Dialogs: Qian Julie Wang and Greta Johnsen Discuss Beauty, Secrecy, Fear, and Freedom at CHF panel

We all carry secrets, but not everyone has the courage to sit under stage lights, before an audience awash in shadows, and tell them to the world. But immigration attorney Qian Julie Wang, both in her Chicago Humanities Festival conversation with WBEZ podcaster Greta Johnsen and her recently published memoir, Beautiful Country, does just that.

Beautiful Country is, Wang told the audience, a direct translation of the Mandarin name for the United States of America. While it is, as Johnsen noted, sometimes an ironic title—much of Wang and her family’s experience in America was anything but beautiful—Wang emphasized the beauty of the country throughout her talk, from New York City’s skyline to its lights and beyond. It is also a metaphorical title, for, as Wang noted, the US can be seen, by many, as a beautiful country and a land of opportunity, even if this isn’t always the case. Streets paved with gold, Wang said, do exist—for someone, even if not for them.

Those streets paved with gold definitely didn’t exist for Wang and her family, though their labor probably helped with the paving. Wang’s father, trained in China as an English professor, came to the US first. When Wang and her mother came later, he’d saved and scrimped enough to give them a ride home in a yellow cab—though the full Americanness of the experience was probably lost on Wang herself, since she assumed that American cars were just yellow and was instead transfixed by the lights of New York City.

The yellow cab back to a new home was, of course, only the start of Wang’s American journey. While she didn’t really understand the concept of “undocumented,” Wang noted she got the gist of it: she and her family lacked paperwork, which put them at risk and made every person in a position of authority, from sanitation workers to police, potential sources of danger. Her father taught her to say that she was American, and had been born in America, and had never been elsewhere. This pervasive fear carried over into Wang’s work in school and elsewhere, as she strove to speak perfect English and to be good (but not too good) on her school assignments. In fact, when she began to run into trouble with teachers who believed she had plagiarized her own work, she began to go back through her papers, adding mistakes to try to make herself less remarkable. Remarkable, after all, attracted attention, and attention was dangerous.

Wang noted that, though she has been a US citizen since 2016, the fear of discovery remains a constant presence in her life. (So too do racist assumptions about her writing, including a former boss who assumed she had somehow plagiarized a legal brief.) However, in the face of fear and of street harassment and of sweatshop labor, moments of a truly Beautiful Country still shine through. In the sweatshop where her parents labored, Wang’s job was to pick up loose threads. Her mother made it a game, payable by a penny; Wang, as is clearly her wont, went above and beyond and began cutting off those threads so she could get more pennies. Though many official spaces were places of fear, the public library wasn’t. Indeed, it was in the library that Wang met The Baby-Sitters Club, which became a space of both hope and friendship for her. It was also, later, where she would get her first job, as a page. (It feels worth noting, here, that artist and picture book writer Yuyi Morales tells a similar story of the importance of the public library in her picture book Dreamers, also available in Spanish as Soñadores.)

As Wang climbed higher in her career, the fear of immigration raids continued to dog her. She tried to replicate the trappings of the corporate world, only to realize that while shoes are great and Birkin bags can be pretty cool, they didn’t really make her feel any safer. Throughout she remained silent about growing up undocumented, a silence maintained even at home. She broke her silence during the Obama administration, as young people who, like her, had grown up in the US, were being deported for nonviolent crimes. Her supervisor, an immigration judge, assured her that she was safe, and that her experiences meant she’d be a better attorney—but also said, in Wang’s words, “Secrets, they have so much power over us. You don’t have to keep this one anymore.”

Did that judge’s words lead to Wang’s eventual work on her memoir, as she wrote it in bits and starts on the notes app on her cell phone, waiting for the train? It must have had something to do with her freedom to speak. (The New York City subway system, for what it’s worth, gets a shout-out in Beautiful Country.) The act of writing enabled Wang to reclaim herself and to reclaim her family’s history. It has also led her to reclaim other facets of herself: previously, she introduced herself in court by the anglicized version of her name, Julie Wang. Now, she once again goes by Qian Julie Wang, pronounced Wong—because how can she help her clients by mispronouncing her own name?

The memoir’s title, Beautiful Country, ran throughout Wang and Johnsen’s conversation, sometimes an ugly irony, sometimes a sharp reminder of the beauty that can exist in America and its ideals. Wang’s Chinese heritage was a constant presence as well, from discussions of the ways in which Wang balanced the tonality of Mandarin and the English uptick at the end of a sentence while reading the audiobook and the ways in which Mandarin is sprinkled throughout the text. Wang and Johnsen’s conversation was beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking, a reminder of how fraught it can be to be, or become, American—and also of how this can truly be a Beautiful Country.

There were some momentary glitches in the conversation: Johnsen’s voice wasn’t always audible, though I noticed that the live captioning did a fantastic job of catching what she said even when I couldn’t pick out her words. That live captioning is worth a shout-out. It made the event accessible to deaf and hearing-impaired attendees, and folks like me could catch everything Johnsen and Wang said. Similarly, the staff at Columbia College Chicago, as well as the Chicago Humanities Festival staff present, deserve accolades themselves for a job well done. It’s not easy to set up and take down a room the size of the auditorium in which Wang and Johnsen spoke, and it was done very well.

More about the conversation can be found at the Chicago Humanities Festival, and more about Beautiful Country is available from the publisher.

Caitlin Archer-Helke
Caitlin Archer-Helke
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