Qian Julie Wang left China and her extended family, friends and a brand new bicycle when she was seven years old for ‘Beautiful Country’ which is the literal translation for America in Mandarin. She traveled with her mother to New York to join her father who had moved two years prior. Both parents, educated professors in China, wanted to experience the American Dream. Instead they lived a life of poverty, menial labor and constant fear of deportation as they struggled to survive as “illegals” in New York. Qian Julie’s excellent memoir is told from the viewpoint of the innocent, often lonely and often mischievous eyes of young Qian Julie, whose first American friends were The Berenstain Bears, Clifford, the Big Red Dog and Amelia.
Named one of the best books of 2021 by the New York Times, NPR, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, Good Housekeeping and others, as well as one of President Obama’s 2021 top picks, Beautiful Country is a heartwarming read. And if you’re someone who prefers to listen to your books than read them, Qian Julie is a joy to listen to on Audible. Below is my Q&A with the author:
I listened to you speak at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan where you thanked the various allies you’ve had in your life from specific teachers to the public library to a federal judge. You also were grateful to your therapists. Can you tell us about your therapists’ role in helping you write your memoir?
Writing any book is terrifying. Writing a book about all the secrets I had kept my whole life was absolutely the most daunting task I’ve ever taken on. Therapy was priceless in this process as it gave me the space and courage to see the fullness of my truths, and the fact that telling those truths would not just be for me, but that it stood to afford love, companionship, and hope to everyone out there who is still grappling with the same fears and loneliness that I did for so long.
Finally, therapy gave me the safety to see that after living in fear for so long, the last thing I wanted to do was to allow fear to cabin my life and keep me small. That was the most liberating piece of all, in writing this book and in charting my life forward: to acknowledge and befriend fear as a natural and helpful emotion, but also hold that fear was no longer allowed to run my life. The most freeing discovery I’ve made is that fear points me in the direction of my existing boundaries and limits, and it shows me what I need to push and confront to make the changes I most need to live a fulfilling life.
You attended Swarthmore and then Yale Law School. You then worked at two top law firms after clerking on two appellate courts. Can you explain the decision you made when you were offered to be a partner after just two years at your law firm?
When I made partner while editing my book, I was confronted with both what my childhood self dreamed of becoming—a lawyer who used her resources and privileges to pay back the communities that supported her and loved her in her years of need—and how I was living my life—spending my time as a commercial litigator representing corporations and executives, while squeezing out what little time I could to devote to pro bono and immigration work.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the partnership offered to me was really a dead end—and a dead end that would guarantee spending the rest of my life working on matters misaligned with my sense of justice or morality. And as I considered leaving the corporate world, I realized that the only thing holding me back was the same deep-rooted fear—and specifically, fear of going hungry or being poor again.
And because I had committed to befriending my fear, I saw that while those fears were natural given everything I had been through, they no longer reflected the realities of my life now. I was immensely privileged and rather than clinging to those privileges out of fear, I had to live up to my responsibility to my communities—Asian American, immigrant, and people of color—and pursue the dream that had me attend law school to begin with. As with the book, it was absolutely terrifying. But now, I wonder how I ever could have questioned the decision.
How did your parents take that decision? What advice would you give others faced with a similar dilemma?
My parents thought I had taken leave of my senses. A common survivor and generational trauma mentality is to ensure that your children live the safe, easy life devoid of risk. All my parents wanted for me was what my fears wanted for me— ensure that there was no chance I would not be hungry, poor, or undocumented again.
But few rewards come without big risks, and I am not fortunate to have the privilege of not just focusing on survival—as my parents had to do—but instead seeking to thrive. It is the best way I can honor their sacrifices. As I model that mentality, my parents have in time come to see and appreciate that truth. For those at a similar crossroads, I would urge them to consider how much of the fears that run their lives are rooted in ancient history, and how poorly those fears reflect the realities of their current lives. As I mentioned above, that was the key, liberating realization in my adult life.
When your father read your book, he told you, ‘There is nothing we are afraid of now.” Can you explain the power of secrets and the power of revealing them?
The act of holding a secret about ourselves necessarily embeds shame in us—even if only on a subconscious level, it sends us the message that something about us is unacceptable and thus must be hidden. Secrets take our power, our confidence, our self-determination from us, and especially when we develop secrets early in life, we grow around the shame and the fear of being found out. This is very much what I experienced, and what my father experienced, though his secrets growing up were different and in many ways, higher stakes.
In light of this dynamic, therefore, the act of declaring a secret—and particularly one that has been with us for so long, and has become so rooted in our being—is an act of reclaiming our long-lost power from fear and shame. I did not initially think about the book this way, but that is what Beautiful Country has done for me and my parents. Now, instead of waiting to be found out and captured, we are, for the first time, standing in our power and truth.
What is your hope for this book?
My vision for this book is that it might allow readers to feel as if they have stepped into my body and can experience the world as I did. I hope that experience might open readers’ eyes to the fact that our childhood is that magical and terrifying place that still influences much of our adult lives, and that what we believe to be singularly shameful or bad about ourselves is exactly that which uniquely empowers us to contribute to the world.
Most of all, I hope it allows readers to see that we immigrants and undocumented immigrants are not that different from everyone else: we love this country and just want to build a home here.
What do you do for fun?
I used to read and write for fun, but now that is also part of my job! Aside from reading and writing, I love running, yoga, pilates, and lifting weights. It may be part of an immigrant survival mechanism—this notion of staying busy and in motion so I can stay alive—that I have continued to integrate into my life. I also love watching bad reality TV (I have seen every single season of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette) and spoiling my rescue dogs, Salty and Peppers.
You can read the rest of my interview here on 26.