041 | Qian Julie Wang | "Only two people on the continent could know my secret"

Growing up undocumented | Episode 41

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

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When she was 7, Qian Julie Wang – just Qian Wang then – landed at JFK airport in New York City. Her airsick mother leaned on her for support. Her father, whom she hadn't seen in two years, had skimped on food to afford the cab driving them from the airport. Thus started her life as an undocumented child in America. In Beautiful Country, and in our conversation on the Borderline podcast, she shares the fear, the hunger and the love of books that got her through these years.

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Show notes

00:00 Intro
02:32 "A privilege, power and responsibility to share my secret"
06:13 "What it means to be a writer"
07:56 "At bottom we're all not really that different"
09:49 "The before and after of my childhood and my life"
13:10 "We had to be everything for each other"
15:22 "It was my job to keep us from being noticed"
17:44 "Salvation and refuge in books"
18:39 "Split between the two worlds"
20:48 Membership ad
22:19 "Public school in Chinatown"
27:49 "I went to school hungry every day"
31:18 "Everything I thought was wrong with me was simply a part of being human"
34:10 "There's nothing we are afraid of now"
39:01 Outro

📚 Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang. 2021. Penguin Random House. Buy it here.

📸 Ryan Muir


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:00:00] Qian Julie Wang: There were only two people on the continent who could know my secret and with whom I could be my true self. And for everyone else, I had to shield a little bit of what my reality was and why it was that way.

[00:00:12] Isabelle Roughol:

[00:00:22] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:27] Isabelle Roughol: The undocumented, the unauthorized, the clandestine, the"sans papiers", as we say back home, the"no papers." We hear about them a lot. We hear from them a lot less. Their very existence as unauthorized migrants in the countries in which they live means they have to remain in the shadows and cannot speak for themselves and rarely do share what life is like for them.

[00:00:55] Every once in a while, one will put their head above the parapet at great personal risk. More often than not, it's actually people who have managed to now be in a more legal and authorized situation who finally speak about their past. That's the case of my guest today, Qian Julie Wang. She is a young American woman, Chinese American, who came over to the United States from China in the nineties at the age of seven with her parents. Her father came first, then her and her mother followed, quickly overstayed their visas and became undocumented immigrants. She wrote a memoir, Beautiful Country, which speaks with incredible honesty and rawness about what it is like to be a child who's not allowed to be where you are.

[00:01:51] Remember you can support Borderline by signing up at Borderline pod.com/subscribe. Consider becoming a member for just five pounds a month. You can help me keep Borderline going as a fully independent media, which is supported by its readers and listeners. Thank you so much to all of you who already are. And if you aren't and you're listening to this podcast regularly, please consider supporting it and helping me continue.

[00:02:14] This week was especially meaningful for Borderline because I got to speak with my guest, Qian Julie Wang for what I think is one of my more meaningful and special episodes. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Qian Julie Wang.

[00:02:32]"A privilege, power and responsibility to share my secret"

[00:02:32] Isabelle Roughol: Thank you for joining Borderline. I really, really enjoyed the book, Beautiful Country. I was curious, I'm always curious why people choose to write the books that they write and, and why, uh, why now, specifically in your case, when you are, you know, a successful established lawyer and uh, that past is far behind you now. Why chose to talk about it now?

[00:02:56] Qian Julie Wang: Well, I don't think the past is ever that far behind us. Never as far as we'd like to think. Um, and I always dreamed of writing this book because when I first got to America, I taught myself English on library books, and I lived and breathed those books, but in so many of those volumes, I never saw people who looked like me or lived the lives that my parents and I lived. And it gave me this profound sense of shame over who I was. So I always dreamed what if one day I could put my story out in the world so that that little girl who still looking around in library finds it and realizes there's nothing inherently wrong with her.

[00:03:42] But of course I kept this past a secret for many decades. Never felt safe enough to come forward. And it wasn't until I became a naturalized citizen in 2016, uh, almost 22 (years) after I first stepped foot in JFK airport that I realized that I had a new privilege, power and responsibility to share my secret, especially in the midst of the November 2016 election and all of the political discourse that went with it.

