‘Beautiful Country,’ by Qian Julie Wang: An Excerpt
How It Began
My story starts decades before my birth.
In my father’s earliest memory, he is four years old, shooting a toy gun at nearby birds as he skips to the town square. There he halts, arrested by curious, swaying shapes that he is slow to recognize: two men dangling from a muscular tree.
He approaches slowly, pushing past the knees of adults encircling the tree. In the muggy late-summer air, mosquitoes and flies swarm the hanging corpses. The stench of decomposing flesh floods his nose.
He sees on the dirt ground a single character written in blood:
It is 1966 and China’s Cultural Revolution has just begun. Even for a country marked by storied upheaval, the next decade would bring unparalleled turmoil. To this date, the actual death toll from the purges remains unspoken and, worse, unknown.
[ Return to the column on “Beautiful Country.” ]
* * *
Three years later, my seven-year-old father watched as his eldest brother was placed under arrest. Weeks prior, my teenage uncle had criticized Mao Zedong in writing for manipulating the innocent people of China by pitting them against one other, just to centralize his power. My uncle had naïvely, heroically, stupidly distributed the essay to the public.
So there would be no high school graduation for him, only starvation and torture behind prison walls.
From then on, my father would spend his childhood bearing witness to his parents’ public beatings, all while enduring his own humiliation at school, where he was forced to stand in the front of the classroom every morning as his teachers and classmates berated him and his “treasonous” family. Outside of school, adults and children alike pelted him with rocks, pebbles, shit. Gone was the honor of his grandfather, whose deft brokering managed to shield their village from the rape and pillage of the Japanese occupation. Gone were the visitors to the Wang family courtyard who sought his father’s calligraphy. From then on, it would just be his mother’s bruised face. His father’s silent, stoic tears. His four sisters’ screams as the Red Guards ransacked their already shredded home.
It is against this backdrop that my parents’ beginnings unfurled My mother’s pain was that of a daughter born to a family entangled in the government. None of her father’s power was enough to insulate her from the unrest and sexism of her time. She grew up a hundred miles away from my father, and their hardships were at once the same and worlds apart.
Half a century and a migration across the world later, it would take therapy’s slow and arduous unraveling for me to see that the thread of trauma was woven into every fiber of my family, my childhood.
* * *
On July 29, 1994, I arrived at JFK Airport on a visa that would expire much too quickly. Five days prior, I had turned seven years old, the same age at which my father began his daily wrestle with shame. My parents and I would spend the next five years in the furtive shadows of New York City, pushing past hunger pangs to labor at menial jobs, with no rights, no access to medical care, no hope of legality. 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.
Memory is a fickle thing, but other than names and certain identifying details—which I have changed out of respect for others’ privacy—I have endeavored to document my family’s undocumented years as authentically and intimately as possible. I regret that I can do no justice to my father’s childhood, for it is pockmarked by more despair than I can ever know.
In some ways, this project has always been in me, but in a much larger way, I have the 2016 election to thank. I took my first laughable stab at this project during my college years, writing it as fiction, not understanding that it was impossible to find perspective on a still-festering wound.
After graduating from Yale Law School—where I could not have fit in less—I clerked for a federal appellate judge who instilled in me, even beyond my greatest, most idealistic hopes, an abiding faith in justice. During that clerkship year, I watched as the Obama administration talked out of both sides of its mouth, at once championing deferred action for Dreamers while issuing deportations at unprecedented rates. By the time the immigration cases got to our chambers on appeal, there was often very little my judge could do.
In May 2016, just shy of eight thousand days after I first landed in New York City—the only place my heart and spirit call home—I finally became a U.S. citizen. My journey to citizenship was difficult to the very end: torrential rain accompanied me on my walk through lower Manhattan to the federal courthouse where I was sworn in. I brought no guests, not even my parents.
The rain did not matter. I reveled in joyful solitude, my face soaked in rainwater and happy tears. At the end of the ceremony, a videotaped President Obama greeted me as a “fellow American,” and it dawned on me that though I had become American decades ago, I had never before been recognized as one.
Six months later, I awoke to a somber and funereal New York, mourning for a nation that chose to elect a president on a platform of xenophobia and intolerance. It was then that I dug up my voice. Staring shame and self-doubt in the face, I tossed my first attempt at this project and put my fingers to the keyboard anew.
I document these stories for myself and my family, and not the least my uncle, our innominate hero. I write this also for Americans and immigrants everywhere. The heartbreak of one immigrant is never far from that of another.
Most of all, though, 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 that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal. I have been unfathomably lucky. But I dream of a day when being recognized as human requires no luck—when it is a right, not a privilege. And I dream of a day when each and every one of us will have no reason to fear stepping out of the shadows.
