Header Image

Nonfiction Review: Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Title: Beautiful Country
Author: Qian Julie Wang
Year published: 2021
Category: Adult nonfiction (memoir)
Pages: 320 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location: (my 2021 Google Reading map)USA (NY), Canada, China

SummaryIn 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 full of curiosity, 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 labor in sweatshops. Instead of laughing at her jokes, they fight constantly, taking out the stress of their new life on one another. Shunned by her classmates and teachers for her limited English, Qian takes refuge in the library and masters the language through books, coming to think of The Berenstain Bears as her first American friends. And where there is delight to be found, Qian relishes it: her first bite of gloriously greasy pizza, weekly “shopping days,” when Qian finds small treasures in the trash lining Brooklyn’s streets, and a magical Christmas visit to Rockefeller Center—confirmation that the New York City she saw in movies does exist after all.

But then Qian’s headstrong Ma Ma collapses, revealing an illness that she has kept secret for months for fear of the cost and scrutiny of a doctor’s visit. As Ba Ba retreats further inward, Qian has little to hold onto beyond his constant refrain: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.

Inhabiting her childhood perspective with exquisite lyric clarity and unforgettable charm and strength, Qian Julie Wang has penned 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.

Review: I am not a huge reader of memoirs, but this one was getting such good reviews that I got it from Book of the Month.

Wang tells of her family's life in China before they immigrated to the US and her life once she arrived here. Living in southern California I am familiar with the immigration stories of people from Latin America since they are the majority of our population and I know what it was like for my parents to arrive here in the 1960s. But, I haven't read much by Asian immigrants so I liked reading the similarities and differences. 

One thing that always strikes me about immigrants who are professionals in their countries of origin (in this case, professors) is how their qualifications mean nothing here and they are forced to do skilled labor such as working in a sweatshop or picking fruit/vegetables in the fields. Living as a person without legal papers is a daily struggle, both physically and mentally. The constant refrain of being silent, hiding out, and lying is exhausting. The author did a great job of showing this struggle.

Wang's writing is beautiful and transported me into her life of secrets, love, lies, and trauma. I loved the ending when the judge she is working for gives her the space to tell her story. Saying the things we have experienced out loud is so empowering. 

Challenges for which this counts:  
  • Diversity--Chinese author
  • Popsugar--oxymoron in title (though their name for America translates to "beautiful country" the country isn't truly beautiful for them at all)

No comments