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Qian Julie Wang Details A Life In 'Hei' In Memoir 'Beautiful Country'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The story of Qian Julie Wang, as she explains, begins before she was born. Her uncle, a teen at the time, was arrested for criticizing Mao Zedong, and her father's family lived under a hail of rocks, pebbles, slurs and worse. Her family escaped to the United States, New York, in 1994 but were undocumented, and they had to live, in the Chinese phrase, as people in hei (ph) - the dark, the shadows, the underground world of undocumented immigrants who work menial jobs off the books in fear that their underground existence might be exposed.

Qian Julie Wang, who is a Yale Law graduate, now an attorney, has written a memoir, "Beautiful Country." She joins us now from Brooklyn, N.Y. Thank you so much for being with us.

QIAN JULIE WANG: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: This memoir takes us through five years in your childhood, a young girl trying to make a home in America with her family. Grade school was tough, wasn't it?

WANG: It was, but I think I was protected by the fact that I was a child and just kind of took things as they came, as children do, and had that sort of natural resilience.

SIMON: Yeah. You didn't speak English. You were thrown into a school. You also didn't speak Chinese, as some kid taunted you about - at least his Chinese. So help us understand how you navigated through that world.

WANG: Yeah, when we got here, I remember the first thing we realized - that even though there were Chinese people around us in Chinatown, we were of a different kind of Chinese. There were not so many immigrants from North China. There were many immigrants from South China, and most everyone spoke Cantonese or Fujianese. We only spoke Mandarin, and that immediately relegated us to kind of a lower caste. My teacher spoke only Cantonese or English, neither of which I spoke. So after a day or two, the teacher recommended that I be put in a classroom for students with disabilities, even though I had no disabilities. And it was there, really, that I discovered that I, myself, could learn English just through books. And it was in that room that I first felt this sense of agency.

SIMON: What did your parents caution you you should avoid saying and doing because your family was without documents?

WANG: Immediately upon arriving here, I noticed that my parents were incredibly nervous. They were very different from the joyful people that they were in China. And then they started telling me to tell everyone that I was born here. There was this constant fear and constant messaging that we could be sent home.

SIMON: Your parents were academic professionals in China, but what did they do to get by in the U.S.?

WANG: In the U.S., my mother - my mother's first job was at a sweatshop in Chinatown. The first time I stepped into that room, I think I stopped breathing because I had never seen a room of that squalor. And my mother sat down in the back row, which was the least-paying row, and she started attaching labels to the back of shirts and dresses for three cents per article of clothing. And that was how our days in America started. And over the years, she made her way through some worse and some slightly better jobs, including processing salmon at a sushi plant, where she stood in ice water for 12 hours at a time.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the time your mother falls ill and it kind of underscored a lot of the fear in which you had to live because when you're undocumented - well, you tell us. You're afraid to go to a hospital, aren't you?

WANG: Absolutely. I was attuned to my mother's every move pretty much the minute we landed at JFK. So when she started acting uncomfortable in her body - she would put her hand over her stomach. And I saw her get progressively worse to a point where she could not hide it anymore. And we were too terrified to find a doctor. It was not safe for us to go to, quote, unquote, "regular doctors," so we found other doctors, undocumented like us, who could help us. But they didn't have the tools. They didn't have the prescription abilities. So it finally culminated in the night that I found her rolling in bed and forced to call 911, and then holding my breath and waiting to see if she would get medical attention or we would instead get deported.

SIMON: I feel the need to ask about your father, baba (ph) in Chinese. You have grown to understand him. Help me.

WANG: My father, I think, would've been very different if we had stayed in China. But from kind of my first days here, he told me, I no longer have status as a man. By virtue of being Asian is just - I was just seen as being weak. He had to find some sense of control and power in his household and the two women that he lived with, and it drove him to do some things that were, I think, probably not even understandable from his point of view. And then, of course, there was his childhood, which was horrific. His family was marked as dissidents and counterrevolutionaries, and his parents were publicly beaten.

SIMON: Yeah. When did you feel you could begin to talk more openly about all of this?

WANG: It really happened during my second clerkship, when I was clerking on the 9th Circuit. And I felt like such a complete fraud. I'd gotten to a point where I was a lawyer and was fairly accomplished, but I was still not honest about who I had been. So I walked into my judge's office and just kind of sat down and spilled everything. She responded with such empathy and understanding. She said, secrets - they hold such power over us, don't they? I realized she meant that all of us have these powerful secrets that we ascribe so much shame to but that really are very universal at its core.

SIMON: I'm sure you know there are people who will hear your story and say that what happened, what your family had to live through was sad and outrageous. And that's why they think immigration should be strictly regulated, because undocumented people can be exploited.

WANG: I think that viewpoint is deeply myopic. It's based only on what people know of the conditions in America. But if you look outside America, and specifically to Mexico and China, which are the two sources of major immigration to the United States, you see that if those people are not able to leave and find refuge, they are under lifelong - lifelong - persecution for their religious and political beliefs in a way that is far worse than what my parents and I went through. And the fact that people are willing to risk being undocumented shows just how bad it is in the home countries of people who immigrate.

SIMON: Qian Julie Wang - her memoir, "Beautiful Country," is out now. Thank you so much for being with us.

WANG: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRITUALS' "A NEW KIND OF QUIET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.