• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Wang's memoir illustrates her family’s gritty determination in the face of extreme poverty and the many ups and downs of their immigrant experience in the US.

“I find that where in English I am logical, distant, hardened, in Chinese I am excitable, warm, still tender.”

In Chinese, the word for America translates as "beautiful country." But when Qian Wang and her family arrive in the United States from China, her parents are no longer respected professors, but struggling sweatshop workers, as they are illegal immigrants who must remain unnoticed as they fight to earn enough to survive.

In her memoir Beautiful Country, Wang shares the few small joys she discovered as a little girl in New York City--including seeing the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lit up, her first bite of pizza, and the dizzying sights and sounds of the city.

But stress and the constant fear of illness and tragedy—any misfortune that would draw attention to the family and decimate their meager earnings—make for a high-anxiety household. Her parents toil in physically brutal jobs for little pay, and the family works doggedly to get by. Young Qian escapes into books in her new language.

Through it all, Qian is told over and over: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you've always lived here. When her mother faces a health crisis, as they’ve long feared one of them might, the family's security and future could be gravely shaken.

Wang takes the reader through the family's extreme poverty upon their arrival in New York City, their constant, gnawing hunger, her highly educated parents' excruciating, menial jobs (in a sweatshop, sewing factory, with cold, purpled hands rolling sushi for endless hours, and others), and how she learns to take her own initiative—and risks of drawing attention—to ensure educational and intellectual challenges and advancements.

The author is focused on her childhood, and only five pages or so at the end of the book offer reflection and context from an adult perspective. I would have loved more of that older point of view.

Wang notes that when her family flees to Canada, their employment and financial prospects as well as their immigration status change dramatically for the better. I found myself wanting further thoughts from Wang about factors that made her own family’s existence as new immigrants in the US so terrifyingly tenuous and measures that could potentially shift this situation for others.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

This was my book club's most recent read.

Tomorrow I’ll post Six Fascinating Books about the Immigrant Experience.

For more more MORE memoirs I've loved that you might want to try, check out the Greedy Reading Lists Six Illuminating Memoirs to Dive Into, Six Illuminating Memoirs I've Read This Year, Six More Illuminating Memoirs to Lose Yourself In, Six Foodie Memoirs to Whet Your Appetite, and Six Powerful Memoirs about Facing Mortality. Or simply search "Memoir" in the Bossy search bar on each page of this site.