Zibby moderated a conversation with instant New York Times bestseller Qian Julie Wang about her debut memoir, Beautiful Country, as part of the Streicker Center’s Women on the Move author series. The two talked about the self-healing journey Qian Julie had to start before she began writing about her family’s immigration story, what it must have looked like to other people as she wrote emotional sections of the book on the subway, and how her parents reacted to the memoir. Qian Julie also shares what she’s working on now, both with her writing and her law practice, and how it feels to have something she once kept secret out in the world.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning. I’d like to welcome you all to our fourth session of this semester’s Women on the Move. I am Marjorie Shuster, coordinator of literary events here at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center. First of all, I’d like to thank our sponsor, the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, for their support of this series. Today’s author is a first-time novelist whose memoir made a big splash when it was released in the fall. I hope a lot of you have had a chance to read Beautiful Country by our author, Qian Julie Wang. This is a wonderful, personal tale of resilience and achievement. Our moderator today is Zibby Owens. Our original series moderator is back. Zibby had been busy writing four books, running a publishing company, interviewing authors on her podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” and has four children to keep her busy as well. Please write your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. We will try to get to as many as we can. It is now my pleasure to welcome Qian Julie and Zibby. Morning.

Zibby Owens: Morning. Thanks, Marjorie.

Qian Julie Wang: Thank you, Marjorie. So glad to be here with everyone.

Marjorie: Have a wonderful conversation.

Zibby: Thank you. Hi there. How are you? It’s nice to meet you.

Qian Julie: Good. How are you? Wonderful to meet you.

Zibby: Thanks for doing this. Your memoir was so — I’m sure you hear this all the time — beautiful. I shouldn’t say beautiful since beautiful is in the title, but it really was a really beautiful memoir. Congratulations. I know you’ve gotten a bazillion accolades. All well-deserved.

Qian Julie: Thank you. I’m honored. I’m a huge fan of yours, so I’m totally fangirling right now, and also your color-coded shelves which I have serious envy for.

Zibby: Thank you. That was a COVID redo of the room. Thank you. I’m sure many of the almost six hundred people listening have read your book. That’s probably why they’re here. Just in case, could you please give the rare listener, perhaps, who hasn’t read your book yet a glimpse of what it’s about? I know you wrote in the book about how and what inspired you to do it, especially when you wrote it, but if you could talk about that as well, that would be great.

Qian Julie: Beautiful Country is a direct translation of the Chinese word for America, Mei Guo. The book focuses on my parents’ and my first five years in New York City when we moved here in 1994. We lived in undocumented status for that time. I went overnight from being the privileged child of professors to working next to my mother in the Chinatown sweatshop making pennies per article of clothing and watching her stand in ice water in the sushi processing plant. I wrote it really as a tribute to new immigrants, early immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and Asian Americans who are so often erased from our country’s dialogue and national news. I always dreamed of writing this book because when I arrived here, I learned early that to throw off suspicion about my immigration status, it was imperative for me to learn to speak English perfectly and fluently. I threw myself into the library and read as many books as I could. Of all the books that was available in the nineties, there were none really talking about undocumented immigrants. There were only a handful that represented Asian American experiences. I remember turning to my mother and saying, “Why aren’t we anywhere in the books?” She never failed to tell me that I would be one to write such a book that I would need. I put that dream off for a bit and pursued law and really needed a sense of safety, financial security, and immigration safety. In 2016 when I finally became a naturalized citizen, some twenty-two years after I first arrived here, that was when I realized that I then had a profound privilege and, thus, responsibility to share my experiences because they weren’t just mine. They belong to a vibrant and expansive community, a community that is often silenced, especially during that particular election, but throughout most of American history.

Zibby: Wow. You did a really amazing job painting the picture of what you were like as a little girl, what it was like before you came over, the flight where you were on the plane with your mom. By the way, I was sort of having a panic attack on your behalf as you’re sitting next to your mom trying to transfer flights and all this stuff as a young child. I don’t even trust my kids to go to the bathroom on an airplane by themselves. There you were sitting there. Your mom is essentially passed out because of her intense motion sickness. You have to navigate getting her off the plane and a wheelchair and connecting flights and getting to America and not speaking the language. As an introduction to this terrifying new world, that moment and the emotions that you evoke in writing that scene were just so overpowering. It immediately made me just want to be like, oh, my gosh, this poor girl. Let me give her a hug. Then of course, that was just the prelude to everything else to come. The way you immediately drew the reader in and evoke emotion like that, that’s good writing. That’s what that is.