[00:04:16] I realized that I was very much making a choice to stay quiet being now a citizen, whereas so many millions of undocumented immigrants did not have the luxury of that choice. And it wasn't that I hope to speak for all of us, because I could never dare to do that, but more so to share facets of what it is to be undocumented and share the humanity and dimensions behind the headlines and the political talking points.

[00:04:47] Isabelle Roughol: Um, is it, is it kind of a coming out this book? Had you addressed this publicly before?

[00:04:55] Qian Julie Wang: Not really. Um, when I got the book deal, I happened to publish a New York times op-ed about DACA, which was President Obama's bill for children who had arrived young and undocumented. That was really my first official coming out. And the next day my book deal was announced. So it was a lot all at once.

[00:05:20] And while by then I had practiced telling people, it had been so long that I didn't tell people. And so many of my friendships were just founded on the assumption that I was like everyone else and hadn't had this history that a lot of my friends and colleagues came forward and said,"wow, I had no idea that this was part of your life. And I'm sorry if I've misspoken around you or made you feel uncomfortable." And it was really nice because I was terrified. I didn't know if people would judge me, be angry at me for not sharing this intimate fact. But all that really came forward was support and love. And, and even with this book coming out, um, just being able to connect with others who have had similar experiences has just been a wonderful sense of building a new community.

[00:06:13]"What it means to be a writer"

[00:06:13] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm, what does it feel like being so much in, in the light now, when, when so much of your life was, was purposefully hiding and staying in the shadows?

[00:06:24] Qian Julie Wang: It feels extremely vulnerable. I feel very much exposed. It feels like I sent, I cut off a piece of my heart and sent it out in the world and it's being passed around. And I'm just hopeful that people will be careful with it and treat it with kindness. But I think as the weeks gone on. So this book came out yesterday in the UK, but three weeks ago in the Us, which I know doesn't sound like that long, but to me it feels like three months because every day was just me being terrified and then getting a little less terrified. And as the weeks have gone on, I have realized, no, this book is now a separate entity from me. It is a part of me, but it is now separate from me. And I have to just make peace with that.

[00:07:19] So it's been incredibly uncomfortable because even, even setting aside that I kept my undocumented past a secret, I was a lawyer and most, most of legal work is hidden. It's obscured. That's the point of clients hiring us is to keep things quiet often. And so to have my work so publicly on display has been a huge 180 from everything I've been accustomed to in my personal and professional life. But it's also, I think, forced me to grow a lot and understand a lot more about what it means to be a writer.

[00:07:56]"At bottom we're all not really that different"

[00:07:56] Isabelle Roughol: Do you have readers already coming forward, reaching out, um, about what, what this means to them, especially if they themselves were undocumented?

[00:08:04] Qian Julie Wang: Yes. So I was shocked. Some people said they read it overnight and they must have because they started reaching out to me the week the US book came out. Undocumented people and immigrants have said that, uh, I have found a way for our stories to be told, to give voice to the emotions behind the legal status. They have, uh, you know, immigrants, even first-generation Americans, Americans who have been born here have said that I've given them insight into what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents must've gone through. And they so wished to understand that origin story of their family.

[00:08:46] And it's just every time I get a message like that, I have to keep myself from crying because it's my dream to, to connect everyone around with the fact that we are all at some point immigrants and even people who say I've never moved, I've lived in the same house, I'm living in the same state, and yet there are moments and instances in your story that I relate to, that has just been so magical and beautiful to me because I wrote this book on the belief that at bottom we're all not that very different. And those messages have really proven that to be true.

[00:09:26] Isabelle Roughol: I mean, there is something to seeing the world through the eyes of a, of a seven-year-old that is, um, universal in a way, and as specific as your story is, that I think that I think many can relate to. Let's go back actually: can you talk a little bit about what the book is and what the story is of you, seven years old arriving in America.

