From ages 7 to 12, Qian Julie Wang lived as an undocumented immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. Her hunger was regularly so intense that she broke into cold sweats—which, according to her Ma Ma, meant Wang was growing and getting stronger. One classmate referred to Wang’s family not as “low-income” but “no-income.” Her world was simultaneously frightening and normal as she sat listening to scuttling cockroaches with her parents nearby. She describes childhood trenchantly in Beautiful Country, allowing readers to feel her anger, longing, loneliness and fear—and to observe her parents’ desperation.
In Beijing, Wang’s mother was a published professor who spoke Mandarin, the language of intellectuals. But in Brooklyn, her mother lamented, “All these Cantonese assume that if you speak Mandarin you’re a farmer from Fuzhou.” Wang’s mother got a job sewing in a sweatshop, where “there was no day or night; there was only work.”
Wang’s parents regarded her as their best hope for a future, optimistic that she would be suited to this Mei Guo, “beautiful country.” They were right to believe in her. By fourth grade, Wang wrote so well that her teachers suspected plagiarism, and now Wang has written a memoir precise enough to chill her readers. The narrative is full of sharply rendered scenes, such as one in which Wang’s mother suffers in a cold sushi factory before coming home to warm herself in front of a pot of boiling water.
Wang dedicates her memoir to “those who remain in the shadows.” Indeed, Beautiful Country shines light on the childhood that continued to haunt Wang into adulthood, even as her professional accomplishments mounted. She is vulnerable in revealing her uniquely American trauma: a bruised wrist that never quite healed; a hunger that was never quite sated; a feeling that everything, at any moment, could suddenly be taken away. Wang, who is now a civil rights lawyer, is a voice we need. Readers will be grateful for the courage she has displayed in persevering and speaking up.