Qian Julie Wang
During Qian Julie Wang’s flights from Shijiazhuang, China, to Beijing to New York City, her mother was hellishly motion sick.
The tumultuous journey of the two of them — undocumented Chinese immigrants joining Wang’s father who had lived in New York for two years — foreshadows the next five years of Wang’s life, from age 7 to 12.
During those five years living in Brooklyn, Wang’s family lived in hei, in the dark, navigating undocumented life through blue-collar jobs with poor wages, subjection to racist stereotypes and a profound paranoia of their undocumented status being discovered.
Wang’s memoir “Beautiful Country,” published on Sept. 7, captures her first five years in the United States and presents it generously through the naive, yet poignant, lens of her childhood eyes.
Wang received her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and graduated from Yale Law School, and she is now an attorney, actualizing her childhood aspiration. She is also the founder of the New York Reform synagogue Central Synagogue’s Jews of Color group and member of their Racial Justice Task Force.
Though Wang’s memoir does not explicitly address her Jewishness, her story is synonymous with the Jewish narrative of being a stranger in a strange land, marked by her resilience and strength, choosing to address trauma, rather than turning away from it.
But Wang’s story living in America strays far from the American dream. Though the literal translation of the Chinese word for America is Mei Guo, “beautiful country,” America’s promise of being the Wangs’ land of milk and honey evades them, along with many of the immigrant families they encounter.
Wang’s father’s loyalty to the U.S., forged by his childhood turmoil in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, became at odds with the experiences of Wang’s mother’s version of the U.S. Once a professor, she was relegated here to tediously sewing garments for 3 cents apiece in a sweatshop and wading in fish innards while wearing a thin, blue plastic poncho and soggy boots in a sushi-processing plant.
As her parents are aged exponentially by the challenges of poverty and the strain it has on their marriage, Wang is tasked with the impossible — keeping her family together.
Once the precocious leader of her friend group in China, Wang was accustomed to giving advice to her peers. In the U.S., Wang had only her mother to confide in her. She, at times, parented her mother, who fell ill, precipitated by the stress of going back to school to receive a degree in computer science.
When she and her father would travel across the city together, Wang would feel her hand squeezed a little firmer as they walked past police officers, deemed dangerous by her father, who repeatedly told her to trust no one in the U.S. for fear of deportation.
Wang, as a child, is superstitious, a means of making sense of and regaining control over the whirlwind of racism, fetishization, othering, fear and paranoia she encountered daily.
From the ages of 7 to 12, Wang employs a keen sense of empathy and understanding of her circumstances. She had an intuition to protect herself, knowing when to slip out of a train car if she saw someone staring at or following her.
But Wang is still unworldly at times, unable to fully understand the complexities of her parents’ strained relationship or why she must lie that she was born in America.
Yet joy mingles with Wang’s troubles, as the reader is able to witness Wang’s flourishing love for reading, reminiscing with her about the glossy covers of new “Baby Sitters Club” books at a Barnes & Noble, the satisfaction that comes with spending hours in the public library, pouring over words from cover to cover.
Other victories are bittersweet: the feeling of a full belly after months of persistent hunger; making new friends, only to be unable to say goodbye to them.
Despite the visceral pictures Wang paints, her story is not a tragedy, nor is she the victim of her past. Though her memoir effectively ends during Wang’s early adolescence, her decision to write and publish her memoir is the book’s own epilogue.
Wang is diligent about describing her parent’s faces throughout scenes of the book: the blank stares into nowhere during stressful and dangerous moments; sallow, tired eyes after long days of work or bouts of sickness. Wang’s parents carry their baggage silently, holding their trauma in for fear of it consuming them whole. This was their means of survival.
But Wang, though with deep reverence for her parents, deviates from their path. After years of her childhood self living in hei, both undocumented and in the shadows of her mind, Wang commits not to leaving her young self in the dark, but to bringing her into the light.
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