Book Review

Beautiful Country

Beautiful Country

  • Author: Qian Julie Wang
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publication Date: September 7, 2021
  • Publisher: Random House Audio

CONTENT WARNING: murder, persecution, bullying, trauma, racism, mention of animal abuse, mention of abortion

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An incandescent memoir from an astonishing new talent, Beautiful Country puts listeners in the shoes of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world.

In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country”. Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal”, and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.

In Chinatown, Qian’s parents labor in sweatshops. Instead of laughing at her jokes, they fight constantly, taking out the stress of their new life on one another. Shunned by her classmates and teachers for her limited English, Qian takes refuge in the library and masters the language through books, coming to think of The Berenstain Bears as her first American friends. And where there is delight to be found, Qian relishes it: her first bite of gloriously greasy pizza, weekly “shopping days”, when Qian finds small treasures in the trash lining Brooklyn’s streets, and a magical Christmas visit to Rockefeller Center – confirmation that the New York City she saw in movies does exist after all.

But then Qian’s headstrong Ma Ma collapses, revealing an illness that she has kept secret for months for fear of the cost and scrutiny of a doctor’s visit. As Ba Ba retreats further inward, Qian has little to hold onto beyond his constant refrain: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.

Inhabiting her childhood perspective with exquisite lyric clarity and unforgettable charm and strength, Qian Julie Wang has penned an essential American story about a family fracturing under the weight of invisibility, and a girl coming of age in the shadows, who never stops seeking the light.

This is one of those buzzy memoirs that I’ve seen all over the place — amazing debut lists, great new books to pick up lists, bookstagram, twitter, literally everywhere I look. And while I typically approach these books a bit hesitantly, since they often tend to be somewhat overhyped, this one absolutely deserves all the hype and then some. 

The audiobook is narrated by the author herself, lending an additional weight to her experiences. She manages to take us back through her childhood, and share the most vulnerable parts of herself in a way that made it both accessible and heartbreaking. It wasn’t always an easy story to read, but it’s an important one to hear. Because she isn’t the only one who lived this way, and people continue to live like this. 

Qian takes us through her childhood in China a bit, sharing her mischievous and tomboyish nature even as her family struggles against the repressive government and the traumatic and long-lasting effects that it had on her family. But she also emphasizes the strong family bonds and support that they had. After a period of separation from her father, Qian and her mother wind up traveling to the promised land of America to reunite with him and begin a better life. Except that it isn’t quite the better life that they were hoping for. 

She encounters racism, the loss of social support, and the crushing poverty that they faced, not to mention the fact that her parents went from being esteemed professors to working menial jobs in sweatshops, just barely making enough money to put food on the table. The bonds in her family break down as a result of the stress, leading to fighting that Qian doesn’t really understand. She also doesn’t quite understand how poor her family is, and that others don’t live this way until she starts to make friends, and sees how they live. 

Her clear, unflinching look at her upbringing was tough to read, but it also left me in awe of how truly strong and resilient this girl was. Even at a young age, when presented with obstacles that appeared impossible to overcome, she never gave up, but rather found creative ways around them to the best of her ability. She was persistent, always questioning, always striving to do better for no reason other than being told she couldn’t. I wanted to see this little girl succeed, and I loved celebrating her tenacity and small successes. 

I can’t imagine what it’s like growing up with the constant ache of hunger, having to wear the same dirty clothing over and over, living in a house with roaches and no heat because the landlord doesn’t want to pay for it, having sneakers with holes in them because my family can’t afford more, avoiding medical care because we can’t afford it and worry about being deported for being undocumented, but this memoir gave me a little bit of insight into what it was like to grow up this way, and the lasting effects it has on a person:

“I am so very tired of running and hiding, but I have done it for so long, I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know how to do anything else. It is all I am, defining myself against illegality while stitching it into my veins.”

This story focuses heavily on Qian Julie Wang’s early years, but I’m curious to learn more about what happens after this story. I’d love to see the next chapter in her journey, and to see how she overcomes the ghosts of her past. She’s got an amazing talent, and this is the kind of book that has the potential to change how we view an entire segment of society that far too many see as “undesirable” or “disposable.” But in reality, they’re people who have hopes, dreams, and are often simply seeking a better life in a safer place. This is the kind of book that needs to be included in school reading lists, since not only will it help us learn more about people who have different lived experience, but it will help us develop empathy for others. And it left me with a deep gratitude for all that I have.

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