A moving memoir filtered through a child's eyes about a Chinese family struggling in the shadow of the American dream.
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Why I love it
Actress, Stranger Things
Growing up as an American, it can be easy take all the privileges and opportunities for granted, to inflate the challenges in your own life and move through the world with the individualistic mentality this country incentivizes. That is why stories like Qian Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country are the kind that knock me off my feet. Wang, with her honest and compelling prose, not only shares the story of her family’s immigration, she invites you into the vulnerable intimacies of her upbringing with an openness that will quickly endear her to you.
We follow Wang through her childhood as she tries to reconcile the life she cherished in China with the duty to assimilate into her new life in Mei Guo, America, the “Beautiful Country.” She observes with precocious astuteness as her once well-respected parents’ identities and marriage begin to unravel under the heaviness of the American dream, from the arduous jobs they take on to the lies they are forced to maintain in order to secure their safety. Her nuanced expressions of loss oscillate between lighthearted acceptance and heartbreaking desperation as the new world expands and contracts around the things she clings to most—her family.
Wang’s is not only a story of what it means to be an “American” but what it means to be a human navigating a world that reveals itself increasingly indifferent to the humanity it aspires to. It is a story in which someone takes life as it is handed to her and turns it into one that is not only inspiringly successful but bravely sensitive and thoughtful. It is also, hopefully, a story that will make you consider the strangers around you with renewed compassion.
If you are looking for a truly unforgettable book this fall, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this unique and powerful debut.
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.
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Gorgeous writing, and a compelling voice that made me ponder what I know about the experiences of immigrants roughly my own age. Not a “triumph over tragedy” story, so I appreciate Wang’s honest take.
Amazing memoir written from a child’s perspective as an illegal Chinese immigrant in the1980’s.The privation endured by this child and children today in similar circumstances in America is despicable
Salt Lake City, UT
This book is written beautifully. I loved how the author’s words authentically recounted her growing up from a child’s eye view. It illustrated the lasting psychological effects of being undocumented.
An engaging memoir that looks at the author’s difficult, complicated immigrant story through her eyes and experience as a child. A lovely, heartbreaking treatment of themes of loss, family, education.
Wang is a gifted writer. Her story gripped me & made me ache at her & her family’s struggles in the early years after arrival in the US. Everyone has an important story; we need to recognize & listen.
Iowa City, IA
Loved this book.This author’s story was such an eye-opener to what is going on with illegal immigration that is undetected and in our backyard. I have a new appreciation for their risks and suffering
Ellicott City, MD
This book told such a touching, emotional account of the immigrant experience in America. Qian’s story was so beautifully articulated, often from the innocent perspective of a joyful, optimistic child
I finished in less than a week because I couldn’t put it down. Really had me reflect and acknowledge my American privilege and how fortunate I am. It’s unbelievable that some people live like this.
This book was beautiful and heartbreaking. Its themes of immigration, poverty, education, exploitation, trauma, and healing were difficult to read, but at the same time I couldn’t put the book down.
Mount Rainier, MD
A brutally honest and sobering account of a child living in the shadows of poverty and fear of deportation. The author writes from the perspective of a child. While effective, this grew tiresome to me
Castro Valley, CA
I both loved & at times dreaded picking up this book. It was surreal learning of Qian's childhood, which took place in the same time as mine but was completely removed from my own experience. Powerful
Heartbreaking memoir from the view of a child living in the U.S. as a undocumented immigrant. Eye-opening look at racism and privilege. The author did a great job telling her story. She is a survivor.
Gut wrenching. Another eye opening example of how Americans treat immigrants like shit. So much pain and poverty and inhumanity this young girl and her family suffered in China and America. Must read
Salt Lake City, UT
A disjointed start but post-NYC move I couldn’t put it down. As a poor 90s child I instantly connected with some of Qian’s desires & experiences. Strong writing made this a quick, engaging read.
STATEN ISLAND, NY
This is an honest (and sometimes disturbing) account of an immigrant Chinese child and her family. They grapple with poverty and fears of being illegal while trying to find a place in a new country.
It’s well written and you really see the plight of illegal immigrants. The stress it can cause. I love how she brought herself out of all this and brings the light into the darkness on this issue.
New York, NY
this story is heartbreaking. but also beautiful. gives really interesting look into what it feels like being an Asian immigrant in NYC. for living there as long as I did, I had no idea. glad I do now
Eureka Springs, AR
A beautifully told story that we all should read to better understand what it's like for children taken from their homeland and raised in another. They feel sometimes like they don't fit in anywhere.
Amazing read. America is full of immigrant stories but the way this story is told in beautiful and gut-wrenching short stories is what makes it fantastic, especially from the perspective of a child.
This book is well done. It is an honest and thought provoking portrayal of a young Chinese girl and her parents growing up in the US as illegals. I also loved learning more about Chinese culture.