QIAN JULIE WANG
Civil rights litigator, memoirist
Jun 16, 2022
All of our stories start well before we are born, and Qian Julie Wang’s is no exception. Her memoir, “Beautiful Country,” begins with events during China’s Cultural Revolution that would influence the entirety of her life.
When Wang’s uncle was 18, he was arrested for criticizing Mao Zedong, casting the rest of her family under the oppressive regime’s long shadow. In 1994, at just 7, Wang moved to New York with her mother to join her father, an English professor who had fled here two years earlier. They were undocumented, though, and for the next several years, they were forced to live in a different kind of shadow — the underground world of undocumented immigrants who work menial jobs and live in fear of being discovered.
“Very early in our time in the United States, I as a child started wondering why we were here at all, because it seemed far worse day-to-day than what we were dealing with in China,” Wang told Brooklyn Magazine earlier this year. “My mother went on to do a series of pretty physically damaging and emotionally scarring jobs, the worst of which was working at a sushi processing plant in Lower Manhattan where she essentially stood in ice water for her entire 14-hour shift.”
Wang became a citizen in 2016, 22 years after first arriving in New York without knowing a word of English. Now a Yale Law graduate and managing partner of her own firm, Gottlieb & Wang LLP, she lives in Brooklyn Heights with her husband. “Beautiful Country” came out in September 2021 and tells the story of her first years in America through the eyes of a child struggling to process the upheaval of everything that had been familiar to her. It instantly landed on The New York Times Best Seller list.
For Wang, the process of writing the book was a way to confront years of isolation and fear. “I really wanted to reclaim my childhood, my past, and reclaim myself from the shame that I had grown up with for so long, and in doing so, take away some of the stigma that is associated with being a new immigrant, being an undocumented immigrant, being an Asian American, and show a little bit of the beating heart and strength and resilience behind the headlines and the political talking points,” she said.
The book is a spare and moving retelling of her arrival in America — the titular “Beautiful Country” — where as an impoverished, undocumented girl, she was never allowed or able to be her full self. And in telling her personal story, she reveals a side of the American dream more familiar to so many immigrants as a series of traumas. In her case there is a happy — or at least healing — ending.
“For the first time it feels like [my family is] free to build new future chapters that are untethered from that past that we never talked about,” she said. “So often I think we’re asked to choose between those polarities, especially: ‘Are you immigrant or American? Are you Chinese or are you whitewashed?’ And I really want to show to others as well as to myself that it’s possible to be both — and not either-or.”