Qian Julie: Thank you so much. I really wanted to render, from the first page, the experience of an immigrant child where she is put in a position where she has to almost take care of her parent. That is so common, children who immigrate, because of language barriers and culture barriers. I hope that people would be able to relate to it even if they didn’t immigrate, if they had a sick parent or a parent who was otherwise incapacitated. Being thrown into that adult role out of nowhere and then just learning to grapple with it is an important-to-celebrate feature of childhood. Children have this distinct resilient ability to roll with things as they are presented. That’s really what I did. I was told I had to get my mother to New York somehow. When you’re in the moment, that’s what you do.

Zibby: Unbelievable. The way you portrayed your dad, also, during the same time, which you almost did with this diminishment, physically and emotionally and everything — first, you were really close. Then he moves ahead of you by two years. Then as you reunite with him and his communication with you got less and less robust, if you will, when you see him again, he’s this shell of himself. Then as you go through life and you see this prestigious man who would wear white gloves and teach, this totally rockstar man in his homeland becomes so overlooked in every way just struggling to make do. You can see him sort of shrinking. Oh, my gosh, just tell me about that and how you had to cope with — I know you just did it because you did it, but that’s a lot to shoulder.

Qian Julie: It was strange, too, because he left when I was five. Then I didn’t see him for two years. Two years to a seven-year-old, that’s a long time. As he was gone, I remember not being able to recall what exactly he looked like. We only talked on the phone. He would send us letters and gifts. There was no Zoom, obviously. I would watch TV. There was a very esteemed emperor in Chinese history, Qianlong. There were a lot of shows about him. I just started pretending that that was my dad and that’s what he looked like. He, if anything in his absence, grew even larger in my memory and in my mind. When I got off the plane and we collected our bags and I saw him at JFK, I was like, that’s not an emperor. That’s not even the dad I remember. I was also taller, so he seemed smaller. He wasn’t eating that much. He was really truly a shrunken version of himself. More so than physical features, it was how he carried himself. It really did seem like he had been beaten down and kind of shell-shocked. I remember one of the first things he told me when I got here of how things worked was that he said, “I was a full man, at least, in China. Despite that I was a from a dissident family and prevented from teaching real history, I was a full man. People treated me like a full man. In America, because I am Chinese and because I am Asian, I am half a man because I am seen as weak. People assume that they can take advantage of me.” For all of those years, I didn’t quite understand what he meant. I only knew my own experience as a little girl. Looking back, god, what a blow that must have been to a professor in his thirties to arrive here and all of a sudden face this diminution in status and regard and not at all be prepared to deal with it.

Zibby: Your mother too. She was a published professor in math and physics or something crazy. Next thing you know, and you show us as you go there, to watch her hunched over to become one of the — I can’t remember what word you used, but it was something great that I can’t think of.

Qian Julie: Mantou, a steamed bun.

Zibby: These hunchbacks over the sewing machines, and how identity is essentially stripped away. That’s really what’s happening in these giant places that you describe, whether it’s the sewing or the horrific sushi, freezing cold — I was cold just reading about how cold you all were and the effects of that on skin and everything. I feel terrible eating sushi ever again after reading this whole thing. What happens is — who are they? All the amazing parts about them are gone. They’re valued for their fingers, for their ability to gut a fish. What about the rest of them, this brilliant intellect that they have and the personality and everything? It’s not just them. It’s almost like a prisoner. It’s like a prisoner situation, really, where you become just one of the masses, essentially, right?

Qian Julie: Yeah, but prisoners are given a place to live and some food. In some ways, it was more challenging. My parents just had to eviscerate that intellectual part of themselves. I could see it, when the intellectual woke up and thought, what am I doing here? I could see it in my mother very clearly. This is not my life. I am a published professor. I am developing advanced computer science at its earliest days. What am I doing here? It was this look of trapped terror. In the book, I try to show how they kind of deadened themselves a little bit. I saw part of them go away. I think they had to. What choice did they have to survive? The funny thing is, I really admired my mother. I still admire my mother. As a child, I saw her as this regal, poised, tall, and brilliant woman. She would almost float from lecture hall to office and kitchen and seamlessly just take care of everything. On the plane, I started to see, oh, she’s vulnerable. She has weaknesses. I have to take care of her. She lost a little bit of that god-like quality that so many children attribute to their parents, and especially their mothers. I remember looking at her at the sweatshop and at the sushi processing plant, and I could still see a bit of that regal spark in her. Some of it was dimmed, but it wasn’t completely removed. As long as I saw that little spark — when she was working at the warehouse and she got so angry at her exploitative boss that she spat in his cup, that spark showed itself to me in many ways. It told me that my mother was still in there and that we would be able to make it out. It was just temporary. Then she could be her floating, regal self again. I really can’t overstate the influence that my mother had on me in those years, the ability to kindle that hope and that ability to dream and believe that things were temporary. It really got me through all of the experiences that we were thrown into.

