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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