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

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.

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

  • Beautiful Country


    'Hunger was a constant, reliable friend in Mei Guo. She came second only to loneliness.'

    In China she was the daughter of professors. In Brooklyn her family is 'illegal.'

    Qian is just seven when she moves to America, the 'Beautiful Country', where she and her parents find that the roads of New York City are not paved with gold, but crushing fear and scarcity. Unable to speak English at first, Qian and her parents must work wherever they can to survive, all while she battles hunger and loneliness at school. Thus begins an extraordinary story that describes, in vivid colours, days labouring in sweatshops and sushi factories, nights scavenging the streets for furniture, and the terrifying moment when the family emerges from the shadows to seek emergency medical treatment for Qian's mother.

    Qian Julie Wang's memoir is an unforgettable account of what it means to live under the perpetual threat of deportation and the small joys and sheer determination that kept her family afloat in a new land. Told from a child's perspective, in a voice that is intimate, poignant and startlingly lyrical, Beautiful Country is the story of a girl who learns first to live - and then escape - an invisible life.

    'A powerful, gripping insight into the world of an undocumented migrant in New York . . . beautifully written, with vivid scenes that linger in the mind long after finishing it' Helena Merriman

    'A story that needs to be heard. Moving, beautiful, heartbreaking and even funny . . . I never wanted it to end' Philippa Perry

    'Deeply compelling
    . . . I was moved by the love and resilience of this family thrust into darkness. The book casts an urgent light on a reality that extends way beyond America's borders' Hisham Matar, author of A Month in Siena and The Return

    'Astonishing . . . In
    restrained but beautiful prose, Wang honours her family's sacrifices, but alerts us to the urgent realisation that they should not be necessary' Nesrine Malik

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