This is an extraordinary memoir. The author writes about her childhood as an illegal immigrant who came with her family from China to America (“Mei Guo” or “Beautiful Country”) in 1994 at age 7. She manages to recreate her past without any adult hindsight coloring her impressions. Thus, we can fully appreciate her confusion, fear, and the enormous challenges – including the language barrier – as she tries to make her way in her new country.
Qian’s father continuously warned her not to talk to any strangers in New York, but she and her family were perceived as “other” nevertheless. Almost every day, they were called “chinks” by passersby in the street. Fear was a constant part of their lives.
Back in China, her parents had been professionals – her father taught English literature and her mother taught math. In New York, however, without papers, her parents had to take any menial jobs they could find. Qian’s mother found work in various sweatshops that literally paid pennies; Qian’s “Ba Ba,” who had English skills, was able, after an initial stint in a Chinese laundry, to find a job as a clerk for an immigration lawyer.
Qian went to school, but lacking English, was put into a class for “special needs” children, and left to learn English on her own. She indeed taught herself, availing herself of picture books that enabled her to associate words with objects. She discovered the riches available in the public library, too, and soon she was back in the regular classroom and outshining her peers.
At home, with the low wages her parents brought in and the stress of poverty, life was a struggle in other ways. She writes, “America was a living lesson in hunger. Our kitchen contained more cockroaches than food. . . . Hunger was a constant, reliable friend in Mei Guo. She came second only to loneliness. Hunger slept only when I did, and sometimes not even then.”
Qian decided in fifth grade that she wanted to become a lawyer. She reasoned that lawyers made good money, and plus, both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall proved that lawyers didn’t have to be men, and didn’t have to be white. Her teacher laughed at her, and along with other adults tried to discourage her, but she would not be deterred, and eventually succeeded.
The family finally found a path to citizenship by moving to Canada. The story mostly ends there, although Qian adds at the end that she eventually made her way back to the U.S. She attended Swarthmore College, Yale Law School, and then landed a job at a top law firm.
In May 2016, “just shy of eight thousand days after I first landed I New York City” she finally became a U.S. citizen. But the frightened and traumatized little girl remained inside her. She wrote this book in part to unburden herself from the past, so it would lose power over her present and future.
She said she also wanted to convey a message to Americans and immigrants everywhere: “The heartbreak of one immigrant is never that far from that of another.” But most of all, she writes in the preface, “I put these stories to paper for this country’s forgotten children, past and present, who grow up cloaked in fear, desolation, and the belief that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal.”
Evaluation: While I have read a number of immigrant memoirs, this one stands out for the ways in which it seems unfiltered by the benefit of adult hindsight. Those who want a good look at what immigrant children go through should not miss this poignant story.
Published by Doubleday, 2021