[00:09:49]"The before and after of my childhood and my life"

[00:09:49] Qian Julie Wang: The book opens with me being on the plane from north China to New York City. My dad had left China for New York two years prior when I was five years old and my mother and I are following him. And I chose to open with that scene because it was really the before and after of my childhood and my life. Before that point, I was just normal. I fit in. I never thought about having enough to eat or my family might be.

[00:10:28] And once I got on that plane, I was the only person with my mother and she was very sick from airplane movement. She had really bad motion sickness. And normally when it would have been my father or my grandmother or my aunt taking care of my mom, it was me. But I was seven years old and up until then, I thought my mom was all powerful. I thought, as long as she was there, I didn't need to worry about anything. She was godlike in that way that so many kids think of their parents. And as I started to take care of her on the plane, and as we got off, that dynamic fundamentally shifted when I realized, oh, my mother is fallible.

[00:11:10] She is human. She needs my help sometimes. And then in our early years of, of immigration, as I learned English, uh, I learned the language better and picked up social mores faster, it became abundantly clear to me that there were ways in which I could protect my mother, that she could not protect me.

[00:11:34] So this book centers on the examination of how my life profoundly shifted by immigration so abrupt. My parents' relationship shifted, how they themselves, as people and as parents changed, and everything, all of the emotions and, um, struggles with poverty that came with that.

[00:11:57] Isabelle Roughol: And that relationship with your mother, it's very, it's very central, as you say to the book, and you took on that role that a lot of immigrant kids take on, which is the, the interpreter, both of the language and of, as you said, the social mores. And you, and you did that very, very early on.

[00:12:15] Qian Julie Wang: Yeah, I think children are gifted in picking up the emotional energy of their parents. And when they notice that their parents are lacking in something or feel short of something, it is natural to try to supply that however limited and capacity and scope. And that's what I did immediately. I was the only other person with my mom on that plane. And so I understood with her being physically ill during that whole flight, that it was up to me to navigate us and at least get to my father.

[00:12:52] And from there, I think once that dynamic shifts, once children learn that they can take care of their parents, it's almost impossible to go back to the innocence of the before, of being free and just looking to your parents for everything.

[00:13:10]"We had to be everything for each other"

[00:13:10] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm. And you took on a lot of that emotional support role as well in terms of supporting your mother's mental health and social health, which it seems she was quite isolated. Um, and you were that connect.

[00:13:24] Qian Julie Wang: She had been around extended family her whole life. She had never really left her home province. And all of a sudden we were completely, you know, we were a continent away from everyone we knew. It was just the three of us in north America whom we trusted. So we had to be everything for each other. As much as I was, I had to be that for her, certainly she was that for me. She became my best friend, my mother, my playmate, my sister, my aunt, my uncle, my grandma, everybody rolled into one. And that's kind of what I think immigration does: whichever unit that you travel with becomes that insular core. And also due to our profound secret that we had to guard at all times, it made it that much more insular because there were only two people on the continent who could know my secret and with whom I could be my true self. And for everyone else, I had to shield a little bit of what my reality was and why it was that way.

[00:14:31] Isabelle Roughol: And your father, uh, reinforced that. Right?"Trust no one.""Believe no one.""This country is not safe." That you got, you had that repeated a lot.

[00:14:40] Qian Julie Wang: Absolutely. He struggled a lot too with having been persecuted as a dissident in China. So when he came to the United States, I think the dynamics of being undocumented and unauthorized really picked up on the past scars and wounds from his upbringing in China. And so he was always skeptical of the government in China and here, all of a sudden he realized,"oh, America can be that beacon of light, that place of freedom of speech, but, but not necessarily for me because I can not draw any attention to myself and I have to be careful."

[00:15:22]"It was my job to keep us from being noticed"

[00:15:22] Qian Julie Wang: So my parents were very playful in China. I think that is their nature to be silly and playful and childlike. And as soon as we got here, that changed. Those playful people were gone. And instead there were these two adults who were always looking over their shoulders, waiting for something. I didn't know what Waiting for boots to kick down our door, I guess.

