A Chinese Revolutionary, Reinventing Himself in American Exile
As futile as it can feel, there’s a lot to be said for frustration. Having our desires and expectations thwarted lets us know where our selves end and where others’ begin. “People become real to us by frustrating us,” the psychoanalyst (and master aphorist) Adam Phillips writes. “If they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.”
It’s a testament to Lauren Hilgers’s rich and absorbing “Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown” that the patriot of her title, a Chinese activist and immigrant named Zhuang Liehong, comes across as frustrating and, at times, downright infuriating. But Zhuang is also determined and dreamy, suspicious and generous — he becomes real to us, in other words, an inextricable combination of noble and naïve.
Hilgers, a New York-based journalist who lived in Shanghai for six years, has written a penetrating profile of a man and much more besides: an indelible portrait of his wife and their marriage; a canny depiction of Flushing, Queens; a lucid anatomy of Chinese politics and America’s immigration system. Such a comprehensive project could have easily sprawled across a book twice as long, but “Patriot Number One” stays close to the people it follows, in a narrative as evocative and engrossing as a novel.
We first meet Zhuang in early 2013, when he’s still moored in the village of Wukan, an outpost of booming Guangdong Province, planning his escape. “He suffered from the occasional lapse in reading social cues and fought it with volume, warmth and a strong handshake,” Hilgers writes, in a characteristically vivid description. His audacity had already made him a hero. A little more than a year before, he started an unlikely rebellion after discovering that local officials had been selling off the villagers’ land without their knowledge. Since then, he anticipated a government crackdown, and if he had to leave his beloved Wukan, there was only one place he wanted to go.
The United States “was a country of justice and freedom, a place with values that paralleled his own,” he reasons. “Work would be easy to find there. People would be friendly.” Zhuang could already envision the hearty welcome an ardent democracy advocate like himself would receive. He was so enamored of his chosen destination that “he had to whisper when he said it: America.”
Needless to say, his fantasy of America founders once he reaches its rough shores. And it’s then, when the country frustrates him, that life in America becomes palpable, and exceedingly real.
Zhuang and his wife, Little Yan, neither of whom speak any English, wait for their asylum applications to come through while they try to eke out a new life in Flushing after arriving on a tourist visa. Little Yan, unrelentingly practical and resigned to “eating bitter,” immediately starts to work in a nail salon; Zhuang, meanwhile, keeps telling her she should quit her job because he’s perpetually on the verge of something big. Ever entrepreneurial, he pursues a number of moneymaking schemes, including a logistically convoluted and barely profitable personal-shopping business, schlepping to an outlet mall north of the city to buy up discounted designer goods and resell them to moneyed customers back in China.
Hilgers observes all of this with a sharp eye and an open heart. She follows Zhuang and Little Yan around, together and separately, becoming privy to their daily routines and their candid thoughts about America and each other. But Hilgers isn’t in this book more than she needs to be. Aside from hosting the couple in her Brooklyn apartment when they first arrive — the inquisitive Zhuang is curious about everything, including why she owns more than one kitchen knife — Hilgers recedes into the background, the better to let them speak for themselves.
Unlike a number of other asylum-seekers from China, Zhuang and Little Yan are in a relatively privileged position: They arrive flush with savings from a land sale, and without crushing debts. At the same time, they have no family, no ready-made network to show them how anything is done. Zhuang never finished middle school. Not to mention that New York City is an extraordinarily expensive place to live.
It takes them 18 months to get permission to bring over their son, whom they left with Little Yan’s family when they traveled to the United States. He was a baby at the time, and has spent half his life apart from his parents. The scene of the couple meeting their son at Kennedy Airport is all the more wrenching for Hilgers’s understated description of what she sees: “When Little Yan reached her hand out to him, he shook his head and backed up a step. He looked up at her as if she were a giant.”
Hilgers widens her lens to include other Chinese émigrés, and she offers historical context too, including the codified bigotry of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a 10-year moratorium on immigration by Chinese laborers. She weaves the details into a chapter on Tang Yuanjun, the chairman for Flushing’s Chinese Democracy Parties, who leads a monthly protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Manhattan. After spending eight years in a Chinese prison for his dissident work, he escaped by swimming to Taiwan from a fishing boat.
Despite what amounts to little more than a cameo appearance, Tang is an intriguing character, and he has some of the best quotes in the book. He continues to be a committed activist even as he gains the realism and perspective of someone who, in his late 50s, has seen it all. He knows people might claim asylum for all sorts of reasons. Still, he hopes that even those whose dissident credentials are less than sterling might learn a thing or two about democracy by attending his meetings. “People are complicated,” Tang says. “If you say they are here for their asylum case, that’s not true. But if you say they are not here for their asylum case, that’s not true.”
Zhuang’s own activist credentials are never in doubt. If anything, without a good fight to sustain him he begins to drift, and it’s only when Wukan needs him again that he gets a renewed sense of purpose. By the end of the book, he’s traveling across the United States, protesting another government crackdown on his village.
Tang tells Hilgers that the trajectory for a new émigré tends to follow a certain arc: “In the first year you speak brave, bold words. In the second, nonsense. By the third, you have nothing to say at all.” That doesn’t hold true for Zhuang, who frustrates expectations at every turn. – Courtesy NY Times