Book Review: Made in China by Anna Qu

Made in China – Anna Qu (Catapult, 2021)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own. It is on sale 3 August 2021.

Anna Qu is a baby when her mother leaves her with her grandparents and heads to the United States. Anna’s father having died shortly after their marriage, options for a single young woman in China are scarce and Anna’s mother hopes to find more opportunity in the US. Years pass before Anna and her mother are eventually reunited but when Anna arrives in New York she finds that her mother has a new life that doesn’t really include her anymore.

Anna’s mother began as a factory worker but ended up marrying the factory owner. They go on to have two more children so that when Anna arrives she meets an entire family she doesn’t know and quickly realizes that her status is not the same as her stepfather’s children. The family has reached a level of economic comfort but Anna’s mother cannot shake the trauma of what she has been through. While her younger children are allowed to enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle, Anna is put to work. She ends up as a sort of live-in maid for her own family and is later sent to work in her parents’ garment factory. This is a sort of sweatshop that Anna is required to work in full-time as well as being a high school student. In increasing desperation, she turns to her school counsellor and ends up okaying a call to Child Services.

This memoir is told from Anna’s perspective today. As an adult now, she has the perspective to realize the greater complexities of her own childhood. She can recognize that her forced labour in a sweatshop is still very different than the other workers there because she always knew she would leave. And perhaps her greatest realization comes when she begins to accept that what she truly wanted was what no one could give her: for her mother to love her the way she loved her younger siblings.

The story has some hiccups and some sections where it dallied too long but at it’s heart it is a story of inter-generational conflict and the trauma of immigrants. Anna begins to recognize that her mother’s actions do not occur in a bubble but are the result of her own upbringing as well as her desire to make sure her children succeed in a new world.

With a book like this I’m always left to wonder how the author’s family will react to what she has to say. Writing such an intimate story seems a bit like burning all your bridges when it comes to any chance at reconciliation. At the same time, I wonder if Anna Qu made that choice deliberately.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Made in China by Anna Qu”

  1. This sounds like a really interesting read, though perhaps quite tough. I always have the same question as you, though, about people’s relationships after they publish books like this. It doesn’t bother me if they are, say, 40+ and writing about childhood/early adulthood, as I assume they’ve had enough processing time to decide what they want to do with their own memories. When young adults publish very personal writing, it does worry me that maybe they are writing as therapy and might regret it later – I wonder if publishers have a set of ethical guidelines for making decisions about this type of thing?

    1. I’m with Lou; the younger the author of the memoir, the more cautious I am. Not only is it possible that she’s burned some bridges, though it sounds like those bridges need not exist, but that the author hasn’t fully processed what’s happened, and as a result we get a memoir that reads like something that will need updated, or that the author may regret.

    2. I’d honestly feel super weird writing a memoir about my parents while they’re still alive. Not because I would be revealing scandalous things but because it’s putting all my opinions and perspectives out in the world and not giving them an opportunity to respond in the same way. It seems impossible to me that you wouldn’t come to regret it in some way.

    3. I’ve read a number of memoirs in which the author explains that his/her parents read the book before it was published and okay-ed the content or gave feedback.

    4. That I could understand. Qu doesn’t mention anything like that but who knows. We are told that her mother doesn’t read English so I almost wondered if she was simply hoping her mother would never get someone to translate the book for her.

    5. Qu doesn’t state her current age but my best guess is that she’s pretty close in age to me (I’m 35) and not much older than 40. So maybe she’s settled enough in her own thoughts and processing. I just know my opinions and understanding of my childhood have changed a lot in the past ten years and I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep developing. And especially in a case like this it seems exceptionally harsh to tell such a negative story about people you still have any interaction with.

    1. I think you’re probably right. Personally, I would feel like a published book closes the door to reconciliation too completely but perhaps it was also cathartic for her.

    2. She does say that her mother doesn’t read in English but her half-siblings are fluent in both languages and there is implication within the book that they would/have translated Qu’s writing for their mother.

  2. I always wonder that too, and have to assume that the author knows she’s burning those bridges. Sometimes it feels deliberately cruel and destructive (like dear old Harry calling his “beloved” brother a racist on Oprah!) but assuming this story is true, then it sounds as if the author may have felt that the damage had already been done, by her mother and half-siblings.

    1. Oh yes, I didn’t watch that infamous interview but I have to assume that Harry and Meghan don’t care about ever being close with his family again. In the case of this book, I think it’s a fair bet that the author feels that the relationship can’t get worse.

  3. Wow, what a story. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it would be to move to a new country and find your mother has moved on without you, having new children who she loves more. It sounds quite horrific actually. I do understand an immigrant’s desire to work hard, and translate that work ethic to their kids, but clearly some people go a little overboard with it!

    1. It’s so hard to imagine being the parent and leaving your small child too, although I know parents make those kinds of decisions all the time.

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