[00:15:51] And I remember being... I was a very sneaky kid. So I would eavesdrop on them. One thing I heard them say early on in our time here was"we don't have the documents." And I had no idea what that meant because I in China did not remember having documents. I didn't remember people talking about documents. what are these documents that we're missing? Is that what my parents are looking for? Should I look around for it?

[00:16:20] But very quickly it dawned on me that we were just not allowed here. And so when I saw anyone in uniform, on the street or in school, whether it was a sanitation worker or a police officer, I would just turn and run the other way, because it was as much my job as it was my parents to keep us from being noticed.

[00:16:40] Isabelle Roughol: How old were you and how, did your parents ever tell you, you know, 'don't say where we're from'? Or did you just kind of absorb it or did you get strict instructions in how to behave and how to hide?

[00:16:53] Qian Julie Wang: The day before I started school, my father sat me down and said:"it would be best if you just told people that you were born here and you've always been here because then nobody can ask any questions at all. People won't question whether you're a citizen. They just assume if you're born here that you belong here."

[00:17:14] So that was a refrain that I carried around my head and said, oh, I should just mention this at all times. But it was also very difficult because I didn't speak any English. So not very credible that had been living there for seven years and not spoken the language of the land. But I did, it was kind of a talisman that I clutched of security. Like if, if ever there was suspicion that came towards me, that I would use that phrase.

[00:17:44]"Salvation and refuge in books"

[00:17:44] Qian Julie Wang: And it was in part this dynamic that pushed me to find salvation and refuge in books because I realized early on that literacy would be my way out. If I spoke fluent English, if I spoke perfect English, then people could actually believe that I had been born here and I truly belonged here. So number one was to speak and learn the language like a native American. But as I was doing that through books, I just fell in love with the stories.

[00:18:16] It also opened me up to how, you know, quote unquote"typical Americans" lived in suburbs and in places outside of New York City. It opened me up to what the customs and mores were to which I was completely foreign. And it just gave me an escape from the realities of every day.

[00:18:39]"Split between the two worlds"

[00:18:39] Isabelle Roughol: Was the English language a disguise then? Or did you become that thing that you were learning to be, to pretend to be?

[00:18:49] Qian Julie Wang: So probably a little of both. I never thought about it.

[00:18:57] Yeah. I mean, I love words. I've always loved words, whether it was Chinese words or English words. And because there were so many more English words here that it was just natural for me to kind of swim in them and, and just live and breathe them.

[00:19:15] I have to say though, that there are times still, when I realize to my own shock that I am not a native speaker of English, even though I speak like a native speaker. When I have dreams, often it's in Chinese. Some of the more emotional language when I get very upset comes to me much faster in Chinese, even though I use English way more now than, than I ever do Chinese. I find that when I'm speaking Chinese, I'm more emotional and raw and open and in English, there seems to be an natural required process that makes me more logical and a little bit more reserved.

[00:20:00] So, those are the tells for me that for some reason, the early in life, developmental stages of learning who you are and, and the emotions of being a child, they seem to be locked in Chinese. And the more adult self for me is now in English. So I feel very much split between the two worlds.

[00:20:22] Isabelle Roughol: Yeah. It's definitely something that I can relate to as well. And that, that struck me, cause you had that sentence in your conclusion actually that you were saying that in English, that yes, in Chinese, you are excitable and warm and tender and far more logical in English. And I've found as well, uh, in my own life that it tends to be that language brings out different sides, different sides of you.

[00:20:46] We'll be right back.

[00:20:48] Membership ad

[00:20:48] Isabelle Roughol: Hey, this is Isabelle. Look, every time I start talking about Borderline and why it means so much to me, I start blabbering on and it ends up being a four minute ad. So I'm going to give you the one minute version. Borderline is about lives ,lived across borders, identity, belonging, what home really means, and it means so much to me because that's my life. I've lived on four continents, in five different countries. I'm not a native English speaker and everywhere that I've been has transformed me and left its mark on me and become incredibly important to who I am and how I view the world. And that's why I started Borderline.

