Reviews

Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang (王乾)

shewasfiction's review

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emotional funny hopeful inspiring reflective medium-paced

4.25

soljovis's review

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emotional reflective

5.0

laura_ge's review

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I will finish this eventually! Just not right now

lee's review

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5.0

I’m quite picky when it comes to memoirs and tend to gravitate towards those where I am able to either relate to the experiences of the author or connect with them in some way. While there are a plethora of memoirs out there, the reality is that very few of those memoirs are actually written from the perspective of someone who shares a similar background as myself — namely, a Chinese-American woman from an immigrant family who has struggled with identity and belonging her entire life. This is why, when I found out about Qian Julie Wang’s memoir Beautiful Country, I knew I absolutely had to pick this one up. This powerful memoir is exactly one of those rare gems that most closely encapsulates the immigrant experience that I grew up with. Though there are obvious differences between our circumstances in terms of how are families came to America (the titular “beautiful country” as directly translated from Chinese) — for example, my family immigrated here legally while Wang’s family ended up here illegally due to an expired visa — many of the struggles that Wang recounts from her childhood are ones that I’ve also experienced.

Wang tells her story starting from the perspective of her seven-year-old self, when she is told to put her most prized possessions into her grandparents’ storage unit in China so she could accompany her mother on a “flying machine” (literal translation of 飛機 or “airplane”) that eventually lands in a place called “beautiful country” (literal translation of 美國 or “America”). From the moment Wang and her mother step off the plane at JFK airport (New York) and are reunited with her father (who had gone to America two years earlier), her life is forever changed in ways that eventually shape who she becomes in adulthood. Though she didn’t know it at the time, leaving China for America meant that Wang would go from an environment where she was surrounded by extended family, unconditional love, and every comfort possible, to one where loneliness was a constant companion, familial love came with strings attached, and every day was a fight for survival at all levels (physically, mentally, emotionally). We witness Wang’s coming of age through the wide-eyed lens of a child forced to navigate a world she does not understand and where she was taught to put her head down, do as she was told, and endure whatever was thrown her way without complaint because that was the expectation of someone in her situation.

While in China, Wang’s parents were highly educated professionals, in America they were reduced to working in sweatshops and other low-paying jobs that allowed them to remain in the shadows, with the constant fear of their illegal status being discovered hanging over them. The stress of their new life in a foreign country where, despite their efforts to remain invisible, they are still largely unwelcomed, takes a toll on Wang’s parents and eventually leads to the fracturing of their family. Illegal status aside though, Wang’s struggles growing up as an immigrant child resonated deeply with me — from the humiliation of a tenuous living situation where there was little to no privacy, to not being able to afford the most basic of comforts that seemed to come easily to everyone else (ie: enough food for the table, a roof over our heads, clean clothes to wear to school); to being constantly told that, no matter how hard you work to fit in or how much you contribute to your community, you will never truly belong; to the bullying and racism, both subtle and direct, that becomes an inevitable part of the immigrant experience. For me, this book was difficult to read — not because of challenging subject matter or anything like that — but because of the familiarity of Wang’s experiences and the memories they brought back of my own childhood. One experience in particular had me near tears when I read it: the scene where, in fifth grade, Wang is summoned to her (white male) teacher’s desk one day and, shown an essay she had written and submitted, is essentially accused of plagiarism because the essay was “too well written” and the English was “too good” to have been written by her. Even though she told her teacher that she truly did write the essay and didn’t plagiarize, her status meant that she was not to be believed, so after that incident, Wang would deliberately include spelling and grammatical errors in all her essays to avoid having to endure a similar confrontation with her teacher in the future. This scene resonated with me in particular because this was a common experience for me throughout my entire elementary and middle school education: being told that something I wrote couldn’t possibly have been written by me because the English was “too good” and that I must have copied it from elsewhere. As a result, I also started deliberately including “errors” in my writing to avoid confrontation. Luckily, I later attended a high school and college that embraced diversity and eventually recognized my efforts (though the shaken confidence in how I view my writing is something that I still carry with me to this day).

This was truly a profound and emotional read for me, one that I know will stay with me for a long time to come. Even though reading this memoir brought back some unhappy memories for me, I appreciate the fact that a book like this one exists. While I am buoyed by the knowledge that our country has come a long way in terms of racial diversity and acceptance, at the same time, I am saddened by the obvious steps backwards that we as a society have also taken in this area, over the past few years especially. Now more than ever, we need books like this one that can hopefully help open people’s eyes to the plight that so many in our society experience — a timely read that I absolutely recommend!

Received ARC from Doubleday Books via Edelweiss.

cmerck14's review against another edition

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3.0

I received a free copy from NetGalley. While it was interesting to hear about an immigrant's experience, I never really connected with this story - it felt like a slog to me. Still, because of the perspective, I am giving it 3 stars.

bookswithshannon's review against another edition

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emotional inspiring reflective sad tense medium-paced

4.25

ester_duraes's review

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emotional informative inspiring reflective medium-paced

4.0

poodlydoo72's review against another edition

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3.0

3.5

akappel32's review

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2.0

I don’t really know what to say about this novel. I had just read another memoir before this, so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood or maybe it just really wasn’t that good. I can sympathize with Wang and her upbringing and I congratulate her for making something of herself after a hard childhood in poverty, but the reality is, she doesn’t do a good job of making you feel it. The novel itself is boring, and doesn’t keep you engaged. Her stories, while personal, don’t feel very, well, personal. It feels like such a gloss over of her life with no real chance to get invested and really feel it.

justabookholic's review against another edition

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5.0

A candid and powerful memoir which captured the hardships, sacrifices, and hopes of an undocumented family, living in poverty in a country of overt excess. This is a story with little joy and stark realities, Wang crafts a harsh duality of having so little in America while being surrounded by those who have so much more; more food, more wealth, and more comfort. I would not characterize this to be a happy read, although the book ends on a more hopeful note, this was an emotionally heavy book and I don't think it is inaccurate to categorize this as a book about trauma and fear. That being said, I do think that this is a must read as it gives one inherently important glimpse into those who come here and fall into the gaps while they try to reach the American Dream.