Moving halfway around the world to a new country where everyone speaks a new language would be a challenging experience for just about anyone. But for 10-year-old Zhang Ai Shi and her parents, leaving Taiwan means a chance for a better life in the United States, a place known in China as “the beautiful country.”
In the fall of 1980, Ai Shi’s family moves into a cramped one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Her parents use their life savings to purchase a fast-food restaurant, but it’s a struggle to make their business venture succeed. The restaurant is repeatedly vandalized, and Ai Shi’s classmates at school often make racist comments toward her. Ai Shi and her family all work hard, but money stays tight, and Ai Shi misses the friends and traditions she left behind in Taiwan. Even her birthday and Christmas are disappointing. Will Ai Shi ever feel at home in America?
With In the Beautiful Country, debut author Jane Kuo draws on her own experience of immigrating to the U.S. during the 1980s to create a moving story of family, heartbreak and, in time, hope. She portrays her young protagonist’s feelings of being torn between two cultures while capturing snapshots of the Zhang family’s journey and everyday lives.
Free verse written from Ai Shi’s perspective strikes the perfect balance between approachable and lyrical. As she contemplates her new life, Ai Shi wonders whether something can be ugly and beautiful at the same time. “And a person, / can a person feel two different emotions, / can a person be both grateful and sad, / at exactly the same time?” By embracing what they have, instead of dwelling on what they lack, Ai Shi and her family eventually realize that when they’re together, supporting one another, they’re truly home.