[00:21:27] I just wanted to explore how we keep our minds and our hearts open to the other, how we build bridges and community. If you want to support this work, if it's as meaningful to you as it is to me, please become a member. Go to borderlinepod.com/subscribe and help support this work for just a fiver a month.

[00:21:48] If all of you listening do that and maybe bring a friend on board, Borderline will be able to keep going and thrive and grow and bring those ideas to more people. The content itself remains largely free and accessible to all. And that's how I want it to be, because I think this conversation really needs to include everyone. But it is not free to make. And so I need your support. Go to borderlinepod.com/subscribe. That was the two minute version. That's the best I can do. Now let's get back to the episode.

[00:22:19]"Public school in Chinatown"

[00:22:19] Isabelle Roughol: I want to talk about that love of books and of language and of story, and how you navigated through the school system. When you started out, you were put in special needs education, because you did not have the words. And you ended up at Yale, I believe, and Swarthmore. So clearly did quite well for yourself.

[00:22:41] What was your relationship with, with the school system and your experience as a, as a young Chinese girl?

[00:22:51] Qian Julie Wang: My parents put me in public school in Chinatown in hopes that I would be around other people who spoke my birth language and would be able to help me navigate. But back then, there were way more immigrants from Southern China than Northern China, which is closer to Beijing and more regulated. So it's harder to leave.

[00:23:14] So most people at my school, even though they looked like me, most of the students looked like me, they did not speak my dialect. They spoke Cantonese often. And my teacher in a class of 35 kids just did not know what to do with me. So she, I guess, spoke to the administration. And back then, there was very little support for English as a second language programs. So before I knew it, I was in a classroom for students with disabilities.

[00:23:48] All of us had very different needs. I was the only person whose problem was that she didn't speak English and the teacher in there was extremely overwhelmed. I remember how tired her eyes looked and I was pretty much left alone all day.

[00:24:04] But the classroom was stocked with books, books of all levels. There were books with buttons on them and you could press them and they would say whatever shape the button was. If it was a star, you press it, it says star. And I slowly pieced together that star was, you know, Xing in Chinese and worked my way through those books, learning the very basics and fundamentals. The alphabet, before finding new worlds open to me: Clifford the big red dog, Amelia Bedelia, the Berenstain bears.

[00:24:37] And it was there that I realized, oh, here is a cast of characters who can be my friends and keep me company during the day when I'm alone. And having been newly plucked from my extended family and everyone, I knew I really missed having people around me and these books then became the substitutes for those people.

[00:25:00] So books were not only my way out of that special classroom, my way out of a lower status or tier and what seemed to be American society. They were very much my first American friends and family.

[00:25:20] Isabelle Roughol: Um, Versus the people around you, which, which I have to say, um, they're all really hard on a very young girl. I mean, it seems, um, teachers can say, I don't know intentionally or not, but can say very harsh things. Friends, um, people in the community, even your own parents, there's a lot of, of chastising and it's, it's not the American childhood, where everyone gets a trophy and an all children are special and wonderful. It just seems like it was, really hard to, to believe in yourself and your, and your future in that environment.

[00:25:57] Qian Julie Wang: Yeah, I think part of it was also just being a child. I think as adults, it's easy to forget how often you're scolded as a child and how deeply you carry that around. You hear those scolds way more than any praise, right? Because they're scary. You feel like you're wrong and you've done something bad and you want to avoid it.

[00:26:19] So it becomes this warning that you carry around with you. But yeah, I think there was a particular added strain of my being so new, my parents being under extreme stress of going from being professors to working physical labor jobs, to some of the teachers working at my school who just didn't understand the realities of what we were dealing with.

[00:26:45] I also had some great teachers. Ms. Pong, my third grade teacher, gave me Charlotte's Web and was the first adult in America who I think really saw me and understood me and that meant the world. But yeah, then there were teachers who accused me of plagiarism because I wrote too well for a Chinese immigrant. And that was the only basis of the accusation.

