Journalist Lauren Hilgers was somewhat surprised when an acquaintance from her years spent working in Shanghai showed up on her Brooklyn doorstep one evening. The man, Zhuang Lehong, was a Chinese activist-labeled-dissident who had traveled to the United States with his wife, Little Yan, planning to seek asylum. Hilgers profiled their experience in the asylum process while living – and adapting to American life – in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. She tells an immersive, deeply reported story of an immigration experience, including the undesirable work, living conditions, unusual or underground economies, language barriers, politics, and the everyday anxiety, culture shock and homesickness that make up so much of their new American lives.
Zhuang, son of a local fisherman, was a proud villager in Wukan in Guangdong province. He became an activist to protest against corruption in his village, culminating in 2011 with a major protest after local government officials sold villagers’ land to developers, promising them lucrative real estate, but failed to pay the villagers for it. Zhuang had started a network on Chinese social media app QQ, networking and mobilizing dissatisfied villagers. His activism had dangerous repercussions. One of the village’s representatives died in police custody under mysterious circumstances, and Zhuang, alias Patriot Number One in his QQ group, no longer felt safe in his homeland.
They left and entered the US legally, although Hilgers explains that now, even a few years later, it’s no longer a viable option for dissidents wanting to leave China. Leaving their baby son with family members in another village, believing it the best option in the long term, Zhuang and Little Yan carefully arranged to visit the US on tourist visas with a group, later splitting off to visit New York City on their own. There, they would begin the long bureaucratic process of claiming asylum against political persecution and eventually, hopefully – the road to green cards.
Hilgers follows their story in well told, extensive detail, alongside those of several of the Chinese residents they come to know and interact with in Flushing – one of New York’s extensive Chinatowns. Zhuang chose Flushing as their starting point after researching Chinese immigrant communities online. He felt he could get by there with his family – it’s slightly less dense than the now more touristy Manhattan Chinatown district. Most importantly, he felt reassured by so many signs and businesses in Mandarin. Both he and Little Yan spoke next to no English when they arrived.
Many of the Chinese profiled are seeking or have obtained asylum, but all of their stories are different. Chapters alternate between their current lives in Flushing – sometimes allowing them to show how different those lives are from what they’d imagined or aim for – and their former lives in China. Both sides of these stories are so telling, and it’s humbling to see how others live and the choices they make with the options they’re given. Hilgers shows how lucky Zhuang and Little Yan are, in the big scheme of things. Karen, a younger immigrant Little Yan meets in adult education classes at the Long Island Business Institute, arrived in the US under very different circumstances than the couple, with little autonomy.
Karen works hard for low pay, like many immigrants, and pays off a debt to a family friend who’d allowed her to stay in her home but tried to profit off her unfairly. Karen eventually escaped to Flushing, but she wasn’t free yet with this burden of debt. Even those who are lucky enough to arrive thus unencumbered live under admittedly shaky circumstances – like Zhuang and Little Yan, who share apartments and live with constant worry and pressure, leading to arguments in addition to the stress.
The style and tone of this book reminded me a lot of one of my narrative nonfiction favorites, Random Family. And like that book, this one also deals with a New York City neighborhood and resident group that don’t get much consideration from outsiders gushing about how wonderful New York is. Many of the diverse population groups and complex communities of the outer borough remain invisible even while in plain sight, hardly a part of the New York that visitors, or even many residents, as Hilgers admits, know. The stories told here are important, if for that reason alone. Immigrants aren’t some faceless other hellbent on undermining laws, stealing our jobs and living on benefits. We should consider ourselves lucky to have people who do what they’re doing.
It’s the old concept of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, to understand and appreciate what challenges they’ve overcome. These are not only bureaucratic for Zhuang, his family, and their neighbors, but outright dangerous. It’s incredible how hard they work in order to build better lives, while being railed against by many who don’t understand what immigrants are willing and able to contribute to American society. Little Yan, for example, is the harder, pragmatic worker – she takes every job she can, even when Zhuang espouses old-fashioned ideas about women staying home and men being breadwinners (meanwhile he seems to succumb to some depression or ennui). She works in nail salons, home healthcare, and takes adult education courses, she’s rarely not in motion.
The Flushing residents’ response to Trump’s candidacy and presidency were a completely fascinating, often surprising aspect of this story. At one point, Zhuang is continuing his activism and protesting Chinese human rights outside of Trump Tower in hopes of attracting attention to the cause at this high profile location when someone shouts about why they should care about problems in China. Patriot Number One doesn’t leave any ambiguity about that, a book-length underscoring of this kind of isolated ignorance.
But beyond seeing these detailed, nuanced portraits of the immigrants profiled, I felt uncertain about what I was intended to take from it all. That may be on me, some inability to read or grasp deeper, but I felt it nonetheless. There was little commentary beyond some contextual basics to place all of this information in a bigger picture. I can read that separately, of course, but I would’ve been interested to see more perspective tied to the experiences here. I just don’t know what to do with it all, now that I know it.
What it does remarkably well is create sympathetic portraits and shed light on communities that are integral to American ways of life, particularly in big cities (laundromats, Uber, hotels, restaurants, nail salons) while emphasizing how much that has cost those people emotionally, mentally, physically, financially. Compelling, excellent writing makes this must-read narrative nonfiction on a topical issue.
Verdict: a very high 3.5/5
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.