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Check It Out: Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang

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This is Kelsey Patterson with the Sioux City Public Library and you’re listening to Check It Out. Today, I’m recommending Qian (chen) Julie Wang’s powerful memoir, Beautiful Country. Published in September of 2021, it is already a New York Times bestseller and was a Today Show #ReadwithJenna Book Club Pick.  

In Chinese, the word for America translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when 7-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, her parents were professors; in America, Qian’s family is “illegal”.

Living in Chinatown, Qian’s parents labor in sweatshops. Instead of laughing at her jokes, they fight constantly, taking out the stresses of their new life on one another. Shunned by her classmates and teachers for her limited English, she takes refuge in the library and masters the language through books, coming to think of The Berenstain Bears as her first American friends. And where there is delight to be found, Qian relishes it: her first bite of gloriously greasy pizza, weekly “shopping days”, when she finds small treasures in the trash lining Brooklyn’s streets, and a magical Christmas visit to Rockefeller Center—confirmation that the New York City she saw in the movies does exist after all.

But then Qian’s headstrong Ma Ma collapses, revealing an illness that she has kept secret for months for fear the cost and scrutiny a doctor’s visit would bring. As Ba Ba retreats further inward, Qian has little to hold onto beyond his constant refrain: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.

Qian Julie Wang inhabits her childhood perspective in such a powerfully moving way and navigates telling her story with perfect clarity and unforgettable charm and strength.

Check out Beautiful Country and other compelling memoirs like it at the Sioux City Public Library.

Support for Check It Out on Siouxland Public Media comes from Avery Brothers.

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