Book Review

‘Beautiful’ story evokes deep empathy for the immigrant experience

By Donna Bruno
Posted 1/25/23

“Beautiful Country” is the English translation of the Chinese word for America, “Mai Guo,” and it is what Qian’s family believed when they first immigrated to the U.S. Her professor father, “BaBa,” arrived first after losing his teaching position during the 1996 Cultural Revolution for saying something about the government.

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Book Review

‘Beautiful’ story evokes deep empathy for the immigrant experience

Posted

‘Beautiful Country: A Memoir’

By Qian Julie Wang

“Beautiful Country” is the English translation of the Chinese word for America, “Mai Guo,” and it is what Qian’s family believed when they first immigrated to the U.S. Her professor father, “BaBa,” arrived first after losing his teaching position during the 1996 Cultural Revolution for saying something about the government.

The pain she and her mother felt upon her father’s departure was more akin to abandonment. Five years later, after he had saved enough to send for them, the defeated and broken man with whom they reunited had little resemblance of the popular, energetic and playful Baba who loved to dance with his 5-year-old.

From that point it was one terrible disappointment after another. First was the depressing hovel to which he took them home, a single room in a decrepit house in Brooklyn where penniless immigrants rented rooms and shared a single bath and community kitchen while cockroaches scurried to and fro.

The next was MaMa’s employment in an oppressively dark and airless sweat shop sewing labels in shirts while the child cut the threads off for 12 hours a day. Even when Qian enrolled in school, it was torture, jeered by her classmates for her non-existent language skills as well lack of decent clothing, wearing the same smelly shirt and pants for an entire week.

She experienced humiliation, not just from her classmates, but also by her teachers, one depositing her in a special needs room when she was actually precociously bright. With no assistance, she taught herself English and fell in love with books, her only salvation.

Her mother’s employment was one sad and arduous job after another, one in an odiferous fish processing plant where their hands were plunged in icy water all day, turning blue, then purple, the frigid water spilling into their boots, causing numbness, chills, and shaking. The child would stand on a stool grabbing fish and passing it to her mother, who then dismembered it, cutting and slicing before she placed it on a conveyor belt.

Their walks home in wet clothing, the bitter winter cold making them numb, they could only find some respite crawling under multiple covers in an unheated, windowless room where all three slept in the same bed.

To add to her misery, hunger pangs were a constant, as food was expensive and scarce. Feeling guilty for being a burden as an extra mouth to feed, Qian often pretended she had eaten at school when that was not the case. As her stomach rumbled constantly, kids at school shunned and avoided her.

Her description of her dismal childhood is heartrending. Worse yet were the teachers, one who accused her of plagiarism for a story so well-written that he doubted it was hers. Seeing only the  poor, dirty, unattractive Chinese girl before him, he could not imagine her intelligence and potential.

Free books at the library were her only salvation. Eagerly she devoured one after another – on the subway, on her walks, in her bed, during lunch hour apart from everyone else who were eating. In addition, she was the object of constant criticism from her once-loving parents – her appearance, her face, her lack of gratitude. Beset by negativity all around her, it is remarkable that she survived and later flourished.

This is a difficult story to read. One heart-breaking scene involves a beloved, precious cat whom her parents consider bad luck because of its coloring. She plays with it, dotes on it, feeds it from her own meager portions – her only friend, companion, and playmate. When her mother becomes very ill and is hovering between life and death, the child is overcome with guilt because she believes her intense desire for the pet has indeed brought misfortune to her mother.

The guilt she harbors is overwhelming, as well as the pain – both physical and psychological, in addition to her sense of inadequacy would cow and destroy one less resilient. It is marvelous to see her summon control of her own destiny by taking a test to attend a different school, the first step toward rescuing herself and her parents from this hell-hole existence.

Eventually she will attend Swarthmore College, followed by Yale Law School, and become a managing partner of a law firm advocating for education and civil rights.

This is one truly inspirational odyssey replete with more conflicting emotions than any one book could contain. Although Qian narrates in unabashed honesty her exceptionally dire childhood, she never whined or complained, holding all within to spare her parents further anguish. She camouflaged it all behind an unflappable exterior, a stoic mask she miraculously maintained.

Her success is astounding given her mountainous disadvantages and adversities. This book is one powerful testament to the strength of sheer will, determination, and indefatigable spirit.

As a writer, she is a master at character revelation – the complexities of her parents – especially her mother, who after a respected position as a math professor in her native country was relegated in America to the most menial and physically taxing jobs mentioned above. Surprisingly it will be her mother who initiates the major step in advancement by her brave move to Canada.

In addition to character revelation is the author’s ability to create mood – some dark and dismal, certainly many extremely painful, others awe-inspiring and hopeful.

In “Beautiful Country” the reader will experience a plethora of powerful feelings, accompanying the main character from the abject poverty of a totally lost new immigrant, the object of scorn, bias, and stereotyping, to the giddy heights of success where she can truly embrace being “American.”

This, more than any book I’ve read, creates deep empathy for the immigrant’s struggles to assimilate – a most worthwhile read.

 

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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