Beau­ti­ful Coun­try: A Memoir

September 1, 2020

An incan­des­cent and heartrend­ing mem­oir from an aston­ish­ing new tal­ent, Beau­ti­ful Coun­try puts read­ers in the shoes of an undoc­u­ment­ed child liv­ing in pover­ty in the rich­est coun­try in the world.

In Chi­nese, the word for Amer­i­ca, Mei Guo, trans­lates direct­ly to beau­ti­ful coun­try.” Yet when sev­en-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994, she is over­whelmed by crush­ing fear and scarci­ty. In Chi­na, Qian’s par­ents were pro­fes­sors; in Amer­i­ca, her fam­i­ly is ille­gal” and it will require all the deter­mi­na­tion and small joys they can muster to survive.

Qian’s par­ents work in Chi­na­town sweat­shops and sushi fac­to­ries. Instead of laugh­ing at her jokes, they fight con­stant­ly. Qian goes to school hun­gry, where she teach­es her­self Eng­lish through library books, her only source of com­fort. At home, Qian’s resilient Ma Ma ignores her own pain until she’s unable to stand, too afraid of the cost and atten­tion a hos­pi­tal vis­it might bring. And yet, young Qian, now act­ing as her moth­er’s nurse, her fam­i­ly’s trans­la­tor, a stu­dent, and a work­er, can­not ask for help. The #1 rule in Amer­i­ca: to be noticed is to risk los­ing everything.

Sear­ing and unfor­get­table, Beau­ti­ful Coun­try is an essen­tial Amer­i­can sto­ry about a fam­i­ly frac­tur­ing under the weight of invis­i­bil­i­ty, and a girl com­ing of age in the shad­ows, who nev­er stops seek­ing the light.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Dou­ble­day Books

  1. Qian had expec­ta­tions about the US before she arrived. What were they and what sur­prised her the most? How does that line up with your under­stand­ing of the US and your day-to-day view of it?

  2. How does Qian’s under­stand­ing of her race change when she comes to the US? How does her under­stand­ing of oth­er races change?

  3. How is Qian treat­ed at school by her teach­ers? Why is she treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly, even with­in her Chi­na­town school where most stu­dents are Chi­nese immi­grants, and how does it affect her view of her­self and her opportunities?

  4. We are shown a com­mu­ni­ty of immi­grants through Qian’s eyes — oth­er peo­ple work­ing at the sweat­shops, fam­i­ly friends — how do their lives dif­fer from the Wang family’s and how are those dif­fer­ences discussed?

  5. How does the use of pinyin, pho­net­ic Chi­nese, fea­ture and shift through­out the book?

  6. Qian seems to notice class for the first time when she arrives in the US. What are the des­ig­na­tions of class that she pays most atten­tion to?

  7. Books make a huge impact on Qian. Did you read any of these same books when you were younger, or read them with your kids? How did they affect you?

  8. Qian’s rela­tion­ship with her moth­er changes sig­nif­i­cant­ly over the course of the book, from their time in Chi­na and then over their time in the US. How does it evolve and why do you think it changes the way that it does? Does this remind you of your own rela­tion­ship with your moth­er in any way?

  9. Per­son­al space is dis­cussed often in the book, both as a need and a sig­ni­fi­er of class. Qian has her own room for the first time at Lin Ah Yi’s. Why is it so mean­ing­ful to her and what does it allow her?

  10. One of the few con­nec­tions Qian makes is with her cat, Mar­i­lyn. How does her spe­cial con­nec­tion with this ani­mal help her cope with her dif­fi­cult fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tion? What did your pets mean to you as a child, and how might this be dif­fer­ent from your expe­ri­ence with pets as an adult?

  11. What do you make of the nar­ra­tor’s voice and per­spec­tive? How does it change as Qian grows old­er over the course of the book?

  12. Has this book changed your under­stand­ing or opin­ion of what it means to be a cit­i­zen or to be undocumented?

  13. The fam­i­ly has a per­pet­u­al fear of being noticed for their immi­gra­tion sta­tus — at school, at work, at the hos­pi­tal — how does this affect their qual­i­ty of life and what would being noticed have meant for them? How does it affect Qian, specif­i­cal­ly, as a young girl grow­ing up? What did being noticed mean to you when you were younger?