Kim adjusts to life as an immigrant in the U.S., struggling through poverty and difficult living and work conditions to blossom into an intelligent and successful woman. Kimberly Chang is a new immigrant from Hong Kong who dreams of a better life in America. Ever since her father died from a heart attack, she and her mother have been two peas in a pod, working hard together to fulfill this dream. For years, they had sent their money to their relatives in America, in the hopes that their relatives can help them buy a house so that when they do immigrate to America, they can settle into their new life. When they finally accumulate enough funds to travel to the U.S. and meet Aunt Paula, life isn't what they expected. Kimberly immediately doesn't like Aunt Paula, who seems embarrassed of her and her mother. When they arrive in America, Aunt Paula shows them their new house, which is a dilapidated apartment unit in Brooklyn and gives them jobs at an illegal factory in Chinatown. It is revealed that Aunt Paula has been dishonest to them and has taken most of their money as well as taken advantage of their ignorance of the American ways to leave them destitute. Though Kim sees her Aunt's true nature, her mother does not and insists that Aunt Paula is doing everything she can out of the kindness of her heart.
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Kim is enrolled at a local school however she immediately finds it a struggle to pick up the English language. She learned English in Hong Kong but the accents in the U.S. are different. She feels humiliated and starts to skip school to avoid the whole ordeal. After school, Kim joins her mother at the clothing factory. There, she meets another young factory worker named Matt. Matt introduces Kim to his brother who is mute and deaf. The children work there illegally and in poor conditions along with other immigrants. Kim sees how hard her mother is working and how cheerful she is, despite their terrible situation. Her mother is hopeful that in the U.S., Kim can make a better life for herself. Feeling a debt of gratitude for her mother, Kim decides to go back to school and try her hardest.
Meanwhile, things continue to worsen as winter comes and there is no heating in the apartment. Kim shows remarkable improvement at school however she is still failing her language arts class. Her mother scrapes together some money to buy Kim a dictionary so that Kim can improve her vocabulary. Kim tries not to make her mother worry so she doesn't tell her mother that she's still failing certain classes. She befriends another student, Annette, who helps her adjust to her new settings in America. Kim experiences her first Christmas and Annette gives her a little panda hair clip. Kim gives the gift to Matt because she has nothing else to give him for Christmas and she thinks he might like it more than her.
After Christmas, Kim and her mother learn that the reason why there was no heating in their apartment was because they were actually living there illegally and the apartment was slated to be torn down. Kim and her mother confront Aunt Paula who feigns innocence and assures them that she will help them find another place to live, soon.
One day, Kim gets into a fight with another boy at school. She is afraid she will be expelled but instead, the principal tells her that she plans on helping Kim get some sort of scholarship so that she can continue furthering her studies. Kim is asked to go for an interview at a local private school – the same high school that Annette has already been accepted to. To her great delight, Kim wins a full scholarship to attend the local high-school. But, the new school brings new difficulties. The children are mean to Kim because she doesn't have new or stylish clothes. Kim is put under lots of peer pressure to fit into her new crowd but she doesn't want to burden her mother with her own anxieties when she sees that her mother is working as hard as she can. On the bright side, Kim gets an English tutor and she becomes so proficient at English that she can now keep up with everyone.
Kim continues to struggle with making friends because whenever a potential friend asks to hang out with her she has to make an excuse to explain why she can't. No one at school knows that Kim goes to work in the factory after school. Despite this, she and Annette continue to be good friends with each other. At the factory, Kim has also found a way to do her work faster. Her job is to bag clothing and she is so efficient at it that her mother doesn't have to work so hard. She continues to befriend Matt, who is the most cheerful of the other teens working at the factory.
At school, Kim is doing so well that the teachers are suspicious she might be cheating. At one point, she accidentally picks up a cheat sheet from the ground and the teacher is suspicious of her. She doesn't reveal that the cheat sheet belongs to a boy named Curtis, and Curtis is impressed that she didn't snitch on him. She is asked to do an oral exam to prove that she actually knows what she's learnt and isn't cheating. Even though the night before, she and her mother had to work all night at the factory, Kim passes with flying colors.
