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.