Whenever things got really bad during my family’s dark years, I dreamed aloud that when I grew up, I would write our stories down so that others like us would know that they were not alone, that they could also survive. And my mother would then remind me that it was all temporary:
With your writing, Qian Qian, you can do anything.
One day, you will have enough to eat.
One day, you will have everything.
May that resilient hope light the way.
Chapter 0: Home
My oldest memories shine by incandescent light:
I bury my face deep in Lao Lao’s chest, wrapped in red cotton. She smells sweet—like soap and warm milk all at once. I nuzzle deeper, digging closer, insatiable for the scent. She shakes with laughter.
“She keeps nuzzling, she keeps nuzzling!”
Joy is the song of my early childhood.
Next comes a scene that, for all I know, happens weeks, months, years later. Ma Ma and Ba Ba are each holding two corners of a thick, warm blanket. There I am, giggling, cocooned at the center of the blanket.
“Ready?” Ba Ba asks, eyes dancing.
I nod and off I go: with a flap of their arms, they send me soaring, flying, gliding, and I feel the air whooshing under, over, all around. I squeal, fearless, and soon I am back in the safety of the blanket. I laugh and nod some more, fingers grabbing toes, toes curling into fingers, lolling in my blanket nest.
“Look, she wants to go again!”
And it continues like this for eternity: I am by turns soaring through the air with boundless flight and returning to blanket’s embrace, my parents looking on with doting eyes, my heart pulsing with nothing but warmth, safety, love.
[ Return to the column on “Beautiful Country.” ]
Chapter 1: Ascent
I ascended to adulthood at cruising altitude. The takeoff was bumpy, and my braided pigtails, each with its own silk red ribbon, bobbed around the sides of my seven-year-old face. In my lap sat my favorite doll, ladylike in her frilly dress. Her eyes, with their long lashes, flicked open and closed with the turbulence. Her legs were snapped into my seatbelt, so I knew she was safe.
Next to me, Ma Ma was slumped over into herself, her dress wrapped around her, her arms guarding her midsection, her face folded into her chest.
I had never seen her like that before. Minutes before, the flight attendant with the fake eyelashes and the drawn eyebrows and the tomato lips bent over me and asked if Ma Ma had her seat belt on.
“Ma Ma,” I squeaked, poking her side.
Ma Ma made no response.
“Make sure her seat belt is on,” said the red lips lined with a darker red.
“Ma Ma,” I ventured again.
“I saw her buckle it earlier.”
“Really?” The eyebrows went up. Sometimes da ren, the big people, the grown-ups, didn’t believe little kids like me.
She stared at me for the longest second of my short life. Finally, she moved down the aisle, the only witness to my first lie.
* * *
Ma Ma always suffered from horrible motion sickness. It didn’t matter how we traveled. Once, when we took the bus to Bao Ding, she threw up the entire trip, making animal sounds. It smelled so bad that another lady on the bus started throwing up and making the same sounds, and soon the smell and sounds were all around me.
The only difference was that, that time, Lao Lao, Grandma, was with us and it wasn’t just me and Ma Ma alone in a fei ji, a flying machine, going to a different country. And I didn’t have to make sure Ma Ma was wearing a seat belt or lie about it because Lao Lao was the one who did it. The seat belt part, at least. I didn’t know if Lao Lao ever had to lie for Ma Ma.
I was not happy about being in the flying machine.
I had turned seven just five days before, and a few weeks before that, Da Jiu Jiu, the older of Ma Ma’s two younger brothers, had gotten me my very first bike. It was white with pink tassels on the handlebars and flowers on the basket. He said he would teach me to ride it but then he had to travel for work, so I spent my time walking the pretty bike around the courtyard of Lao Lao’s building.
“What a pretty bike,” a passing da ren said.
“The tassels match your dress,” another remarked.
“Xie xie,” I said again, resisting the urge to yank at the frilly lace dress Ma Ma had forced on me.
Now the bike was in Lao Lao’s storage unit, waiting for my return.
“Ma Ma.” I poked at her side again. “When will we go back?”
A grunt came but nothing else.
We had found out that we would be leaving just a few weeks before my birthday. Ba Ba had left for Mei Guo, America, two years earlier, and Ma Ma had been trying to get a visitor’s visa for almost a year. Four times, Ma Ma left our home and traveled hours away to Beijing, where the embassy for Mei Guo, a name that translated literally into “Beautiful Country,” kept telling her no.
