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Beautiful Country: A Memoir

Review

Beautiful Country: A Memoir

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads a poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. But for many people immigrating to America from other countries, these words are just that: words. In BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, Qian Julie Wang exposes the darker side of immigration to America: the plight of the undocumented, forced to live in abject poverty in the richest country in the world.

In Chinese, America is called Mei Guo, literally “beautiful country.” When seven-year-old Qian is told by her mother that they will be leaving China to live with her father in Mei Guo, she expects streets paved with gold, endless opportunities and, of course, a hearty welcoming. Instead, she is immediately met with fear, desperation and scarcity. Mei Guo smells strange and looks different, and Qian and her family rarely see anyone who looks like them, despite hearing about so many friends, neighbors and acquaintances who made the same trip from China before them. Qian’s mother, Ma Ma, views everything in their new home as “wei xian,” dangerous. Her father, Ba Ba, tells her only, “Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.” Having lived in America for two years before his wife and daughter, he knows far more about the dangers of being found out and deported.

With breathtaking honesty and exquisite prose, Qian walks readers through her years in America, starting with that fateful plane trip to her first taste of pizza and its delicious grease, all the way through high school. Upon her family’s arrival in America, her parents, formerly professors, quickly take up work in sweatshops where they are subjected to brutal conditions and low pay, all to barely make ends meet. The love they feel for their daughter is palpable through the sacrifices they make for her.

"Full of keen emotional insight, gorgeous, heartrendingly lyrical prose, and the humbling story of a girl coming of age in an impossible situation, BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY is an astonishingly poignant and unforgettable book."

But even with the gift of hindsight, Qian is able to inhabit her childhood perception and highlight the stark differences between her upbringings in China and America. Whereas in China she was often told she was beautiful, sure to be on television one day, in America her own parents readily criticize her appearance, her weight (any extra pounds the product of sodium-rich foods, not greed or indulgence), and her inability to make the most of the opportunities they have granted her. It is easy as a grown-up to read the fear and desperation in their criticisms, but Qian is not here to reflect or to judge, but to lay bare the ways that the American dream can sully even interpersonal relationships when it becomes impossibly unreachable.

Qian’s schooling offers little reprieve. Her limited English quickly places her in an overrun class for children with “special needs,” and her teachers, blinded by racism and prejudice, take little interest in helping her move forward. Her classmates, with all the cruelty of children, are no different, though she does eventually make friends with other Chinese girls. But as she learns, even America’s Chinese citizens are starkly different. Many of them shun Chinese traditions and culture in order to assimilate, and even more of them are quick --- quicker, even, than their American neighbors --- to judge Qian and her “no-income” parents.

Bold, precocious and steadfast, Qian finds solace in books that she slowly teaches herself to read, and in the small treasures she hunts down on her family’s “shopping days,” where they walk the streets and turn the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” into reality. They take whatever is clean and unbroken enough to fill their home, while taking great care never to grab anything they can’t part with, knowing that one day they may have to flee in the dark of night.

It is not until Qian is older that she finally sees a glimpse of the Mei Guo that was promised to her when her mother takes her to see the Christmas tree and lights in Rockefeller Center. Slowly but surely, Qian’s life starts to look normal. Without realizing it, her family has climbed out of the poverty they lived in when they first arrived in the United States; she has learned to read and is able to write such strong essays that her racist teachers accuse her of plagiarism (a terrible meter for success, but a sure one nonetheless); and she even gets a pet, a cat named Marilyn after Marilyn Monroe, with her perfect white skin. And then tragedy strikes: Ma Ma becomes terribly ill, a product of a lifetime (crammed into only a few years) of harsh working conditions, poor diet and limited access to medical care. Qian sees her dreams start to crash and burn around her, but little does she know that her family has one last grasp at a life worth living: a new country with a far more lenient and humane approach to immigration.

Through every obstacle, achievement and growing pain, it is Qian’s parents who bear the weight of their sacrifices. Distracted and fearful, Ma Ma and Ba Ba are always looking over their shoulders, often squabbling and occasionally taking out their pains on Qian herself. Once respected members of their communities, they become “just Asian,” a collective group of the “weakest race,” small and fragile, but somehow still blamed for ruining a country they barely inhabit. Forced to assimilate but punished for anything viewed as “pretending to be white,” they walk an impossible line, one that tortures them mentally, emotionally and physically. Viewing them through the white gaze, Qian, even as a child, is not blind to the scars inflicted upon them. But she is also unwilling to let them down by becoming lazy or giving up, even when racism, poverty and perversion come right to her front door.

Now a managing partner at a successful law firm and a US citizen, Qian has clearly “made it.” But although her rise to glory is awe-inspiring, it is not her success that makes this book so affecting. Successful or not, her life, her journey and her horrific arrival in America should mean something. And as she reminds us, with her nearly supernatural ability to view every slight, joy and tragedy through her own childhood eyes, there is far more to her story, and the story of other children like her, than a happy ending. She shines a harsh but revealing light on the shadows of poverty, prejudice and life as an undocumented person, leaving her readers with a crucial and essential addition to the wealth of literature about the American dream, immigration and life in the world’s richest country.

Full of keen emotional insight, gorgeous, heartrendingly lyrical prose, and the humbling story of a girl coming of age in an impossible situation, BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY is an astonishingly poignant and unforgettable book.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 11, 2021

Beautiful Country: A Memoir
by Qian Julie Wang

  • Publication Date: September 7, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385547218
  • ISBN-13: 9780385547215