[00:27:10] So, yeah, I, I both wanted to offer the readers, an experience of what it was like to be an immigrant child in the strange new world, understanding what's going on and being bossed around by adults, but also just being a child in a big adult world, not really understanding what is going on and why people so many feet taller than you are just telling you what to do at all times. And recall people back to, you know, the childhood of the nineties, which was not all trophies and hugs and participation awards.

[00:27:49]"I went to school hungry every day"

[00:27:49] Isabelle Roughol: Um. Another constant in the book besides books and literature is, um, is food. Food is in every chapter, I think, pretty much. And, you know, we're in the nineties in the richest country on earth, but you're hungry. You're hungry all the time.

[00:28:06] Qian Julie Wang: It was only recently that I realized that the nineties were boom time for especially the United States financially, but pretty much around the world. It seemed to have been a good time for most countries, most First World countries, I guess. Because when I look back on the nineties, I just see Depression era images. That's how I experienced it. And again, as a child, I assumed that everyone had been as well off as I had been in China. And therefore everyone had been as hungry and poor as I was in the United States. And nobody talked about it because I didn't talk about it.

[00:28:48] But yeah, I, I went to school hungry every day. We had a $20 budget for food every week for all three of us. And I quickly realized that I could spare my mother some of that stress. In China, I was looking at photos of me before we moved and in almost every photo I'm holding a piece of food. I was eating all the time. Whenever I was hungry, my mom would just find something and give it to me immediately.

[00:29:18] And when we got to the United States, I realized that whenever I said I was hungry, which I was used to doing very openly, she got this pained look in her eyes. And she started saying,"it's when you're hungry, that you know, that you're growing stronger, so just hang on to that feeling." It was brand new for me and my mom to have experienced that.

[00:29:43] And so I learned that money and food was a point of stress for her. And I could make that easied by saying that I was getting free meals at school, which I was, but they were very small and not very nutritious. And I almost never got there in time for breakfast because I lived in a different borough. We worked in the sweatshops until late. I didn't get that much sleep. So it would quickly come to be that the lunch, the free school lunch that came in the middle of the day would be my very first meal of the day. And just as quickly as I ate it, after waiting in line in the cafeteria, I would feel like it was gone. And it just was not nearly enough to satiate my empty stomach and my growing body.

[00:30:36] So I started, I think going around my days, looking around and seeing food everywhere I went, whether it was actual food or people who just reminded me of food, like faces looked like buns to me, you know, being combining both the hunger and the childlike imagination and this love of books, you just started seeing these shapes that look like, oh, what if those were that hair was noodles? And yeah, I really wanted to give readers a firsthand experience of what it was like to be in that child body and that child mind during those years.

[00:31:18]"Everything I thought was wrong with me was simply a part of being human"

[00:31:18] Isabelle Roughol: When did that cloud lift for you, both of the hunger and the poverty and then the secrecy, or, or did it ever?

[00:31:27] Qian Julie Wang: I don't think that it will ever leave me. I would say that it shifted from a cloud to a scar that acts up every now and then. And I wouldn't even say that shifted until very recently. The act of writing and then editing this book and putting it out in the world was really transformative and healing.

[00:31:56] Because here for the first time in the open is everything I didn't dare to share and say about myself because I thought that it would tell everyone that there was something wrong with me. And to be received so differently tells me that everything that I thought was particularly wrong with me was simply a part of being human.

[00:32:15] And so now when I feel that fear of poverty, which I think will probably always stay with me on some level --I will always worry about whether I'll have enough to eat tomorrow and the next day and the next day after that-- I just tell myself that is a natural response to something that you've been through. And while it may manifest in different ways for different people, everyone around you is going through that in some way or another in relation to some fear.

[00:32:49] But having had confronted it and recognizing my new privilege, which was a big, big step for me as well, I've also consciously carved actions that continue to feed that thought.

[00:33:03] So for instance, in the past, up until even a year ago, every time I went into the supermarket, I would overbuy all the food, especially apples. I would buy like 25 apples when I didn't, there was no way I could eat all of that before they went bad. But I would buy them because they would... seeing them in the corner of my kitchen would give me the sense of safety, at least for a moment.

