I read this book in two days. Qian Julie Wang captured my heart with her beautifully written memoir of growing up as an undocumented immigrant. I was heartbroken by the racism and disconcern that left her family in dire poverty.
Her parents were educated professionals in China, her mother a math professor and her father an English literature professor. In America, they worked as menial laborers. In China, Qian was a fearless, intelligent, tomboy. In America, her teacher accused her of plagiarism, unable to accept her gift with words.
Qian's father had believed in the myth of American freedom. In China, he was punished for independent thinking. He left his wife and child for America, and it was years before they could join him.
Fear of being discovered kept them caged in poverty. When Qian's mother gains a degree, she can\'t work without proper paperwork.
Qian did not see the 'beautiful' country for a long time. The trauma of her childhood haunted her. When her family relocates to Canada, their lives improve. They were welcome. They had free health care and found appropriate work. Qian received a good education that prepared her for Swarthmore College and Yale Law School.
As a girl, Qian found solace in books. "I read until my loneliness dulled, and I felt myself to be in the good company of all my vibrantly colored, two-dimensional friends. I read until excitement replaced hopelessness," she writes. She bristled when a teacher pushed her to read 'boy' books as more 'worthwhile' than the stories of girl's lives. She found role models such as Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who taught her that you did not have to be a white male to succeed.
Their family trauma began in China during the Cultural Revolution when her father was a small child who observed his brother arrested, his parents beaten. At school, he was berated and tormented.
"Half a century and a migration across the world later, it would take therapy's slow and arduous unraveling for me to see that the thread of trauma was woven into every fiber of my family, my childhood," Qian writes.
Qian dreams of a day when all people are treated humanely. She writes so others know they are not alone and they can also survive and even flourish. I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
hard cover $28.95 (USD)
from the publisher
An incandescent and heartrending memoir from an astonishing new talent, Beautiful Country puts readers in the shoes of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world.
In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.
In Chinatown, Qian’s parents work in sweatshops and sushi factories. Instead of laughing at her jokes or watching her sing and dance, they fight constantly. Qian goes to school hungry, where she teaches herself English through library books, her only source of comfort. At home, Qian's headstrong and resilient Ma Ma ignores her own pain until she's unable to stand, too afraid of the cost and attention a hospital visit might bring. And yet, young Qian, now acting as her mother's nurse, her family's translator, a student and a worker, cannot ask for help. The number-one rule in America still stands: To be noticed is to risk losing everything.
Searing and unforgettable, Beautiful Country is an essential American story about a family fracturing under the weight of invisibility, and a girl coming of age in the shadows, who never stops seeking the light