Imagine you’re a kid, joining your mom for a day at work. This is no corporate-sponsored occasion where you’ll raid the supply closet and nibble cookies frosted with the company logo; it’s just a regular Saturday. Your mother, who was a math professor back in China, is now employed by a sushi processing plant near the Holland Tunnel. There you will stand for eight hours, clad in ill-fitting rubber boots and a hooded plastic onesie, while she guts and beheads an endless stream of salmon floating by on a metal belt. Your toes will go numb from standing in icy sludge. Your toes will prune. Years later, when you try sushi for the first time, you’ll recall the putrid smell of that warehouse and the exhaustion of the people toiling inside.
This is one of many visceral memories Qian Julie Wang describes in her memoir, BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (Doubleday, 320 pp., $28.95), which chronicles her family’s 1994 move 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 read an immigration story or two. (If you have an Irish last name like I do, “Angela’s Ashes” might come to mind.) What sets Wang’s memoir apart is the narrowness of its scope: She covers a short period of time, from second grade through middle school, so you feel as if you’re traveling with her on foot instead of observing by drone. There’s the humiliating first day of school, when Wang gets snubbed by a classmate who speaks Mandarin; the 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 spots six coveted candy-colored Polly Pockets inside a translucent trash bag. A family friend takes her to Macy’s to pick out a graduation dress. For a time, she painstakingly cares for a skinny cat named Marilyn.
Unlike other memoirists looking back through a scrim of nostalgia, Wang doesn’t romanticize her parents’ hard-knock decisions — Marilyn’s fate is among them — or the family’s difficult, sometimes desperate circumstances. We taste their worry about deportation and the loneliness of being an only child of parents torn apart 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 both guidebook and lifeline for this young student, 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 only Wang’s name but her knack for world-straddling), we see stories working their magic, expanding and illuminating horizons. In her acknowledgments, Wang thanks four teachers (“I carry your indelible influence with me every day I dare to call myself a writer”) as well as the New York Public Library and the subway system (“I am thankful even for its delays”).