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 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.
Praise for Beautiful Country
“Extraordinary…With immense skill, Wang parses how her family’s illegal status blighted nearly every aspect of their life, from pushing her parents’ marriage to the brink to compromising their health. While Wang’s story of pursuing the American dream is undoubtedly timeless, it’s her family’s triumph in the face of “xenophobia and intolerance” that makes it feel especially relevant today. Consider this remarkable memoir a new classic.”—Publishers Weekly, *Starred Review*
“A potent testament to the love, curiosity, grit, and hope of a courageous and resourceful immigrant child. Engaging readers through all five senses and the heart, Wang’s debut memoir is a critical addition to the literature on immigration as well as the timeless category of childhood memoir.”—Kirkus Reviews, *Starred Review*
“The writing is sparse, stylish, sometimes harrowing and sometimes humorous as she narrates experiences that are incredibly common but rarely captured with this level of artful control. It’s shaping up to be one of the best memoirs of the year.”—Bookpage, *Starred Review*
“[A] powerful debut. . . [Wang] movingly tells how undocumented families like hers are often overlooked and their experiences ignored. A haunting memoir of people and places that will stay with readers long after the last page.”—Library Journal
When she is very little, Qian’s father leaves his family and travels to America. While Qian and her mother wait in China, they live with her grandparents but their life seems happy. Filled with love, good food and culture. Of course, her father came to America for a better life, so when he sends for his family, they go. When they arrive in New York, there is more promise for Qian’s future, but everything else is worth. They share a room in a boarding house, Qian’s mother, though educated, can’t use her degree and they starve just trying to get by and working in sweatshops.
Beautiful Country is really a breathtaking and heart-wrenching first account of the trials that undocumented immigrants face when they come to America. Don’t just take my word for it, Beautiful Country received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Bookpage. It’s definitely a book that will resonate with a lot of readers.
Special thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday for an advanced e-galley in exchange for my honest review. This one is out September 7. Get your copy: