LJ Talks to Journalist Lauren Hilgers

Journalist Lauren Hilgers (Harper’s, Wired, Businessweek, The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine) lived and worked in Shanghai, China, for six years. While reporting on the Wukan protests, the author met activist Zhuang Liehong, who was eventually arrested for his activities.

headshot of Lauren Hilgers. Photo © Erich HehnJournalist Lauren Hilgers (Harper’s, Wired, Businessweek, The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine) lived and worked in Shanghai, China, for six years. While reporting on the Wukan protests, the author met activist Zhuang Liehong, who was eventually arrested for his activities. After Hilgers moved to New York, Zhuang contacted her to explain that he and his wife, Little Yan, were planning to escape from their American tour group and reside in Flushing, Queens. Then they arrived on her doorstep. Hilgers won a MacDowell Fellowship to complete her debut book, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown (starred review, LJ 2/1/18), which chronicles Zhuang and Little Yan’s experiences as new immigrants.

LJ: What drew you to Zhuang and inspired you to tell his story?

LH: Zhuang is such a wonderful, headstrong, optimistic person, I think it would have been a challenge not to be drawn to his story. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Zhuang pulled me in. The first time we met was in China, in a tea shop he was running in his home village of Wukan. He called me in, offered me tea, and told me his story. It was clear then that Zhuang was a dreamer. He had big aspirations for himself and for his village. He also had a deeply held sense of right and wrong and was a bombastic storyteller. It was the obvious pleasure he took in telling his story, which was not a particularly hopeful one, that at first led me to underestimate him. It took me some time to realize that, in addition to being a dreamer and an idealist, Zhuang was determined. Some of his ideas might have been unrealistic, but Zhuang was always devising backup plans. He likes to say that he isn’t particularly well educated or well spoken, but he is persistent.

When you set out to write your book, were you intending to profile an activist?

Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown book coverLH: When [Zhuang and I] first met, I was not aiming to write about a single activist, but rather an entire village of activists. After months of protest in 2011, Wukan had been allowed to elect a representative body—the Wukan Village Committee—and Zhuang was among those elected. I was interested in how this group of villagers, with no previous experience in governance, was attempting to resolve the problems that had caused the protests in the first place. Things didn’t go as planned, and Zhuang fled to New York. The story I was writing changed with his arrival. Suddenly, I was following what seemed to be a tale of an everyday immigrant who had left his activism behind him in China to become an anonymous face in the crowd. I switched gears as his life shifted, and one of the tensions in the book is the struggle that ensued. Zhuang is trying to determine who he is now that he’s in the United States, now that he doesn’t have the reputation he had built [in China], the friends he had made [there], and the respectability that he had painstakingly acquired over years.

Please describe your relationship with Little Yan.

LH: It took me longer to get to know Little Yan; she is quiet where her husband is outspoken. She doesn’t volunteer her opinions as quickly. Zhuang sees himself as the hero of his own story. As a villager in Southern China, and as an immigrant, Zhuang has chafed against the limits of his circumstance. Little Yan, however, is more ambivalent. She doesn’t feel she has the space to be as idealistic as Zhuang. She’s practical and wonderfully blunt. She figures out what needs to be done and does it. At the same time, underneath all that work and practicality, Little Yan is very observant. She has had to be to adjust to so many different worlds (Guangzhou, Wukan, Flushing). She puts real work into adapting herself to a new environment. Her observations shaped my understanding of Flushing; in particular how immigration, in removing people from the communities of their hometowns and villages, can shake up social norms. She talked very openly about how many divorcees she met, the affairs people were having, the social status they would have had back in China.

What led you to include the story of Karen, a classmate of Little Yan?

