Burdens and Bounties in the “Beautiful Country”: Book Review

The 2021 memoir, “Beautiful Country,” tells the story of author Qian Julie Wang as she navigated her childhood in New York City as an illegal immigrant.


Graphic by Mariyam Syed

Mariyam Syed, Staff Writer

Beautiful Country, which translates to Mei Guo in Chinese, is the name given to America for its expectations of freedom, safety and bounty for many immigrants. This is the promise that enticed the parents of Qian Julie Wang when her father fled political persecution for his views against the Communist Party in China. As Wang grows up, she discovers the realities of living as an illegal Chinese immigrant in the urban underbelly of 1990s New York City. In fact, the underlying poverty, cultural isolation and fear of deportation faced by Wang and her family is a constant juxtaposition to the book’s title. 

Wang unapologetically tells the gritty details of her childhood, with descriptions of factory work and poverty that will stick with me long after I read it. Although the book doesn’t fully describe Wang’s adult life and how she eventually thrived in America, it is still a memoir worth reading.

Since the story is limited to only Wang’s viewpoint as a naive child, it was hard to understand her parent’s motives for staying in Brooklyn without applying for asylum or citizenship, even while they worked for an immigration attorney. It leaves me with the impression that the parent’s side of the story is untold.

Reading about the other immigrants Wang met, I understood how there is no route back unless they pay the debts of their travel and other hardships, like sudden family illnesses. Others feared the dangers of returning to China. However, I’ve seen other readers posit that since Wang’s extended family was unharmed even after her father’s stance against the government, returning to China would not be so dangerous. This created another blank space in the narrative of Wang’s story, which overall detracted from the strength of the book.

The point stands that most people would not harrow the journey and hardships of being an illegal immigrant in America, unless they were fleeing danger in their home country. Wang described how she heard fellow Chinese immigrants lament about this internal conflict.

“They talked about how great life had been in China, how hopeless life had been in China, how much they missed it, and how they did not miss it at all,” Wang recalled.

Throughout the book, Wang’s idyllic childhood memories of China are starkly contrasted with the destitution and fear she feels. It causes Wang and her family to become extremely pessimistic. They perceived almost everyone in America as either a threat or someone to be scorned, even the ones who could have helped them at Wang’s school or her parents’ workplaces.

Of the challenges they faced, I was most affected by Wang’s description of the daily near-starvation she faced, due to her family’s $20-a-week grocery budget. She described how she would regularly shiver and break into cold sweats from how hungry she was. 

It really put me in the mind of a young kid who’s suffering and is totally aware that it’s because they are poor, inferior to their richer classmates. Even traditionally fun things like the school book fair or the Secret Santa gift swap became symbols of inadequacy. Wang describes the lunch line where richer kids are able to pay for fancier meals or have home-cooked meals, while the poorer kids get the free lunch food, a “congealed brown sludge.” More than nutritionally lacking, the stark difference in meals is humiliating for the kids who know that it’s because they are poor. 

Even in America where food security programs are relatively robust, children of illegal immigrants are sidelined in the political debate of whether they deserve access to social services without being citizens. It’s hard to come up with an easy solution for how we can equitably distribute limited resources to people who really need it, but Wang’s life story is one important perspective in that discussion. It also captures the desperation parents face when they are helpless to fix their child’s suffering.

It’s remarkably honest how Wang describes her parents. She is dedicated to helping them and repeatedly urges herself to be a good girl to please them, but at the same time, she acknowledges their flaws and the ways they hurt her. Her parents are often fighting, angry at the world around them. Though her parents love her, they sometimes imply that taking care of her makes their lives harder. I think this dynamic speaks volumes about the way children of immigrants or minorities sometimes feel a duty to be better, for the sake of not being a burden on their already struggling parents. 

One way Wang does this is pretending to eat the school’s free breakfasts so her parents won’t “waste” breakfast on her. It’s a depressing way to show how at a young age, she felt the need to sacrifice for the good of her family. As a child, she skimped on meals, scavenged for used furniture for her family’s rundown tenant rooms and provided emotional support for her mother who was often depressed and anxious about money and endlessly laborious jobs.  Even with all these woeful situations, this is just as much the story of how Wang and her family find ways to gain an education and better jobs and thrive in their hard lives.

One of the biggest triumphs I connected to was when Wang’s mother passed the TOEFL English proficiency exam and decided to enter college after a series of grueling factory jobs. She described to Wang how she had been a math professor in China with published work, yet she was now forced into laborious jobs to simply feed her child.

This sudden drop from being a qualified professional to an unskilled worker is something many immigrants encounter, and it reminded me of the experiences of my own family members. It made me think about how even speaking with accented English is looked down upon by some people, without acknowledging the hard work people put into learning a new language and gaining skills to improve their lives.

I think the symbolism of how learning English empowered Wang and her mother is an important point to touch on. Wang taught herself to read English as an eight-year-old, using children’s picture books in the special needs classroom, where she was assigned because she couldn’t speak English. In her first-ever spelling test, Wang described, “I scored a proud 33 percent. So began my path to graduating from college with an English degree in fifteen years.”

Inspired by the biographies of trailblazers Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall, Wang aspired to be a lawyer, especially to pave the way for other immigrant kids that lived like her. Wang eventually was admitted to a school for gifted students, then she moved to Canada where her mother found an opportunity for them to attend college legally. From this, their lives improved significantly, but it was hard for them to come to terms with the pain they faced as illegal immigrants in Brooklyn. 

As Wang reflects on the traumas of her childhood, she decides to return to New York to pursue her goal of becoming a lawyer and eventually gain citizenship. The story of “Beautiful Country” ends with Wang having the security and sense of hope she dreamt of throughout her childhood.

Wang’s life was inspiring for me to read about, as I’m also the child of an immigrant family and a student who’s passionate about the legal field. But it also made me wonder about the other kids Wang grew up with, the ones who weren’t able to make it out of the Brooklyn sweatshops and into college. Most people facing poverty and illegal immigration don’t get the same opportunities as Wang and I have.

That’s why I wanted to read more about her educational journey in Harvard Law School and how she gained agency and belonging in America. Instead, the slow pacing of the story was bogged down with extraneous details of her childhood life. If her later life had been adequately mentioned, it would add some much-needed hope to the bleakness of the story. It would also show her development from a scared, disadvantaged child who hated America, into the confident woman who would become a civil rights attorney in New York. 

Despite the limited scope of the story, it was still an immersive first-hand account of the harshness of life in poverty and cultural isolation. Wang’s memoir stands as an important addition to American immigrant literature, and I would read future books about her life. “Beautiful Country” gets 4/5 stars.