Book: Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang
Publication date: 2021
Source: eBook borrowed from the library
Summary: Qian arrived in the United States in 1994 with her mother, joining her father who had already established himself in New York City. They were going to Mei Guo, what the Chinese called America. The literal translation is “beautiful country.”
American restrictions on people who overstay their visa but need to work to live also cause a great deal of suffering for this family. Some suffering was due to things that we like to believe doesn’t exist in America, like starvation and workplaces that don’t abide by any labor laws.
Thoughts: Beautiful Country was the May selection for the Community for Understanding and Hope Book Group. We specialize in books about race in America. I believe this is our first book about Asian American experiences so we chose it for May, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
We were amazed at how well this story was told from the child’s perspective. The memories recounted are clear and detailed, giving the reader a sense of walking, skipping, or sitting alongside young Qian as she navigates this beautiful country that mostly hides its beauty from undocumented workers and their families.
Since we were so enamored by Wang’s childhood, I asked our group about ways that our childhoods were similar to and different from hers. At first, all we came up with were differences. Our group members grew up white, middle class, born into citizenship, and in rural and suburban environments.
Given that we’re a book group, however, we connected to Wang’s experiences with books as companions that stave off loneliness and send us on imaginative journeys. Most of our members are quite a bit older than Wang, so we remembered the Boxcar Children series, the Wizard of Oz books, Nancy Drew, Louisa May Alcott, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The librarian who takes care of our group is more similar in age to Wang so she was able to tell us about the Baby-Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins books that Wang loved as a child.
Appeal: Read Beautiful Country if you appreciate fully rendered childhood memoirs or are fascinated by life in New York City (especially the parts that tourists don’t see) or want to learn about the modern immigrant experience in an engaging way.
Challenges: Beautiful Country is my third of five books for the 2023 Diversity Reading Challenge. I get extra credit for completing the mini-challenge of reviewing a book featuring an East Asian perspective in May.
I’m counting Beautiful Country as the fifth of six books in the 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. This is my book for the Crime & Punishment category. At first, it seemed like a stretch, but the whole point of this book is what it’s like to live as an undocumented person in the United States and the consequences of that.
That’s a life lived in fear and uncertainty. It’s a life that is easily exploited by people. It’s a life where a call for help is likely to put you in more danger than you’re already in.
“No human being is illegal” remains the starting point for establishing New Americans in ways that are less harmful to them and more beneficial to everyone.
Have you read Beautiful Country? What did you think?