and acting as the director of a summer program for Chinese immigrant children. Like many working-class people, I didn’t have the opportunity to take lessons for extracurricular activities as a child. It was in college that I also discovered I loved to dance.

I graduated with honors, then while looking for a day job, stumbled across a newspaper ad that read: “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” Terrified and unprepared, I went to the dance studio in an oversized red dress, black pumps I had covered with permanent marker to disguise their bald patches, and a long red scarf wrapped around my head like a turban. Somehow, despite all this, they invited me back for the audition, and then for the three-week training class. Ultimately, they hired me and taught me how to dance. I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for Fred Astaire East Side Studio in New York City for three years. I trained, did shows and competitions, and taught students how to waltz, swing, and mambo. For a young immigrant woman who had never fit in, who had never felt graceful, it was a great personal transformation. That was the basis for my second book, Mambo in Chinatown.

After winning Top Female Professional at Fred Astaire National Dance Championships, I left ballroom dance to pursue my true dream, writing. I went to Columbia to do my MFA in fiction. Before I graduated from Columbia, two stories of mine had been published in Story.  In my last year at Columbia, I worked fulltime for a major investment bank as a member of a five-person computer team that addressed the multimedia needs of the Board of Directors. 

I then moved to Holland for love and went through the process of adjusting to another culture and learning another language again.  I taught English at Leiden University in the Netherlands and worked as a Dutch-English translator until I finished Girl in Translation.  After it was accepted for publication, I quit to write fulltime.  I live in the Netherlands with my husband and two sons, and sometimes, while walking alongside a canal, I am quite surprised by the path my life has taken. Surprised, and very grateful.