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by Donna Huber For the A to Z Challenge, I discussed different book genres/categories. Each day, I gave a few details about the genre/catego...

September 7, 2021

Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang ~ a Review

by Donna Huber

A poignant memoir

I haven't read a memoir in a while because I'm really picky when it comes to the genre. Immigration is a hot topic right now and it is what drew me to this book. Beautiful Country is a beautiful story. The poignant writing as Wang unburies her memories had me misty-eyed several times.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

Beautiful Country
September 2021; Doubleday; 978-0385547215
audio, ebook, print (320 pages); memoir

When we think of immigrants, we most often think of those coming through our southern border. But New York has always been a huge gateway for immigrants. Sure they often enter legally - on a tourist, student, or short-term business visa. However, these visas have an end date, and many immigrants who do not want to return to their home country remain in the U.S. on an expired visa.

That is how Wang Qian came to Beautiful Country - the literal translation of the Chinese word for America - as a seven-year-old. Her father had already been here for 2 years (it is never mentioned what kind of visa he entered on) and she and her mother finally are able to join him with a tourist visa. I have known several Chinese students and it is often very difficult to get a visa - probably because the Chinese government knows it is unlikely they will return.

Wang's mother and father have very different backgrounds. I wish we had been told how they met. Her mother comes from a rather well-to-do family (probably considered middle-class) while her father's family is poor, largely due to his brother's political dissidence as a teenager - feelings that her father shares. While his life improves it is the control that prods him to go to America. (He is a professor of English Literature and the government's insistence on what can and cannot be taught and said chaffs against his desire for academic freedom).

When they arrive in the U.S. they soon find that life isn't easy. The regular stresses of being in a country where you don't speak the language or fully understand the culture are compounded by the fear of being undocumented. 

Immigration is a complicated web of legalities, political motivations, moral considerations. Our politicians and news media often dehumanize the issue but books like Beautiful Country make it human and very personal.

For the Wang family life was hard. They often lived in a room or two and shared a kitchen and bathroom with the rest of the house occupants. They scavenged the streets for items to furnish that room. The part of her life that Wang focuses on occurred in the mid-1990s and maybe early 2000s. Their weekly grocery budget was $20. Wang had only a couple of shirts and jeans - usually several sizes too big so she could grow into them. She was often dirty and malnourished. The reader may be thinking "well, she is here illegally." 

I will admit I had to wonder wasn't there a way they could have stayed in the country legally - like a student visa or a work visa. Both her mother and father were professors in China (her mother even wrote a book on computer science). I'm not sure that they were university professors though as her mother eventually does go to graduate school in the U.S.

Through reading Beautiful Country I was confronted with American's own complicity in the undocumented immigration problem. One issue that is invariable brought up during discussions of immigration is that they are taking jobs away from citizens. However, seeing the jobs that Wang's mother takes on and for the amount of pay - very few Americans (if any) would take on those jobs. Wang and her mother would do 12-hour shifts at a clothing manufacturing plant. Wang (at sever years of age) would snip loose threads from shirts for a penny a shirt and her mother sewed labels onto those shirts for 2 pennies - they would also get a plate of rice. They did this 7 days a week. While we aren't told about all the jobs her father had we know he worked long hours in a laundromat before getting a position with an immigration lawyer as a translator.

Wang didn't shy away from the traumatic, shameful, or difficult aspects of her childhood. While we know that looking at our childhood through the lens of our adulthood can often affect our perspective of those events, Wang is honest when memories aren't as crisp or maybe muddled with things she was later told about the event. She is also honest about when she didn't understand situations as a child but now has more insights to better understand.

If you want to put a human face on immigration or want to try to understand life for a new immigrant, then Beautiful Country would be an excellent book to pick up. Most Americans will never know the cost - both emotionally and monetarily - to leave everything behind (knowing you will never be able to return) and start a new life in a place so alien and often unwelcoming. 

Buy Beautiful Country at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. I have this book coming in my Book of the Month package and am now looking forward to it even more!