New to the American Melting Pot, and Finding Its Taste Bittersweet

Welcome to Group Text, a month-to-month column for readers and ebook golf equipment about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you need to discuss, ask questions and dwell in one other world for a bit of bit longer.


In 1994, Qian Julie Wang moved from China to Brooklyn together with her mother and father. This is the story of their tumultuous early years constructing a life in an unfamiliar and largely inhospitable place.

“Beautiful Country” just isn’t solely a window right into a household’s expertise of starting once more with restricted sources, it’s additionally the story of a reader utilizing books to discover her means.

Imagine you’re a child, becoming a member of your mother for a day at work. This isn’t any corporate-sponsored event the place you’ll raid the provide closet and nibble cookies frosted with the firm brand; it’s only a common Saturday. Your mom, who was a math professor again in China, is now employed by a sushi processing plant close to the Holland Tunnel. There you’ll stand for eight hours, clad in ill-fitting rubber boots and a hooded plastic onesie, whereas she guts and beheads an countless stream of salmon floating by on a steel belt. Your toes will go numb from standing in icy sludge. Your toes will prune. Years later, if you strive sushi for the first time, you’ll recall the putrid odor of that warehouse and the exhaustion of the individuals toiling inside.

This is one in all many visceral recollections Qian Julie Wang describes in her memoir, BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (Doubleday, 320 pp., $28.95), which chronicles her household’s 1994 transfer from Zhong Gui, China, to Brooklyn. “My parents and I would spend the next five years in the furtive shadows of New York City,” she writes. “The Chinese refer to being undocumented colloquially as ‘hei’: being in the dark, being blacked out. And aptly so, because we spent those years shrouded in darkness while wrestling with hope and dignity.”

Chances are, you’ve learn an immigration story or two. (If you’ve got an Irish final identify like I do, “Angela’s Ashes” may come to thoughts.) What units Wang’s memoir aside is the narrowness of its scope: She covers a brief time frame, from second grade via center faculty, so you’re feeling as when you’re touring together with her on foot as a substitute of observing by drone. There’s the humiliating first day of college, when Wang will get snubbed by a classmate who speaks Mandarin; the starvation (“Our kitchen contained more cockroaches than food”); the lack of privateness in a constructing shared with strangers. There are additionally moments of pleasure: Wang spots six coveted candy-colored Polly Pockets inside a translucent trash bag. A household pal takes her to Macy’s to pick a commencement gown. For a time, she painstakingly cares for a thin cat named Marilyn.

Unlike different memoirists wanting again via a scrim of nostalgia, Wang doesn’t romanticize her mother and father’ hard-knock choices — Marilyn’s destiny is amongst them — or the household’s troublesome, typically determined circumstances. We style their fear about deportation and the loneliness of being an solely youngster of fogeys torn aside by dread. “In the vacuum of anxiety that was undocumented life, fear was gaseous,” Wang writes. “It expanded to fill our entire world until it was all we could breathe.”

Fiction serves as each guidebook and lifeline for this younger scholar, who proves to be a sponge for language. From Clifford the Big Red Dog and Amelia Bedelia to “White Fang,” “Alice in Rapture, Sort Of” and “Julie of the Wolves” (whose heroine shares not solely Wang’s identify however her knack for world-straddling), we see tales working their magic, increasing and illuminating horizons. In her acknowledgments, Wang thanks 4 lecturers (“I carry your indelible influence with me every day I dare to call myself a writer”) in addition to the New York Public Library and the subway system (“I am thankful even for its delays”).

Normally after I end a ebook, I stand in entrance of my shelf, attempting to determine what to learn subsequent. When I completed “Beautiful Country,” I picked up my passport as a substitute, inhaling the scent of its pages. Wang’s highly effective story reminds us how fortunate we’re to have the privileges unlocked by this little blue booklet — and what others threat and endure daily in hopes of getting one too.

Discussion Questions

Wang writes, “My story starts decades before my birth.” What does she imply by this?

Did you, like me, crave a glimpse into Wang’s teenage years, or had been you happy with the slice of life she supplied?

Why do you suppose Wang selected to embody some spoilers at the starting of her ebook?

Suggested Reading

Mambo in Chinatown,” by Jean Kwok. When I discovered myself wishing for extra of Wang’s story, I saved pondering of this novel, a couple of 22-year-old girl who’s working as a dishwasher in Manhattan’s Chinatown and turns into — towards all odds, actually — a ballroom dancer. (Not a spoiler, however Wang is a lawyer, which requires its personal fancy footwork.)

The Undocumented Americans,” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. The writer’s mother and father introduced her to the United States illegally from Ecuador when she was 5. In this “series of memoir-infused reported essays,” as our reviewer described it, “Cornejo Villavicencio traveled the country, gaining access to vigilantly guarded communities whose stories are largely absent from modern journalism and literature.” Among them are a “pharmacy” in Miami the place individuals with out papers should purchase prescribed drugs and a piece middle for undocumented day laborers on Staten Island.