Zibby: It’s not so dissimilar to — I know we’re here with the Streicker Center today — the Holocaust and some of the work camps. Even in the movie Life is Beautiful, they have to disguise the camps for the little girl or something. It’s the power of parents to get through whatever they have to get through to make sure that things are okay for their kids. It’s really this elemental, evolutionary instinct, which you see so clearly in your parents and their willingness to fight and do whatever they can. It’s a very powerful story, and so much trauma, too, to witness. How do you go from that and that survival — you had a moment where you were describing this gaze of your dad’s where he would sort of stare off into space. He would be inaccessible for that moment. How do you ratchet all that back? How do you recover from something like that? Yet here you are, Yale Law School and this, that, and the other thing. How did you go from all of that to here? How do we make sure that other people — what is the secret to getting past something like that?

Qian Julie: I think people often talk about trauma as if it were an anthesis of empowerment and insight. My book is as much a tribute to childhood and family as anything else. I don’t think anybody gets through childhood without trauma. It’s just not possible. It’s a part of growing up. Part of growing up and reclaiming your power or claiming your power, as it were, is understanding that trauma, understanding the effect of what happened to you so that it no longer becomes something that happened to you, but something that you’ve made sense of. I wouldn’t say that going to Yale Law School, clerking on a fancy court, or working in a fancy office defined my ability to heal from that. I thought that it would. For most of my adult life thus far, that’s all I chased. I chased prestige and status and security. I thought once I made X number of dollars and got these fancy degrees, then I would be healed. The past would no longer be with me. I would never have to worry about it again. For all of those years, I never talked about what happened. My parents and I were just like, it’s fine now. We don’t need to talk about it. What’s the point of rehashing those wounds? As we all know, when we let a wound just fester, ignored, it only gets worse.

When I was in those fancy spaces, I started to get a sense that I was just running away from things and acting a role rather than being who I actually was. I have to say, those things were helpful to me in that they did give me the security and resources to go into therapy and feel safe enough to look back into the past and read my childhood diaries, which was something that was really eye-opening to me. I copiously wrote down the details of my life as a child. I was really inspired by Harriet the Spy. I wanted to solve a great big mystery in New York. I couldn’t find a mystery. That meant that I had these diary entries of just mundane details. People ask me, how do you remember that your classmate ate a strawberry shortcake popsicle every day? I was like, because it was in every other page of my diary. I was angry that I couldn’t have one. Finally finding the courage to open up those diary entries that my mother saved through all of our moves and years — she said, “One day, you might want to have this.”

Being able to bring back to life, that little girl and everything that she grappled with, everything she was thrown into, and many of the things that she was afraid to even put down on paper — I didn’t once write down in my diary, we are undocumented. I am scared. That’s not what I wrote. I wrote in rants and fits and what I observed. I saw a cop around the corner, so I turned and walked the other way, things like that. Really being able to feel in my heart what that little girl was going through and did not feel safe to feel, it was decades of bottled emotions that was just locked and taped down. Once I opened that and embraced everything, everything she felt, everything she did, the good and the bad, like playing nasty pranks on people, all the joys that she faced, getting a Tamagotchi, going to McDonald’s, in addition to the fears, it wasn’t until I was able to experience that full slate of emotion and experience that I felt understanding myself. I’m really understanding my life and who I am. I’m really claiming all of it. It wasn’t until then that I felt that I had true integrity and authenticity. If you’re not able to be honest about yourself, if you’re not able to accept yourself for everything you are, then there’s no way that you’re able to accept anyone else.

That was something that I noticed in my early adulthood. Because I had this major secret that I never gave voice to, there was a natural wall to intimacy. No one could actually get to know me because they wouldn’t know why I was — I would go in the supermarket and buy a ton of food for no reason even though I had a ton of food at home, this inclination to just horde food because I had once been very, very hungry as a child. There were all these things about me that as I learned, yes, you’ve been hungry as a child — yes, you’re afraid that you’re going to be hungry again. You might always be afraid that you’re going to be hungry again. Once I was able to say that to myself and then once I was able to say that to someone outside of me, that need to cling to things and secrets dissipated. In lieu of building walls, I was able to build security and connections in being open with myself and, in turn, learning so much about how everyone has secrets like this. I thought I was singularly bad and illegal and only I had secrets like this for most of my life thus far. It wasn’t until I began speaking about it that I learned that regardless of your circumstances, as a child, you learn there are things about you that are unacceptable. Those become the things that you guard. Those become the barriers to building true connection with the world.

Zibby: Wow. Your therapist is amazing, is all I have to say.

Qian Julie: I have several. It’s not a one-person job.

Zibby: Your introspection, it’s great. This is the emotional awareness people crave. Obviously, it’s you. Sometimes people can try as they might, but they’ll never been able to process and then redo in their brains, their past experience and then actually open up. It must have felt so liberating, in a way, although probably terrifying, to let go of all of that. It must have been so comfortable to have it there and then suddenly feel so crazy not to have it sort of hanging from your neck, if you will.

