by Qian Julie Wang
“From then on, there was no saving me. I lived and breathed books. Where else could I fund such a steady supply of friends, comforts, and worlds, all free for the taking? And so portable, too–everywhere I went, there they were: on the subway, at recess, on the steps outside of Ba Ba’s office. Unlike my teachers and classmates, they were reliable.”
In Chinese, America is known as Mei Guo, or the beautiful country. When Qian Julie Wang was only five years old, her father left for America and she did not see him for two years. Although the book is set almost entirely in North America, Wang’s memoir is in many ways about the intergenerational trauma of the Cultural Revolution, which shaped her parents’ choice to eventually leave China for an uncertain life as undocumented immigrants in the United States. Where once her father had taught English literature, and her mother had taught math, in America they were reduced to surviving on a variety of menial jobs from hair salons to piecework sweatshops to sushi factories. Wang arrived in New York City at the age of seven in 1994, and would not become an American citizen until 2016. Beautiful Country tells the story of some of the intervening years, covering elementary school and her first year of middle school before taking an unexpected twist that I won’t spoil here.
Wang is vague on the details of what exactly happened to her father’s visa, which does seem to have initially been a working visa, but she and her mother came as visitors and overstayed. Such details were immaterial to a very young child in any case. In America, Wang’s parents ruthlessly hammer home two crucial lessons. First, avoid the authorities at all costs. This leads them to mistrust what little support is available to them as undocumented immigrants, even when they could desperately use the food or other services. Free school lunch is one of the few forms of assistance they deem it safe to accept since they have already exposed themselves to some extent by enrolling their daughter in school. Second, Wang is taught to say that she was born in America, and has always lived there, a fiction which is initially undermined by the fact that she arrives in her second grade classroom largely unable to speak English. Unwilling to rely on the whims of the classmate reluctantly roped into translating for her, Wang begins teaching herself English with the help of PBS Kids. She also finds the first place that feels like home in her new country in the form of the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library.
Beautiful Country also chronicles the Wangs’ fraught search for some sense of community or support in their new home. Used to being considered intellectuals, the Wangs find that in New York’s largely Cantonese immigrant community, speaking Mandarin leads to the assumption that they are “farmers from Fuzhou.” Wang’s parents had two couples with whom they were close friends in New York, but were fond of saying that they were not the type of people they would have chosen to associate with back home. They were friendships of necessity. Still more disturbing is the account of a lonely older white man they call Lao Jim who uses his money to buy the time and attention of Asian women at the salon where Wang’s mother worked one of many jobs. He takes the Wangs to McDonalds every weekend, and teaches Wang’s mother how to drive, but the relationship is always tinged with the ominous warning given by one of his other girls, Mimi. “You know he’s disgusting, right?” She warns. “He’s filthy. He has nasty thoughts about everyone. Even…her.” The outings do not stop, but Wang’s father always makes sure to accompany them.
Throughout, Beautiful Country is filled with the palpable anxiety of deportation, lurking around every corner. “Only later, after living many years in fear, would I understand that the risks were much lower than we believed at the time,” Wang explains. “But in the vacuum of anxiety that was undocumented life, fear was gaseous: it expanded to fill our entire world until it was all we could breathe.” The other pervasive feeling painstakingly described is going hungry. “Hunger was a constant, reliable friend in Mei Guo,” Wang recounts. “She came second only to loneliness. Hunger slept only when I did, and sometimes not even then.” Especially early in the book, Wang’s writing has a close, child-like perspective. But undocumented life in America forces her to grow up fast, becoming a source of both practical and emotional support to her parents, particularly her mother. Her experience becomes more contextualized, and I fell deeper into her perspective, only to be surprised when the book ended at sixth grade. We do not get to follow Wang’s winding journey to citizenship, but perhaps another memoir will be in her future. For now, Beautiful Country is an evocative portrait of those first five years of struggle to realize the promise of Mei Guo.
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