The immigrant narrative has often been oversimplified, commodified and exploited in popular culture. There is no singular "immigrant experience,” and the nuances of each person’s journey make concepts such as success complex to articulate. The lives of subsequent generations can exist in a liminal space between their parents’ country and their own birth nation. Anna Qu’s engrossing debut memoir, Made in China, explores the space where they hover, trying to respect the contradictions of their parents' past but also attempting to forge a new path forward for themselves.
Made in China is an amalgamation of many things: It is a memoir about Qu’s own childhood growing up in China estranged from her mother; a narrative of disappointment about their reunion in America; her irreversible decision to report her parents to child services; and the fallout stemming from that act. It is also a critique of America’s false promise of liberation through labor, an exploration of the toxicity of family and capitalism and a necessary reminder of what it means to find compassion for those who hurt us and for ourselves. Threading all these pieces together is a question that thrums palpably throughout the book: Is it ever possible to disentangle survival from complicity?
At just over 200 pages, Qu's memoir attempts to capture a lot of history and nuance in a relatively short space. It begins with Qu’s time working at a factory — a sweatshop, really — owned by her mother and her stepfather. There, she is treated as one of the workers, berated by her mother and usually left to fend for herself. Her descriptions of life on the factory floor are visceral: women stationed at two rows of sewing tables move in sync, "their bodies lurch[ing] forward in a soft concave”; large industrial metal fans circulate “flat, hot air.” Her eye for detail is patient, unwavering and unemotional. In fact, one of the most startling things about Qu’s memoir is not just how much abuse she withstands from her mother, but how calmly she presents these incidents as fact; at one point, she attempts to jump out of a window. At another, her mother uses a variety of household objects to physically punish her. Describing each scenario, Qu's voice on the page is calm and collected, unwilling — or unable — to rise to the emotional crescendo that her mother's wrath demands, though her inner turmoil is made very clear to the reader.
"As her daughter, my job was to listen and serve her,” she writes. “There was no reasoning, no bargaining, no talking. It did not require explanation. She had told me a hundred times what she expected from me, but I kept fighting, kept insisting. It was clear now that it was her expectations I had failed. I was raised in an American classroom, taught the privileges and freedoms of a white person's history and culture. I had betrayed her with my Americanness. It didn't involve my half-siblings; it had always been about us. And it came down to trust. And a daughter that did not trust her mother was as much of an anomaly as a mother that sacrificed her daughter.”
When Qu recounts a childhood full of longing and loneliness, she is also drawing a line between herself and her mother, who immigrated to the United States by herself and had to grow emotional calluses to survive America's capitalism. When she writes about her mother's disdain for her clothing choices or her mother's refusal to sign the necessary documents for her college education, she is musing about how “education, learning English and assimilation” were tasks her mother had no interest in because she, literally, couldn’t afford to. “The goal [of her mother's generation] was to accumulate wealth," she writes. Qu is careful to tease out these delicate nuances in a way that protects her mother from outsider judgment even as she reveals the extent of her verbal and physical abuse. What Qu's restraint in language ultimately reveals is an extraordinary amount of empathy.
“My mother's goal in life was like that of many immigrants," she writes with compassion. “She wanted an easier life with more opportunity for herself and her family. A life filled with enough food, a comfortable home and children that behave. Beyond that, she hoped her children would have the opportunity to pursue careers they wanted, a chance at a fuller, happier life. She wanted them to simultaneously appreciate the hardships she faced, to never have to fully know those cruelties and to be grateful for the opportunities they'd had. An impossible number of contradictions, but a common one among the immigrants I knew."
Made in China will feel familiar to children of immigrants from the Asian diaspora. It is ultimately less a story about Qu and her strained relationship with her mother and more an observation of how broken systems produce broken, hurt individuals who then perpetuate patterns of harm. Because despite how disdainful both Qu and her mother are toward each other at times, it’s clear that Qu ultimately has love and compassion for her mother. It's the systems around them — capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy and labor migration — that have forced them to be up in arms against each other in order to survive. Qu's memoir poses so many questions about invisible and emotional labor; about the cost of success in a country that demands so much from its citizens; and about what it really means to "make it" in America. It's the sort of memoir that will open up conversations about everything that is ugly, uncomfortable and necessary about our relationship to work and to each other, and ultimately, to ourselves.