Qian Julie: Yeah, it was my security blanket. This is the chip on my shoulder that no one knows about. I’m carrying it around with me. It’s my only true friend at Yale Law School because nobody else except that chip knows everything about me. This is my armor. This is how I keep people at a distance so they can’t hurt me and I don’t risk anything ever again. When I started to try to cut that chip off that had grown attached to me — I think anyone who’s been to therapy knows. There’s an incredibly terrifying breakdown. I remember waking up in my fancy Upper East Side apartment and just being like, what is my life? I thought that I had arrived. I have it made. Why is it that I cannot get out of bed? I just want to cry all day long. These tears, they don’t even feel like present-day tears. They feel like tears from twenty years ago. They’re almost fermented tears. It felt like no matter how long I spent in bed crying, I would never be done or get rid of them until one day I just allowed myself, as my therapist said, to wallow in all of the feelings that I had locked up for so long and just believe that they will pass. They did. The next day was the first day of the rest of my life of being myself. It took a lot of practice to even let people in on small details of my life. That I had been born in China was not something that I readily told people. Of course, it was an incredibly long journey from that to having a book out there that detailed everything that I never shared.

Zibby: I was going to say, you definitely ricocheted in the opposite direction here.

Qian Julie: I still have days when I wake up and I’m like, oh, my god, this is out there. I can’t take it back. Just yesterday, I was like, okay, so my future children are going to be born into a world where this is just public knowledge. I never appreciated what an act that would be. For all of September, I just felt incredibly exposed, like I was naked on the world stage. I still have moments where I feel like that. The connections that I’ve gotten, the people from the undocumented community, the Asian American community who have reached out, that has meant the world to me. They say that they now see themselves on a shelf in a bookstore, in a library. That’s everything I dreamed. It’s really an honor.

Zibby: I hate to throw around the word brave because it’s so trite when it comes to memoirs and whatever, but there is this stoicism required in sharing so much so intimately and doing all that work to get yourself to this place. Bravo to you. I know you know that. Not for the book, necessarily, although it is amazing, but more for the fact that you got yourself to this place where you’re comfortable with all of it and can live a totally different life. You easily could’ve gone on sheltering yourself from all those raw emotions. You could’ve just gone on like that. Many people do.

Qian Julie: I was looking down the barrel of that. I saw that it was not the life that I wanted to sign up for. It was that little girl in me that was like, I just want to be free. I had gotten to a level of privilege where freedom, to me, was not just money and housing and food, although those were important still, but emotional freedom, psychological freedom, and being able to confront all the fears that I had been running away from. I just felt like I would be running forever if I didn’t turn around one day and say, this stops with me. It wasn’t just my experiences. It was also generational trauma that was passed in my blood from my parents’ experience in the cultural revolution and from their parents’ experiences being intellectuals and writers in a country that very much valued censorship more than anything else. I really did not want to continue passing that down. I’m sure I’ll mess up my future kids, but it’ll be entirely new, I hope, new ways.

Zibby: We all mess up our kids. Don’t worry about it.

Qian Julie: I just wanted to, at the very least, understand why it was that I was responding the way that I did and creating the adult life that I had. When I took a close look at it, it was that fear motivated everything. I just did not want to live a fear-based life.

Zibby: Then when you sat down to do it and wrote, what was that like? Were you looking at the diaries and then synthesizing? Was it all just coming out from memory? Were you crying? Give me a picture. Where were you? Were you at home? Did you go to the library? What was it all like?

Qian Julie: It was awful. In 2016, I decided, I’m going to write this book. Never talked about these things, but I’m going to write it because I have the ability to write it, apparently. I sat down and wrote it. I was like, I can’t write it. I don’t know what I want to say. I have no idea. I haven’t even examined those things. That was when I went into therapy and spent a good year, year and a half crying in therapy, looking at photos and diary entries, and really just getting to know the past me and my story. I didn’t write at all because it was too much. Just going to therapy itself turned my life upside down because I had never so closely looked at everything, the things behind all of my decisions. All of a sudden, I was like, oh, why do I get a bagel in the morning? Why don’t I get a donut? Maybe it has to do with this thing that happened when I was eight years old. Every little thing was under a microscope. Then finally, I felt ready. I was still in therapy, but I felt like I had gotten to this point where I had not only embraced the happy memories, but also was able to step into the sad ones that I felt ready to start writing. I was working eighty hours a week trying to make partner. I just didn’t have time.

