REVIEW: Beautiful Country
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang marks 2/16 complete for my own personal and very intentional reading challenge (read my post on that here). In fact, this book was one of the original four books I selected for myself. I picked this one because the author's background is very different than my own, and I wanted a glimpse into another perspective. Wow, did this deliver.
Qian, her Mom, and her Dad have come to America from China on visas. And then they stay. Illegally. This story documents Qian's early formative elementary years as an illegal resident in Brooklyn, New York. It showcases the reasons why America is called "Beautiful Country" in Chinese...but also why it's not.
The word that keeps ringing in my head regarding this story is courage. It took courage for Qian Julie Wang to share her story. It took courage for her family to leave China. It took courage for her parents to work in sweatshops and find places to live. It took courage to start a new life, and one that made them into invisibles.
Qian Julie Wang's parents taught at the university level in China, and the sweatshops of New York were a far cry from the lives they were accustomed to leading. Her mother, a published mathematics professor, traded her chalkboards and textbooks for back breaking labor. First there was a sewing sweatshop where putting on buttons was the most coveted position with better food for lunch and better pay. Next came the freezing cold sushi factory where she would turn purple and blue hunched over pallets of salmon (this vignette honestly makes me never want to eat store bought fish again). Her father managed to find work at a law office, but it was not doing the prodigious work he did in China. Many of the conditions they endured are inhuman, yet often immigrants of any form (legal or not) do not have better options. Especially if they do not speak the language of power.
One of the most heartbreaking vignettes revealed to me Qian's heart as an elementary aged child. Like every human I've ever met, she wanted to be loved and accepted. These are basic needs everyone has to feel safe and secure. When classmates and teachers choose not to welcome Qian, she found solace in books. Her safe space became the library, and The Babysitter's Club Series meant something so much more to her during this time in her life.
Eventually her family moves to Canada where they gain legal immigration status. This paves a way for Qian Julie Wang to return to the United States as a law student. Now she is a managing partner at a firm located right in Brooklyn, New York, her adopted home. The tenacity and bravery it took for her to arrive undocumented and speaking only Chinese, to learning English in a classroom without help, to graduating from Yale Law, and now helping others is nothing less than awe inspiring. It takes something special in a human to overcome what looks like insurmountable odds and turn to helping others. Not everyone has that gift or desire, and it is a testimony to her parents and her own character. While I do not desire everyone to experience the things she endured, I do wish we would all turn to help the next person. What might happen if we all sincerely supported and cheered for one another?
Qian Julie Wang and I are very similar in age, yet our stories are so different (although I will say her taste in 90s music is fantastic and I couldn't love her playlist featuring her favorite hits from her time spent undocumented more). I am so thankful for the opportunity to read Qian's story. Due to its personal nature, I will not be giving a star rating. I believe each person's story is valuable and worth telling. It does not deserve someone who has never lived their life to rate their life's story. What I will say is that this memoir is worth reading. Go read it. Especially if you are not familiar with these types of stories. Once you've read it, let's chat!
Content Warnings: bullying, sexual assault