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.
Empathetic and emotional
Jed says: Qian’s narration is interesting to read. Her words are empathic and considerate, especially when it comes to describing her parents, but also not without a tinge of snark for the many people who behave badly or treat her poorly. Qian tells her story with very little flowery fanfare, but still manages to keep the prose colorful and entertaining.
Jowana says: Beautiful Country is an emotional reminder that these children are not alone. The memoir is a compelling voice of the forgotten as told through the perspective of a child. The author drew the dark curtains shrouding her childhood and guided her readers through claustrophobic sweatshops, isolated school lunches, and predatory train rides.
Truthful to its reality
Jed says: The stories that Qian tells are difficult to fully comprehend for someone who has never really known poverty, but they also make it much easier to imagine how any person -- the brightest, or the most hardworking, or the most talented -- can be brought down and held back by terrible circumstances. It’s the believability of her stories that make it easy to imagine.
Jowana says: Throughout her journey, we see her parents evolve from outspoken professionals to docile menial laborers. Her mother spiraling into desperation is one of the more affecting characters in her memoir. The book ends with little detail about how she turned her life around and graduated from a prestigious law school. A quick online search, though, provides us with snippets of her present life. The young girl who withstood hunger, fear, and racism became a civil rights lawyer, got married, and returned to Brooklyn.
A touching story on immigrants
Jed says: Perhaps it’s the nature of real life -- the way that reality is under no obligation to obey any law of narrative consistency -- that is to blame for this. One chapter after observing how a Chinese verbal mannerism (“nei ge, nei ge”) sounds like a racial slur, Beautiful Country hits its readers with a touching and inspiring story about “keeping our feet on solid ground”: everyone goes through life’s journey one step at a time. It’s absurd, funny, tragic, and all too real.
Jowana says: Americans pride themselves on the so-called ‘American Dream,’ the set of ideals in which opportunities and success are achievable through hard work in a society with minimal barriers. The idea is that if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you will reach your goals no matter how improbable they may seem — unless you have no boots, to begin with, or are not allowed to own a pair. And in these United States, the bootless are the undocumented immigrants.