I would come home at two AM and after sitting all day in front of my work computer, sit in front of my personal computer and just be like, you’re writing now. I would be like, I can’t write. I’m so tired. There would be times where I fell asleep on my laptop. One day, I was on my way to work on the subway. Everyone who lives in New York here knows that the subway has a lot of delays. I was stuck between stations. The announcer came on with the dreaded announcement that we were being held by a signal delay. I was like, shoot, I have so much to do. I’m just sitting here. I can’t even call my clients. I can’t review briefs. There’s nothing I can do. Then I looked at my hand, and my phone was in it. I was like, well, I have a notes app, so I started writing the book in my notes app. Somehow, that format also liberated me because it didn’t feel quite like, I’m sitting in front of a keyboard writing with a capital W. I’m just typing notes, like a grocery list of memories that I want to hang onto or that I want to pass down to my great-grandchildren one day when I’m gone. That format gave me the freedom to be truly honest. When I came upon times and memories that I said, I can’t share this — what about my parents? They’re not going to want me to share this. I told myself, first of all, it’s just a silly document in your phone. No one sees it. You’ll never finish a book because what do you know about writing a book? This is for people, our descendants, when I’m dead. No one will see this while I’m alive. Of course, that became a huge lie because many people have now read it. It was what I needed to do to find that emotional truth and put it on the page.

There would be times on the subway where I’d be typing and just bawling. Describing the sushi scenes, it was really difficult. I’d just be bawling. Then there’d be times where I would be typing and laughing. That riddle that my mother told me when she was learning to cut hair, the watermelon, that had me laughing out loud. I was that weird person in the subway just laughing to herself. That experience, that range of emotions showed me that so often what we paint as trauma, it’s not just that. It’s also the key to our joy and our empowerment. It really showed me how resilient and strong my family and my parents are. Having that contained period of time — I’m sure you have your own pieces of writing advice, but this is one that I give a lot. Assigning a bucket of your day to writing and then just not worrying about it after was the most liberating thing I could’ve done. Once I stepped off the subway platform, that was my lawyering time. I didn’t need to worry about the book. I didn’t need to feel guilty that I wasn’t writing the book because I had designated periods in my day where I would be focused on the book and only the book. The rest of my day, I could live my life. It was a way that truly freed me up to write the most authentic book I could while still being a lawyer.

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. That’s beautiful. I can’t believe it. I feel like there should be a video clip of all these people on the subway, in the subway like, . Then it swings over to you. You’re just typing on your phone. Then it’s like, future memoirist, award-winning — you don’t know what everybody’s doing. Just looking at people — this sounds so obvious. With every story, you just don’t know what the people all around you, especially here in New York — I guess you’re here. We’ve could’ve done this in person. I wish we were all at the Streicker Center, by the way. That would be great to go back in person. You don’t know what people are thinking, feeling, writing. It’s amazing. The person sitting next to you could be doing — you just don’t know. It’s amazing.

Qian Julie: Actually, this comes from a diary entry. I didn’t use this word, but the subway is a microcosm of everything that’s beautiful about New York City. An author could be sitting next to a doctor, could be sitting next to an artist who’s sketching. I often see people sketching on the train. I really wonder where that piece will go. It’s inspiring, just sitting in the subway and looking at people, which I did sometimes when I kind of hit a block. I would just look around and observe people and see what they were doing and wonder about what they were feeling and what they were going through. That kind of opened my curiosity about my own life.

Zibby: Do you worry — I know there have been so many recent subway attacks on Asian American women in particular. This is a while ago and probably off topic, but my — anyway, I won’t even bring it up. I knew someone who was also pushed in front of a subway years ago. All these crimes and whatever, how do you feel? How do you feel walking through the world now with all of this resurgence of attacks?

Qian Julie: My heart hurts. I have to say that I probably am more afraid than I was before. Part of me, when this first broke, felt somewhat validated. Having grown up on the New York City subway system, that stuff was happening way before the pandemic. It was happening in the nineties, especially to Asian women, who are painted as submissive and weak and sexual. Nobody talked about it. I’m glad, at least, that the media is talking a little bit about it, certainly not to the extent that it should be. At least there is dialogue and communication. I’ve since spoken to so many Asian American women who are saying, we just were like, oh, this is only happening to me, I guess, because no one else is experiencing it. At least now we have that sense of community. Even before this, I’ve been groped, spat on, shouted at, told to go back to my country countless times. That never deterred me from going in and saying, this is my city. This is my train. You will not keep me off it. I do worry about my mother who is, of course, older and smaller. I’ve armed her with five different pepper sprays and other tactical flashlights. I’ve told her, “Just don’t go if you don’t need to. I’ll run the errands for you. Take a car.” It’s really my parents that I’m worried about. Early in the pandemic, they were wearing, almost, disguises. They put sunglasses on and hats on and masks on so nobody could really see what race they were. That’s how targeted they felt.

Zibby: That’s heartbreaking, oh, my gosh, especially knowing your parents the way I don’t really but that I feel like I do having read your book, that it would fast-forward to this. How does your family feel about the book?

