memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

On Rosh Hashanah this year, my synagogue held its services at a time when I wasn’t able to attend, so I took a virtual field trip to New York’s Central Synagogue (services there are amazing and thoughtful and insightful, and the music is absolutely incredible). Giving a Dvar Torah that day was Qian Julie Wang, whose words moved me. It was only after she spoke that a member of the clergy let the congregation know that Ms. Wang had a book coming out. I looked it up immediately and added Beautiful Country (Doubleday Books, 2021) to my TBR. My library had it, but up until my last trip, it was always checked out. It makes me happy to know that so many local people were reading it; it’s an incredibly moving memoir.

Qian Julie Wang’s family lived in China until coming to America, a country whose Chinese name translates to ‘beautiful country,’ when she is seven. But this country, as Qian Julie is quick to learn, is anything but beautiful to her and her parents. Their family is undocumented and lives in constant fear of being deported back to China. Her parents, educated professionals back in their home country, work low-wage jobs in terrible conditions in places that also occasionally employ young Qian Julie. Their living conditions are less than ideal, and hunger, followed by malnutrition, is Qian Julie’s constant companion. She goes without medical care, without proper clothing, in order to save money.

The stress takes its toll on the family, and each member reacts in different ways. Living in the shadows costs the family greatly, and while they survive, it comes at a cost. Beautiful Country will leave the reader wondering exactly what’s so beautiful about the American dream after all, marveling over the strength of immigrants, and weeping over what we put them through for no good reason.

This is a heartbreaking book. My daughter is the same age Ms. Wang was when she came to this country, and the images of a seven-year-old girl so hungry all the time broke me. There is ZERO reason for anyone in this country to go hungry, but so many of us keep voting for politicians who believe in punishing people for existing. Ms. Wang’s mother suffered greatly before finally getting medical care, due to fear of being deported, and, just…I don’t understand why the entire world is so insistent on maintaining this illusion of borders and rules instead of just caring for each other. Why are we so intent on hurting each other?

This isn’t the easiest book to read, emotionally, but it’s an incredibly important one in understanding the undocumented immigrant experience. To be so alone in a country that makes it clear every day how little they value you, despite not only the services you’re providing to help the country run but also your inherent worth as a human being is so incredibly painful and Ms. Wang paints a picture of desperation tinged, somehow, with wonder. That she isn’t filled with bitterness and rage toward the US is nothing short of a miracle; I’m not sure I would have that much grace in me.

Beautiful Country is an incredible story of a young girl’s struggle to survive in a country that refused to extend a hand to her and her family, that would rather punish her for existing than help her flourish and develop her many talents. And yet she persisted. Highly recommended.

Visit Qian Julie Wang’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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