"Made in China"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Anna Qu’s memoir begins in Wenzhou, China where, for most of her first seven years, she was identified as “the girl without parents; a father dead, a mother who left to start a new life.” When she was only 15 months old her newly widowed mother left Qu with her grandparents to immigrate to New York City. Then, in 1991 her mother brought 7-year-old Anna to Queens, not because she missed her but to show off her financial status to her fellow immigrants:
“To have your children with you was a talked-about privilege” in Asian-American society where many individual Asian adults migrated alone then sent for their families after they had earned enough money for transportation and living costs.
Her mother had married a Taiwanese immigrant who owned a garment factory where both safety codes and labor practices violated U.S. law. Qu’s mother moved into a beautiful home and had two more children.
The young immigrant became the Cinderella of the family. She lived in the basement, spent hours cleaning into the night whenever her mother fired the latest housekeeper and was forced to hide whenever a visitor arrived.
“My mother expected me to understand the delicate dynamics of our situation,” Qu writes. “I was the child of her last marriage, and I should tread lightly so as not to offend my benefactors.” Qu also worked at the sweatshop 40-50 hours a week under the watch of her stepfather, “cutting loose threads off half-finished or completed articles of clothing.”
The author struggled with schoolwork because her mother did not allow her time to study at home but she did learn at school about the human rights guaranteed to all U.S. citizens. When she was 15-years-old, she confided her abusive situation to the school counselor, Mrs. V.
“Mrs. V. had a Queens accent and little to no understanding of what it meant to be Chinese and grow up Chinese American,” Qu writes. “She was ignorant to what my parents had to overcome and the kind of pressure I felt.... she listened, but many things remained impossible” for her to understand. Eventually, with Qu’s consent, the counselor hotlined Qu’s traumatic situation to the Office of Child and Family Services. The child protective agency reacted with indifference to most of her complaints. Her sweatshop labor ended, but her mother's abusive behavior continued.
When Qu was 17, she enrolled in college and worked conscientiously at school and as a restaurant server and retail salesperson. For the first time, her efforts earned grudging respect, but not love, from her mother. She took several jobs after graduation and struggled to become her own person.
“I want to be me instead of the work I do.” As months passed, she gained distance and independence from her mother.
Qu’s feelings of loss, fear, anger, and abandonment saturate the book. The “love” in the title is only briefly encountered when she connects up with a long-lost friend and finally escapes to a better life.
The book is skillfully written and especially insightful about the ethea of diverse cultures. Qu’s extended examination of the family’s garment plant gradually morphs into a complex exploration of inequality and trauma. Depictions of hurtful parental abandonment and Qu’s resentment fill the pages and may be disturbing for some readers.
“Made in China” is a powerful, depressing memoir that asks tough questions about the nuances of immigration, understandings of parental love, the meaning of work and the costs of assimilating into a new culture. It is a very timely publication as the United States seeks to address the current immigrant pressure along the southern border and tries to develop an up-to-date immigration policy.
About the Author:
Anna Qu is a Chinese American writer who holds a Master of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. The memoirist serves as the Nonfiction Editor at “Kweli Journal” and teaches at the low-res MFA program at New England College. Catapult is the publisher of this 213-page book.