Qian Julie: They were very resistant at first. It took me six months after my book deal to find the courage to tell them. It was only because my husband was like, “You know, you don’t want them walking down the street and seeing it in a store. If you wait any longer, that’s what’s going to happen.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. I should probably give them some advance notice.” I told them. That night was like a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? play. There were so many emotions. What really broke my heart was the first thing my mother said. She said, “So you want the whole world to know what an awful mother I was to you?” She believes that to this day. She had carried the guilt of my childhood, the guilt of systemic barriers that she used all of her force to overcome. That she still blamed herself was so heartbreaking to me. I had not thought that that was where she was. Of course, I had blamed myself. As the three of us talked, my dad, of course, blamed himself. All three of us were separately and privately carrying this belief that we were singularly at fault. By virtue of not having spoken about it at all for decades, there was no way to come together in that feeling and build a connection around it. Of course, they came around. They often come around to everything that I choose to do, which is a real blessing. My dream became that if my book could give my parents amnesty and forgiveness for the past, liberation from the past, liberation from that guilt, then it will have been a success.

I didn’t let them read the book until it came out because there was still this little fear in my head that ICE would come after us. I had this countdown on my phone to the day my book released, but in my mind, it was also a countdown to when we might be deported by some mechanism, even though we were all documented. I didn’t want them to have that fear. I didn’t want them to know what details I provided so intimately so that they would then become afraid of people coming after them. I thought if I gave them the book on the day it came out, at least there would be no counting down. They’ll see either ICE here or it’s not. I knew rationally that ICE was not going to come after us, but there’s also that emotional feeling deep down. Anyway, I gave them the book the day — it was Rosh Hashanah, actually. I had spoken at Central Synagogue. We went to lunch. I gave them each a book. I always do this. I had no idea it was genetic. I always read the very last sentence of any book first. I don’t know why I do it. My dad, apparently, does the exact same thing. He flipped to the very last page, which was the acknowledgments. He read the last sentence, which was thanking him and my mom for giving me everything when they had nothing. He said, “Oh, I like this book. This is very well-written.” My mother immediately burst into tears just seeing my name on the cover. They confessed that they didn’t know if they would have the courage to read the book at all because it was the hardest years of our lives. They didn’t know if they could go back there. Of course, they did. Curiosity got the best of them. Later that day, my parents reached out and said that they cried every page, every single page, the happy pages, the sad pages, but they also felt liberated because there’s nothing that they’re running from anymore. There’s no secret that they’re burying. We have made the story ours, finally. They realized that I didn’t blame them, which I think was a big fear that I had been carrying my whole adulthood. My dream had come true. I thought I’d imagined it, but my father said, “There is nothing I am afraid of anymore.” To hear that, given his life, just meant the absolute world to me.

Zibby: Wow, this is so moving, so inspiring. It’s just truly amazing. It’s amazing. Now with the success of the book, what now? I feel like you’re, first of all, one of the most articulate people I think I’ve ever spoken to in my life. Where do you go from here? I feel like you should be some sort of — not politician, in a way. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but activist, politician, speaking out. I know you are traveling around and doing all sorts of things and whatever. Do you feel this greater sense of mission? Basically, what do you see now?

Qian Julie: I do feel a greater sense because the more I talk to people around the country, the more I see that the very same things that my parents and I faced almost thirty years ago now are still happening. It’s the same systemic barriers. Nothing has really changed even though my life has materially changed. It just gives me all the more inspiration to keep forging ahead. I left my big law firm and opened a firm with my husband, who is also a lawyer. We focus on representing immigrant families and families with children with disabilities and in securing the educational accommodations that their children need, whether it’s language support or support for learning disabilities, and whether that’s improved support within the public system or placement in a private system and funding for that. It’s been incredibly inspiring to meet these children and these families. Most of them are single-parent households just trying to get by. Many of them don’t speak much English. Just feeling connected to my own inner child, the child that I was, gives me more compassion and ability to see the realities of these children who are still very much facing some of the educational barriers that I was. I feel like nothing I do can ever be enough, and so my mind is constantly running through what else. In terms of advocacy I have gotten into political advocacy and activism, meeting with senators and representatives to push for, whether that’s funding for undocumented workers or more mental health support for the Asian American community and those that live amongst the Asian American community. For the first time, I don’t have a five-year plan. I don’t have a track. I’m not chasing anything because I’m not running from anything. It’s just what the community inspires me to do and what I feel called upon to do.