[00:33:28] And I realized that I was never going to have that permanent sense of safety because of that scar that acts up every now and then. But there were people out there for whom that fear is very real and continues to be real and be their daily reality and how much better it would be if I spent my money that way to alleviate their hunger, which is active and present, than to stockpile apples that will just go rotten within a few days.

[00:33:57] So that kind of mentality and perspective shift has been vital for me in thinking about how to ethically and mindfully lead this adult life.

[00:34:10]"There's nothing we are afraid of now"

[00:34:10] Isabelle Roughol: You're very open and honest about yourself and your experience. You're also very open and honest about your parents, um, and who they are and their own frailties as human beings. Have they read the book? How did they respond?

[00:34:27] Qian Julie Wang: I was terrified of showing them. I was terrified of them seeing how they were portrayed, the level of detail that I shared, and most of all their fear that the government was still going to come after us. Even though we all have documents now, that is a fear that still lives in, I would say all three of us.

[00:34:51] So I waited until September 7th, the day that book came out in the United States, to share with them the full book for the first time. They had seen parts of it and they knew some of the instances that were shared because I talked to them about what our experience was and fact checked some details. And then when they got it, my mother immediately burst into tears, just seeing my name on the front cover.

[00:35:17] And my parents said, we just don't know if we can bring ourselves to read it because we don't want to relive those years." And I said"fine. That's, that's okay. Um, I really, I wanted to share this with you because you are in it and the public has access to it. And therefore it's only right that you have access to it." then they texted me later that night, a few hours later, and they said that they could not put the book down. Even though their vision blurred from tears, they felt healed with every page.

[00:35:55] And when the book debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list, I was really scared to tell my dad. Um, it was number three, which suggests that a lot of people were reading it. And I was very worried because he's not portrayed... All of us are portrayed in a very human and honest light, but I was very worried about how he felt about everything that was shared about him. And the first thing that he said when I told him the news was,"good. There's nothing we are afraid of now."

[00:36:29] And It was in that moment that it dawned on me how long I had been living like a kid looking to her dad for permission to feel safe. As long as he was afraid and living that fear, I was going to be on some level afraid and living that fear, even though I might have looked like an adult.

[00:36:50] So I'm really newly hopeful that this book will give all of us license to untether ourselves from the past and move forward and build a future that is not tied to the secret that we were never allowed to share.

[00:37:09] Isabelle Roughol: You mentioned in the beginning the 2016 election as a bit of aspur for you to, for you to write? Is the book a political statement, you think?

[00:37:22] Qian Julie Wang: I think when you are a certain kind of person, whether it be by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, this whole slew of things, who you are is a political statement by virtue of how our systems are built and set up and how oppression works.

[00:37:44] But more than a political statement, I envisioned this book to be a statement about humanity.

[00:37:52] As I said earlier, I suspected that a lot of my experiences though singular were universal and relatable in many ways. And because of that we could show people who had little insight into immigration, how very similar we are and how at bottom we all have the same dreams and wants and goals and how we love this country that we choose to live in, despite all of its obstacles and pain.

[00:38:24] And I also wanted to celebrate the joy and resilience and strength in immigrant communities, in families and in children. So I would say the answer to your question is, is yes and no. I think the act of writing about my life necessarily has to be political based on who I am, but my focus was not politics and was very much about humanity.

[00:38:51] Isabelle Roughol: Thank you so much for such a fascinating conversation and a fascinating book. I really enjoyed it.

[00:38:57] Qian Julie Wang: Thank you so much for your time. Isabelle. It's been lovely chatting with you.

[00:39:01] Isabelle Roughol: Beautiful Country, a memoir of an undocumented childhood, is out with Penguin Random House and available in all good bookstores. Thank you so much to Qian Julie Wang for sharing her life story in such raw honesty.

[00:39:17] Thank you to Borderline members who continue to support this work. You can join them at Borderlinepod.com/subscribe. You will be receiving the podcast early, get access to more content, more community, and most importantly, you will be supporting independent journalism about lives lived across borders. Thank you so much for listening and for your support.

[00:39:38] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.