Photos of author Qian Julie Wang as a child with her family in New York City, arranged like a scrapbook against a cream background.

‘Books built me a home’: how reading helped a young immigrant flourish

In Beautiful Country: A Memoir of an Undocumented Childhood, author Qian Julie Wang writes poignantly about moving to America from China. Here, she outlines how books and reading – from Charlotte’s Web to the work of Cathy Park Hong – helped her adjust to life in a new country.

Qian Julie Wang

My debut memoir, Beautiful Country, places readers in my childhood shoes during my very first years in the United States, after my parents and I moved to New York City in 1994. Overnight, I went from being just another typical kid in north China to an undocumented child who attended school hungry and confused. I did not speak any English, but books and storytelling quickly became my refuge. My father had been an English Literature professor in China, and the social criticism of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain had been what called him to the Western world as he grew up in a family marked as dissidents.

During our early days in America, it also grew clear to me that fluency and literacy in the English language was the safest way to ensure that I would draw no suspicion about my immigration status. So, I threw myself into books. It was in the public library, and specifically the Chatham Square branch in New York City’s Chinatown, where I made my first American friends – all of them fictional characters – and built my first semblance of a home in the United States.

So many characters kept me company in those early years. Charlotte’s Web and The Baby-Sitters Club taught me the power of faith and friendship, and, across the globe from my entire extended family, I held close to my chest their lessons that as much as one was born into a family, one could also build a family united by kinship and love. And amidst that hope, the Diary of Anne Frank gave me the sense that I was not the only girl who had ever come of age in hiding. I had not been through anything as horrific as the Holocaust, of course, but the act of living in hiding and with the need to conceal a core truth about one’s identity resonated deeply. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe I was not quite as alone as I felt everyday. Anne Frank’s honest, raw reflections also alerted me to the importance of not just reading books but of weaving our own narrative, particularly because my story was not often reflected in books at the time.

This power of narrative found echoes in Harriet the Spy, which inspired me to jot down all the little, mundane details of my day in hopes of solving a major mystery. What’s more, Harriet, like Jonas from The Giver, validated my experience as a kid who experienced the world a little differently from everyone else, and as someone who could not help but see (and unsee) certain parts of our world. Altogether, these beloved books gave me a sense of safety, companionship, and home at a time when I needed it most.

It would not be until decades later, though, that I would find the power to start weaving that narrative of my own. And I would not have been able to do it without the inspiration of fellow authors. When Jose Antonio Vargas first identified himself as undocumented in an essay in New York Times Magazine, I was in law school and already documented, but still terrified and ashamed of my past.

'Fluency and literacy in the English language was the safest way to ensure that I would draw no suspicion about my immigration status'

Reading his essay, and then his subsequent book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, gave me the very first inkling that an action so brave and inspiring might be possible. But I was nowhere as courageous as Vargas, and it would not be until I became a naturalized citizen in 2016, 22 years after I first landed at JFK Airport, that I felt safe to begin putting my story down on paper. And when Karla Cornejo Villavicencio then came forward with The Undocumented Americans, shedding light on not just her hidden American experience but those of so many across the country, she supplied the fuel I needed to go forward with my agent in submitting my manuscript to major editors across the nation.

But even after I had secured a deal, I found guidance still from Cathy Park Hong who, in Minor Feelings, gave voice to the racialised misogyny that I had experienced as an Asian American woman for all of my American life. Yet, until Hong’s defiant work, I had never felt that I had the standing to express any of the things she so fearlessly brought to the page. All three – Vargas, Villavicencio, and Hong – courageously bared their own vulnerabilities so that it might become safer for others like me to do so. Without them, I would not be the author or person I am today, and Beautiful Country would not exist in its current form.

So many decades later, I find comfort in the fact that my father had indeed been right – it was storytelling and literacy that had been my way out – and there are no stories more defining or important than the ones we dare to tell about ourselves.  


Qian Julie Wang will be in conversation on 30 September 2021. Find more details here.

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Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin
Photos at top provided by Qian Julie Wang

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