I’m also working on a second book, which is a novel about Asian American women working in big law firms in New York City. I just needed a breather. A lot of people have asked me if I’m working on a second memoir. Maybe down the line, but I kind of needed a breather and that freedom to make some things up and have more fun with it. Most of all, I think my parents are very relieved that I’m working on fiction. They’re like, go write science fiction or fantasy, anything that’s not memoir again. It’s been really fun exploring that as well. I’ve had several full-circle moments. I’ve gone back to speak at PS 124. Some of my fellow classmates are now teachers there, which is so beautiful. I’ve gone back to Chatham Square Library and spent a lot of time speaking to the librarians. I will be speaking at a conference for undocumented students from all over the country who are being brought to Swarthmore, where I went to college. The conference is providing funding for all of these students to come together and build that sense of community. All of those things have been just so incredibly special. The ability to travel across the country and meet people in all pockets and communities and hear their stories has made me a more empathic person, a fuller person with a better understanding of how things vary and don’t vary so much across America.

Zibby: I’m voting for you for president. You have my vote. I don’t even know what you believe in, but I’m in. I know there are a million questions. I’m sorry I ran over with just the interview part of this. I could listen to you forever. You’re a really captivating speaker. Amazing. I should take some questions. Let me go up to the chat and see. Actually, you answered a lot of these, so that’s good. Can you talk about your experiences escaping to Canada and subsequently returning to America?

Qian Julie: It was a very bizarre experience. It was almost the inverse of leaving China, of having had food and toys and being surrounded by family one day and the next day, having none of those things. Then going from New York to Canada, almost by virtue of crossing that line, getting health insurance, getting the security to say, this is my home, this is my country, getting put in a school where there was a lot of support and my mother immediately being able to find a well-paying job so that she could buy a car and do all of these extra things, and I had my own bedroom, it wasn’t overnight, but it certainly felt that way. It was very confusing. I say in my book, going to the dentist and the dentist acting like I was just another patient assumed to have had dental care all her life, he was like, “What happened to you?” It was just natural for me to lie because I had been lying that whole time. I just said, “I eat candy every night before bed. I don’t know.” It was a lot of that playing out throughout the day. I would think, I have everything I need now. Those things from the past, they’re no longer problems, so I can just ignore them. I can pretend they never happened and just kind of bury it. That’s what my parents and I did. We’re fine now. We’re absolutely fine. What’s the problem? Yet whenever I had a full meal, my stomach would not know what to do with the food. I would feel like I had to throw up. That happened throughout junior high, high school. My stomach just could not process too much food because it had shrunk so much. Every day after lunch, I was like, I feel motion sick. I don’t know what’s going on. It never occurred to me that there would be any lingering effect, physical or emotional, from what had happened. A lot of damage came from burying that and not looking at that.

I don’t think I was able to truly appreciate or enjoy all of the new privileges that I got in Canada. I needed something to struggle against still because that became my mode of being. The thing that I immediately chose to be thing that I struggled against was that America had chased me out, so I am determined to fight my way back in. That is how I’m going to do it. That will be my next struggle. From pretty much the minute I enrolled in school in Canada, I was like, I’m going back. I’m American. That’s what I said. I’m American, and I’m going back. That did not get much goodwill from the Canadians who were like, then what are you doing here? That was my fixation from the beginning. Of course, in the time that I was in Canada, I had developed rosy-colored memories and glasses of America. Coming back and being confronted with Chinatown and all these places with some dark memories was another moment where I woke up and said, oh, okay, this is not the beautiful country that I have somehow repainted again in my mind. There was a lot of hurt here that I have just not looked at. I went to school elsewhere, but it wasn’t really until I settled back permanently in New York City that I had no choice but to reopen that box. Just being on the subway, just walking around in Brooklyn opened up all of these memories that I canned up.

Zibby: Somebody says, thank you for writing such a moving and compelling book. You list some of your favorite books from childhood such as Julie of the Wolves, The Giver, and Harriet the Spy. What are some of your favorite books or authors now?

Qian Julie: I had a complete love affair with Victorian literature for most of my teenage and adult years. When I was in the nineth grade, one of the best teachers ever had — my English teacher saw that I was really bored in school and class. He wanted to get me engaged again, so he assigned me Middlemarch by George Eliot when I was fourteen years old. I loved it. I didn’t get half of the meaning that I was supposed to, but I love that book. I have read it six, seven times. I read it every few years. Victorian literature will forever be my home. Jane Eyre is one of my absolute favorites. In more recent releases, it was Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong that really allowed me to look at how I had taken microaggressions and racial dynamics that were directed at me as an Asian person and said, well, I don’t have anything to complain about, this is not really a problem, and just kind of stowed it away much in the same way that I did with our early immigrant experience and then moving to Canada. Unpacking a lot of those feelings again was liberating and empowering. That was one of the most recent books that changed how I engage with life and engage with myself. I have a bunch of novels that I love. Novels, to this day, remain my favorite, All the Light We Cannot See, The Goldfinch. I have a huge soft spot for coming-of-age books. I could sit here and list ten more books, but that might be a little boring.

Zibby: A few people have asked what your parents are doing these days.

