While your mom is at work, imagine you’re a kid and you’re going to tag along for the day. Instead of a company-sponsored event with cookies frosted with their logo and a supply closet raid, this is just another Saturday. Your mother, who was a math professor in China, now works at a sushi processing plant near the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey. As she guts and beheads an endless stream of salmon on a metal belt, you will stand there for eight hours in ill-fitting rubber boots and a hooded plastic onesie. If you’re standing in icy sludge, your toes will get very cold very quickly. Your toes will be trimmed. Even after you’ve had sushi for the first time, you’ll be able to recall that disgusting smell and the suffocation of the workers inside.
Qian Julie Wang’s memoir, BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (Doubleday, 320 pages, $28.95), which recounts her family’s 1994 move from Zhong Gui, China, to Brooklyn, includes many such vivid memories. For the next five years, she and her parents “would live in the shadows of New York City.” “The Chinese term “hei,” which means “in the dark” or “blacked out,” is a colloquial term for being undocumented. Since those were years of darkness, we had to fight for hope and dignity, it’s only fitting that they should be named after that.
There’s a good chance you’ve read a few stories about immigration. (“Angela’s Ashes,” perhaps, if you share my Irish surname) Wang’s memoir stands out because of its focus: With a focus on grades 2–6, you get the impression of travelling with her on foot rather than being a passive observer. We have the humiliating first day of school, where a classmate who speaks Mandarin ignores Wang; the lack of food (“Our kitchen contained more cockroaches than food”); and the lack of privacy in a building shared by strangers. Moments of happiness can be found: A translucent trash bag contains six highly sought-after candy-colored Polly Pockets, which Wang discovers. To help her choose a graduation gown, a family friend takes her to Macy’s. She spent a period of time meticulously caring for a thin cat named Marilyn.
As a result, Wang doesn’t romanticise her parents’ difficult decisions—including Marilyn’s fate—or the family’s difficult and at times desperate situations. It’s as if we can taste their anxiety about being deported, as well as the loneliness that comes with being the only child of two parents who are constantly fighting. Undocumented life was a “vacuum of anxiety,” according to Wang. When it filled our world, we couldn’t take a breath.
When it comes to learning new languages, this young student has an uncanny knack for picking up new words. “Julie of the Wolves,” “Alice in Rapture, Sort of” and “White Fang” are just a few examples of stories that have a way of expanding and illuminating our understanding of the worlds they inhabit. Wang acknowledges four teachers (“I carry your indelible influence with me every day I dare to call myself a writer”) as well as the New York Public Library and the subway system (“I am thankful even for its delays”) in her acknowledgments section of her novel.