By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Healing from trauma often comes from sharing, which is one of the hardest things to do. Beautiful Country, the autobiographical novel by Qian Julie Wang, details her experiences as a young Chinese girl, and illegal immigrant, in New York City.
On Oct. 6, University Bookstore hosted Wang in an online chat moderated by Connie So, University of Washington (UW) professor and president of OCA Asian Pacific Advocates – Greater Seattle.
Beautiful Country provides an almost never-before-seen window into the life of an illegal immigrant—the sweatshops, the fear of going to a hospital or talking to anyone of authority, being preyed upon by fetishist white males—persecution and discrimination that is bad enough for legal residents and escalates when you cannot speak up because someone might report you.
So, self-described as “a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong,” liked how Wang’s book addresses “the stories of people who are oftentimes ignored” and who are “in the shadows in the United States.” She appreciated the Chinese culture represented in the book because “even though China has seen traumatic political changes…people still have a lot of pride about being Chinese.” So asked Wang about her process in deciding what to put down—a question that comes up due to the rare amount of revelatory material in Beautiful Country regarding the life of those with illegal statuses, but also because many Asian families are encouraged to keep their private lives to themselves.
“There are so many secrets,” So commented. “So many things that a lot of us have been taught not to share, about [which] you bravely share.”
In the story, Wang covers the period of her uprooted childhood from when her nuclear family immigrated to the United States until they were given legal papers by Canada.
“It took me a long time to find the courage to tell this story,” Wang admitted. “For most of my life…I kept everything that happened…a complete secret…There was so much messaging, from my parents, from society…that what we had been, or were, was bad, and dangerous…Coupled with Chinese culture and its resistance to airing dirty laundry…it was a huge battle for me to overcome the tides that told me to be quiet.”
Then, Wang returned to the United States and became a citizen. The video during the naturalization ceremony where President Obama greets everyone in the room as a “fellow American” marked a pivotal moment for her.
“As he said those words, something profoundly shifted in me. I didn’t realize until that moment how badly I had needed to be recognized as American.”
Even though she was already working as a lawyer and had a green card, Wang had thought that being naturalized wouldn’t make a difference, but it gave her “a newfound sense of privilege and power” that included “a sense of duty and responsibility…I was profoundly empowered and entitled to speak up and yet, if I was still bullied into staying quiet, then what hope was there for anybody else?”
Wang said she hoped to speak up for everyone who couldn’t, that Beautiful Country is “not really about my family or me…It’s not an autobiography. It’s about the immigrant experience.”
She wanted the book to “give light to the beating heart behind the headlines”—the real people behind the “political talking points” about immigrants. She was clear that she cannot speak for everyone.
“But I really wanted to show that the little girl out there who is still wandering the library feeling lost and lonely and scared, that she’s not alone, and that there is hope.”
The second most prominent element of Beautiful Country is the reversal of the child-parent role. So commented on the “number of things” Wang had to do for her parents, and wondered, “When do people become an adult?” Children of immigrants often become “inexperienced adults,” the opposite of traditional families where parents are “all knowing.” Wang said she has been asked a lot about why she didn’t write about her adulthood, and yet, “I did write about my early adulthood…I became an adult long before I was aware of what adulthood was.”
Child Wang realized at once that her extended family was gone, and she would need to take care of her mother.
“I realized it was just the two of us…Before then…as long as my mother was there, everything was covered.” But when they came to the United States, this changed, and young Wang took on a tremendous duty.
“I had taken on this role of being her little therapist and her best friend far too early because neither of us had anyone else.” Wang said that this dynamic lasted long into her (physical) adulthood and is a difficult habit to break. The experience gave Wang a deep empathy for the fallibility of all humans. She hopes that readers will view her parents the same way she does, as heroes.
“Part of writing this book and healing those traumas and wounds helped me…because I was able to simultaneously see what little Qian was going through, and honor that, but also see what my mother had to carry.”
When it came to her father, Wang said she had not appreciated the scope of the psychological damage he experienced due to the emasculation of Asian men in American culture, and his inability to support his family the way that he wished. She was determined to stop the generational trauma brought from the Cultural Revolution and the immigrant experience into the future with her own husband and children.
So wanted to know if publishing the book had resolved the tension between Wang and her parents. Wang had worried that because her parents “blamed themselves” they would react to the book negatively. She had assured them that it was coming from a place of love. Nevertheless, she did not show them Beautiful Country until the day the book became public.
In fact, Wang’s parents could not put the book down.
“They were reading through their tears…they were shocked that they felt healed by every page…My wildest dream was for my parents to feel healed, on some level, and…for the three of us to be able to put this behind us, and to move forward and build a chapter that was untethered from everything we were not allowed to talk about…When the New York Times list was announced, my father said that there was nothing he was afraid of anymore. And in that moment, I realized that I was still very much that child looking for her father’s permission to feel safe, and I finally got it, at age 34.”
The talk with Wang will be on the University Bookstore’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/ubookstore. Beautiful Country will be available from University Bookstore with a signed bookplate; and is available at other booksellers.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.