Qian Julie: My parents are living in New Jersey. My father actually went to law school when I was finishing up college. He is now an immigration asylum lawyer working out of Chinatown representing the Chinese immigrants in New York. What I didn’t know as a child and didn’t put in my book as a consequence was that my parents had gone to lawyers during that time and said, “Can you help us?” Many of them in a row would take our money and run. They would close up shop. He knows how important it is for that community to have someone reliable, someone who speaks their language, someone who’s been through everything that they’ve been through. To this day, he doesn’t miss a day of going to work. He goes in every single day of the week because he knows if he’s not there, the clients might think, oh, my god, he’s run away with my money. It’s so common. I’ve litigated in court against lawyers who’ve been disbarred for doing that, especially to the Chinese immigrant community, to the Asian American community in New York. For some reason — well, I know the reason. If you paint a certain race as weak, then of course, that race will be targeted for a lot of exploitation. This is my dad’s way of protecting and shielding that community so they have access to legal tools that they need. It’s really inspiring.

My mother has had a million and one professions. She’s just gifted at everything. She’s still a programmer. She still does a lot of development on the computer side. She’s also taken up real estate because she loves houses. There’s a big real estate market now, especially in New York and New Jersey. She’s taken that up on the side. They recently adopted a pandemic puppy, who is the center of their world. My dad’s name is Vincent. He named this dog Vinny. He insists it’s not after him. It’s not a junior. It’s Vinny. It’s a different name. Their life revolves around that dog. They often say, “It’s too bad your older sister went through so much hardship. If she were a baby now, she’d be as spoiled as you, Vinny.” You’re comparing me to a dog, but okay. It’s nice to see them be able to enjoy those little things in life that I think previously they were too traumatized and stressed to do. Most of all, after reading this book, I see that things are just lighter with all of us now. We’re able to breathe a little bit easier. My mother actually was here at my place yesterday. She said, “You’ve freed us all. It really feels like the jail bars are gone.” It wasn’t really my doing. It was that little girl and her diary entries.

Zibby: Last question. When and how did you embrace Judaism?

Qian Julie: I grew up reading a lot of — especially in high school. Anne Frank was one of the first books that was assigned to me in school where I felt like there was someone who seemed like a kindred spirit to me because she was also — of course, I hadn’t gone through the Holocaust or anything as horrific, but she was also a girl who grew up in hiding and whose identity made her illegal. Yet she was still fixated on little things, like her cat and a boy and these things that I was also interested in. I felt very much seen by her writings. It just stayed with me. From there, I was very interested in Holocaust literature, understanding what happened in that time, but also very much inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel, the work that he did with Martin Luther King Jr. and all of his writings about social justice. When I actually went into therapy, my therapist gave me Man in Search of Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which I had, of course, already read. I had read Night. He said, “This will help you understand trauma.” There were all these pieces of Jewish texts and influences in my life that I just did not put together. They were always part of guiding me and part of my life. I didn’t put them together until I met my husband. He said, “Would you consider converting to Judaism?” I was like, “Absolutely not. I am a feminist. I will not take my husband’s last name. I will not take my husband’s religion. That is ridiculous.” He said, “Okay, but would you consider learning more about it? I want to raise our children in the community.” That, I was completely open to because as a child who grew up without any formal community, I very much wanted that for our future children.

We went to take some courses on Judaism. As I’m reading the assigned texts, I’m like, oh, I read this already. I know about that. Okay, that, I knew about. This is not teaching me anything. This is a waste of my time. Then I was like, huh, that’s interesting. I went in to meet with the rabbi. I said, “I just want you to know I am not converting.” She goes, “Okay, great. Good.” I was like, “I question everything that you’re teaching.” She’s like, “Great. That’s excellent. I want to hear all your questions.” That completely took the fuel out of my dissident gas pedal. I’m just like, oh, okay, you’re not resisting me. I guess I should actually engage with this and see. It was slowly and then all of a sudden that I realized that I had been Jewish for a very long time. It became obvious when Marc and I moved in and we had all of the same books. We had a Jewish section, which was most of the shelf. It was all of the same books, As a Driven Leaf and Mouse and just so many of the same copies. I was like, I was resisting something that was just within me. I always thought that I was a spiritual person. I didn’t know where that spirituality came from. I didn’t think it was religion, but all of it just became so incredibly natural. It fit very much into place. I was even already vegan, which meant that I was kosher most of the time anyway. It was a seamless transition into the community. I am lucky to have it in New York.

Zibby: Yay. Thank you so much.

Marjorie: Thank you both for such a moving and beautiful, beautiful hour. We all really enjoyed it. You’re so charming, both of you, actually. It was lovely. Thank you for being with us. Thank you, Zibby, as always. I also would like to say that next Tuesday, we go back to eleven thirty. We have Lisa Scottoline. Zibby will also be with us interviewing her. Thank you all for watching. Thank you, Qian Julie. Thank you, Zibby.

Qian Julie: Thank you for your time. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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