LH: The more I got to know Little Yan, the more I wanted to explore the Flushing that she was experiencing, which for a long time was very different from the world Zhuang was living in. Little Yan was worrying about money and occupying herself with the practicalities of making life work in Flushing. And she often talked about those decisions as gendered. I met a few of Little Yan’s friends and Karen stood out as someone who had thought clearly about where she was and what she needed to be happy. Neither Karen nor Little Yan were occupied with differentiating themselves from the other immigrants in Flushing. Both of them were really just looking to carve out a comfortable, happy life for themselves. At the same time, I think they faced similar challenges as Zhuang—they were really considering who they were now they were no longer in China. You don’t have to be a democracy activist to struggle with what it means to be a new arrival in America.

Can you elaborate on the isolation Zhuang and Little Yan experience?

LH: My expectation was that new immigrants would have a community that was welcoming and easy to access. For Zhuang and Little Yan, that wasn’t the case. Zhuang, in particular, was slow to trust people. New immigrants are easy to take advantage of, and it can be dangerous not to know how much things cost or how things are typically done. And once you overcome those challenges and are comfortable enough to start making friends, there is the question of people’s work schedules. Everyone is working such long hours, sometimes traveling out of the city for weeks or months at a time. It’s very difficult to make lasting connections.

Was there research you found while writing the book that surprised you?

LH: Early on, I remember how shocked I was when faced with the tiny living spaces that are common throughout Flushing; Sunset Park, Brooklyn; and Manhattan’s Chinatown. Looking for Zhuang’s first apartment, I realized you can walk into a reasonably-sized single-family home on a suburban-looking street in Queens and there will be three or four families living there. I spent a few nights in a local hostel, also, and there was no indication from the outside that there were 20 beds in a two-bedroom apartment. At night, you were expected to thread your way quietly through a maze of curtains to find the bed you had rented. In the morning, everyone cycled in and out of the two bathrooms and the kitchen. That hostel was a quick introduction to the transient workforce based in New York. One of the women I met there got a job with a nail salon in Upstate New York; she had been in the United States a total of three days. She was given a time and a street corner to stand on, and was told that a van would pick her up and drive her upstate, where her new boss would provide housing. The next day she left with her suitcase and someone else took her bed. (That woman ended up very happy with that job. We kept in touch and, about six months later, met in Flushing when she came back to send money to her husband and son in China.)

Are there misconceptions about the process of applying for asylum?

LH: Most Americans would be surprised at the sheer amount of time someone can spend in limbo, without status. It took Zhuang and Little Yan just over a year to obtain asylum; more than that if you consider how long it took to put together their application. Now, you’ll hear them talking about how lucky they were. They had good lawyers and connections with the Congressional-Executive Committee on China. A year, now, is considered fast. (I also think many people would be surprised that, during those lengthy waits, thanks to temporary work permits, most people have social security numbers and are paying taxes.) Watching Zhuang and Little Yan, the thing that really struck me was the countless opportunities they had to let things fall through the cracks. Even with a very convincing asylum case, Zhuang had to stay on top of his application, follow-up, and propose his own solutions to problems that came up. He had to make sure that no appointments were missed, no letters got lost in the mail. Even though he was moving every few months, even though he couldn’t always read the mail he was being sent, and even when he was working 12 hour days, he and Little Yan had to drop everything when they received a letter from immigration, figure out what they needed to do, and then do it.

Do you think Zhuang found his American Dream?

LH: This was a topic I returned to repeatedly over the three years of reporting in Flushing. And it was one that proved difficult to talk about. Zhuang and Little Yan didn’t know what to expect. Their ideas about the United States were mostly vague—slippery generalizations that involved freedom, wealth, and ultimately, comfort. Today, Little Yan repeats a refrain you hear a lot in Flushing: that the streets are crowded, chaotic, and dirty. The trains are old. Zhuang was shocked when he first encountered a homeless person on a New York subway platform. He certainly didn’t expect the kind of bureaucracy he encountered when he applied for asylum. They also hadn’t anticipated the daily humiliation of being completely out of your element. In other ways, however, the United States has lived up to ideals. Zhuang see his adopted country as a place that gives everyone the chance to speak; a place where the truth matters.—Stephanie Sendaula

Photo © Erich Hehn

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