Da Yi, Ma Ma’s older sister, lived in Beijing, and every time Ma Ma went to get another no, she stayed overnight with her, leaving me with Lao Lao and Lao Ye, Grandpa. Each time, I had trouble sleeping, crying tsunamis into Lao Lao’s arms.
“What if she doesn’t come back, like Ba Ba?”
The last time, I threw such a fit that Ma Ma took me to Beijing with her. In the morning, as she was preparing to leave for the embassy from Da Yi’s, I burst into tears again.
“Why not take her?” Da Yi was always on my side.
Ma Ma stared at my swollen red face and shook her head. “She’ll cry.”
“That might be good,” brokered my ally. “She’s cute.”
Ma Ma looked at me again and I tried to look my cutest, dripping snot and all.
And so it was that I ended up in the cab with her and a handful of tissues.
“When we get there, Qian Qian, don’t make a scene.” Ma Ma used her serious voice, so I knew to look very serious and nod very seriously.
“You can say you miss Ba Ba, but don’t go crazy, okay?”
I nodded, but I was never crazy. Da ren were the ones who were crazy.
When we got out of the cab, we waited in a long line that wrapped around the block of the giant building. There were many flags around, flags of a design I’d never seen before, with red, white, and blue and stripes and stars.
Our flag had stars, too, but it was red and yellow, just like the colors on my face when I was crying.
When we finally got inside the building, I thought it meant we would get to go home soon, but instead we got a ticket that had a long number on it, and we sat and waited some more in slippery plastic white chairs in a room full of da ren. It was boring but at least I was with Ma Ma, and if she left to go somewhere, I would go with her. I wouldn’t have to point at the flying machines in the sky and say, “That’s where Ma Ma went,” like I did with Ba Ba.
After what felt like days, a bald little man in a booth called a number and Ma Ma rushed up quickly. I ambled behind in the wake of her skirt. The man was behind a glass window. I realized that he looked little because he was sitting. There were holes in the glass and he talked to us through it. Did we have to pay him money? I had only ever seen those booths on the roads when we were in a taxi or bus and the driver had to give money to the man inside.
Ma Ma put her purse on the counter, which was very high, so I kept jumping up and down to see the bald man. Every time I jumped high enough, I waved at him. He didn’t seem to see me, so I kept jumping.
“Qian Qian, bie nong.”
Recognizing the tone in Ma Ma’s voice, I stopped. But it grew boring so I pulled at her skirt until she had to pick me up and sit me on the counter. From my new perch, I could see that the little bald man had only a few stray hairs on his shiny head. He sat in front of a monitor and a pile of papers bearing the red markings of rubber stamps.
I wondered if the stamps made colorful animal shapes like mine did.
The glass connected to the counter at the bottom and there was a little slot of space between the two. I stuck my fingers under the glass and waved them at the man, who still did not see me.
“Qian Qian, bie nong.”
I tried to sit still and look cute again.
“Please,” Ma Ma was saying. “My husband hasn’t seen his daughter in two years. She doesn’t even remember what he looks like anymore.”
This was true. I had only a general impression of Ba Ba. In my head, he was the man who played Emperor Qian Long on the show on TV. This meant I was supposed to be a ge ge, a princess, with a pretty headdress and servants who walked behind me with fans.
I turned toward the booth and saw that the little bald man was shaking his head now. Ma Ma’s own head dropped and she began to collect her things.
“I miss Ba Ba!”
My face was our flag again, red and yellow, gushing tears. I didn’t know where they came from. I just knew that it was the right time for them.
The little bald man looked up and looked away just as quickly. He sighed, then picked up a stamp and pounded it on the papers in front of him. He then stuck them through the slot and waved us away without another look.
I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew Ma Ma’s face. As we hurried out of the embassy, I reveled in the thought there was a good chance I would get to eat Beijing duck that night.
* * *
On the flying machine, the lady with the fake face was now pushing a skinny cart down the aisle. Clanking in the cart were cans of pretty colors. I wanted to drink them all. I wanted to ask her if she had the sweet yogurt drink Lao Lao got me from the market, but when I opened my mouth to speak it felt as if someone had shut the doors to my ears. So instead I just asked for a small cup of water, warm, as we always drank it at home.
“Ma Ma.” I prodded her. “My ears can’t breathe, Ma Ma.”
She looked at me but there was no life in her eyes. I jabbed my pinky into my ear, trying to break through.
“Bie nong.” She swatted my arm away and coiled back into her seat.
I sat on my hands and tried to ignore my ears, my mouth, and all my senses as the flying machine bumped and shook us all around, the rest of the world sounding as if it were several rooms away.
[ Return to the column on “Beautiful Country.” ]
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