Meanwhile, Kim and Matt have a tentative relationship. Kim hopes that Matt likes her as much as she likes him and everything seems to be going great, since Matt has invited her to meet his dad. This is something special and an act of trust towards Kim because he is ashamed of his father, who struggles with alcoholism. Kim thinks she and Matt are an item but, one day, another girl appears on the scene – one who is more feminine and Kim begins to feel Matt distancing from her. The new girl, Vivian, becomes Matt's official girlfriend, instead of Kim. Kim is hurt but continues to be Matt's friend.
At school, Kim continues to be at the top of her class. She is even asked to tutor the kids who aren't doing so well – among them, Curtis. Curtis starts to flirt with her but Kim is a strict tutor. Eventually, though, Curtis charms Kim and invites her to one of the high school parties. Kim decides to date Curt, even though she doesn't truly love him. Curt even feels this but it doesn't bother him as he still has hope that Kim will eventually love him. Meanwhile, their factory is raided by the police and all the kids below eighteen have to go into hiding while the police search the place. Kim ends up hiding with Matt. For some reason, Matt kisses her, stirring up her old feelings for him and reopening old wounds. At this point Kim actually has grown to like Vivian and she doesn't want to hurt Vivan's feelings so she doesn't condone what Matt did, even though Matt expresses that he has feelings for her.
Near the end of the school year, the principal asks Kim what her plans are for college. He suggests that Kim go to Yale. Kim takes a naturalization exam in order to become a U.S. citizen and perhaps qualify for financial aid for school. Annette's mother helps Kim find a new apartment for her and her mother to live in as her Aunt Paula is obviously not intent on helping her poor relatives.
One day, while Kim is fooling around with Curtis during lunch hour at school, she sees Matt. Matt sees her with Curtis and walks away but Kim chases after him. Kim notices he is upset and learns that his mother passed away from her debilitating illness. Matt finally tells her that he broke up with Vivian because he realized that he could only think of going to her for comfort after this tragedy. They sleep together and decide to take their relationship slow. Later on, Kim finds out that she has been accepted to Yale on a full scholarship.
Matt and Kim start dating officially and Kim feels happier than she has ever felt in a while. But, then reality hits, as Kim is on her way up the ladder of society while Matt is still just a blue collar worker. Kim contemplates not going to Yale and just living a simple life in Chinatown with Matt. One day, she learns that she is pregnant. When she tells her mother and Curtis, reality sinks in further. Will she want to relegate her child to living in poverty when there is opportunity for a better life? Kim doesn't tell Matt she is pregnant and instead goes off to study in Yale.
The story ends with an epilogue where Kim meets up with Matt after finishing her studies, only to learn that Matt had married Vivian and moved on with his life. Kim is apparently alright with the way things turned out, because she always knew that though she loves Matt, their lives and ambitions were too different for them to be together.
Best part of story, including ending:
I did not like the ending of this story. I thought Kim treated Matt horribly by suddenly disappearing from his life without explanation. It also isn't very fair that she took their child with her as Matt has a right to care about his child, too. I also felt that the ending in general was very depressing, though it is perhaps true to real life.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Kim gives Matt her panda hair clip. I thought it was a very sweet and innocent scene both because Kim is so awkward she doesn't realize that boys don't use hair clips but also because she was so sincere in giving Matt her most precious gift, since she couldn't afford anything better. I was very touched by this gesture and I was gratified that Matt was impressed with Kim as a result of it.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Kim is so determined to work hard so that her mother won't have to work so hard, herself. Most teenagers are very self-absorbed and strive to fulfill their own personal goals, but Kim was always worried that her mother would overwork herself at the factory and she tried very hard to lessen her mother's burden by finding more efficient ways to process the work.