Imagine you are a kid and you are spending a day at work with your mother. This is not a company sponsored opportunity where you raid the pantry and nibble on cookies with the company logo on it; it’s just a normal Saturday. Her mother, who was a math professor in China, now works in a sushi processing plant near the Holland Tunnel. You stand there for eight hours, clad in ill-fitting rubber boots and a hooded plastic bodysuit, while she disembowels and decapitates an endless stream of salmon that floats by on a metal belt. Your toes go numb when you stand in the icy mud. Your toes will be trimmed. Years later, when you try sushi for the first time, you will remember the putrid smell of this warehouse and the exhaustion of the people who toiled in it.
This is one of many visceral memories that Qian Julie Wang describes in her memoir: BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (Double Day, 320 Pages, $ 28.95), which records her family’s move from Zhong Gui, China, to Brooklyn in 1994. “My parents and I would spend the next five years in the secret shadow of New York City,” she writes. “The Chinese colloquially refer to the undocumented as ‘hot’: to stand in the dark, to be blackened. And fittingly, because we spent those years shrouded in darkness while we struggled with hope and dignity. “
Chances are you’ve read an immigration story or two. (If, like me, you have an Irish surname, “Angela’s Ashes” might come to mind.) What sets Wang’s memoir apart is that it is limited in scope: it covers a short period of time, from second grade to middle school, so you have that Feeling like walking with her instead of observing with a drone. There is the humiliating first day of school when Wang is snubbed by a classmate who speaks Mandarin; hunger (“our kitchen contained more cockroaches than food”); the lack of privacy in a building shared with strangers. There are also moments of joy: Wang discovers six coveted candy-colored Polly Pockets in a translucent garbage bag. A family friend takes her to Macy’s to choose a graduation dress. For a while she laboriously tends to a skinny cat named Marilyn.
Unlike other memoir writers who look back with nostalgia, Wang does not romanticize her parents’ tough decisions – including Marilyn’s fate – or the difficult, sometimes desperate circumstances of the family. We taste their worry about deportation and the loneliness of being an only child of fear-torn parents. “In the vacuum of fear that was undocumented life, fear was gaseous,” writes Wang. “It expanded to fill our whole world until it was all we could breathe.”
Fiction serves this young student, who turns out to be a sponge for the language, as both a guide and a lifeline. From Clifford the Big Red Dog and Amelia Bedelia to “White Fang”, “Alice in Rapture, Sort Of” and “Julie of the Wolves” (whose heroine not only shares Wang’s name, but also her talent for traveling the world) we stories work their magic, broaden horizons and enlighten. In her thanks, Wang thanks four teachers (“I carry your indelible influence with me every day if I dare to call myself a writer”) and the New York Public Library and the subway system (“I’m even for them Delays grateful ”).