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Qian Julie Wang on her memoir 'Beautiful Country' and the underbelly of the American Dream

Beautiful Country front cover.jpg
Penguin Random House
Qian Julie Wang's memoir "Beautiful Country" was named after the direct translation of the Chinese word for America. "It at once represents all that American could be and aspires to be and what the reality often is for new immigrants," Wang said.

At the age of seven, Qian Julie Wang moved from China to Brooklyn with her parents. Once professors in their home country, her parents now worked a variety of menial jobs as they navigated life in America.

In Wang’s "New York Times" best-selling memoir “Beautiful Country”, she recalls her childhood as an undocumented immigrant navigating poverty and avoiding authorities and the police. She also recounts moments of joy and levity – trying pizza for the first time and falling in love with books like “Clifford” and “The Baby-sitter’s Club” at the public library.

I spoke to Wang about how she wrote her memoir and her journey coming to terms with the “American Dream.” She will speak at a Dallas Museum of Art book event on Thursday, Sept. 29.

In “Beautiful Country”, you recall several memories from your childhood in vivid, vivid detail. So I'm curious if you had a memory that was particularly challenging to remember and how you came to write about it? 

There were so many difficult memories to unearth. So I went into therapy for a few years just to try to understand what had happened. And when I started writing again, it was the happy memories that were easiest to access – eating pizza for the first time, finding Polly Pockets in the trash.

Some of the more difficult memories and scenes came to understanding how the system and this new way of life changed my parents.

Writing those scenes of my mother breaking down emotionally, in particular, took me going back to that place of being a scared child, but also being an adult who now has more information, more life experience, more wisdom to try to place myself in her shoes and really understand what she was going through at that time.

In the book, you talk about having this laser focus at an early age to become a lawyer, and obviously you've achieved that. On some level, the book seems to be peeling back the layers of this idea of the American dream. Do you see it that way?

I would say that I bought into the American Dream wholeheartedly as a child. And I would not have had access to understanding the fatalities of the American dream until I reached a certain level of safety and security in this country. It wasn't until I was a corporate lawyer in a rarefied firm and field that I started to see how the American dream is an illusion.

The very idea of the American dream suggests that immigrants come here and they start at the very bottom and climb their way up. But that dream itself necessarily suggests that there's always going to be a bottom and there's always going to be these steep cliffs to climb and suggest that there are some people who cannot claim that who can fall to their death.

Now I don't believe in the American dream at all. My hope is that future generations of immigrants can come into this country and not face that steep cliff that so many of us have had to conquer.

We don't hear many stories of undocumented immigrants who are Asian-American or Asian. And as we continue to hear more stories and the diversity of all of these experiences. What kind of spaces would you like people to be allowed in storytelling,  in the publishing world? 

I would love for Asian-Americans and authors of color to be able to tell their stories in publishing and not have to speak for all of us. It's just ludicrous to put that much pressure on one person. And again, it flattens us into one story, and we're not one story. We are so much more than that.

It's almost like there's a quota. When I was submitting my my book to agents and editors, I can't tell you the number of times I got a response saying, ‘sorry, we already have an Asian-American author. We don't need another one.’ Time and again.

I think once that pressure is removed from us, we are liberated to tell truths about the varied human experiences that we face. Not just the traumas. Not just the pains that we so often are called upon to perform and to critique for American society. But the joys, but the trivial facets, we can have that freedom.

Qian Julie Wang speaks Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Dallas Museum of Art's Horchow Auditorium.

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Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Myong at You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @Elizabeth_Myong.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.