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.
Beautiful Country is the story of Qian Julie Wang’s childhood as an illegal immigrant in New York. Qian, as a little girl, recounts her experiences throughout her formative years: fleeing from China and the influence of the communist party, enduring hunger and discrimination in America, and ultimately, carving out a place for herself in a harsh and uncaring new world.
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. She skirts a very fine line between earnest and sappy, which is an important point to make: the choice of words in every chapter tell a story on their own. Qian Julie Wang never imbues these childhood stories with nostalgic sweetness or wistful longing: they are told through the eyes of a child, but they are what they are and nothing more. It’s a fascinating written trip into the mind of an intelligent and imaginative little girl trying to make sense of the worst situations that being poor can throw a person into.
Peppered throughout the dialogue are lines spoken in Mandarin and written in pinyin, reminding readers that on top of being poor and illegal, Qian and her family are strangers in English-speaking, white-dominated New York. It’s a great little touch that adds character while further underlining the divide between the family and their new environment.
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. It’s the rollercoaster of tones and moods reflecting how life itself unfolds: one moment she’s helping her mom by cutting loose threads at a sweatshop, and the next she’s contemplating a Confucius statue stained with bird poop. Visiting her mother after a scary surgery today, then throwing up on her friend’s sneakers tomorrow. It’s real life. It’s what makes it interesting, and it’s what makes it worth reading.
Yes, Beautiful Country is worth reading. It has a unique and inspiring story to tell, and it is -- no weak pun intended -- beautifully written.