Patriot Number One by Lauren Hilgers

Patriot Number One

Lauren Hilgers

Amid a raging immigration debate on the national stage, Hilgers's deeply reported and beautifully wrought account paints a revealing portrait of just what it takes to survive.

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The deeply reported story of one indelible family transplanted from rural China to New York City, forging a life between two worlds
In 2014, in a snow-covered house in Flushing, Queens, a village revolutionary from Southern China considered his options. Zhuang Liehong was the son of a fisherman, the former owner of a small tea shop, and the spark that had sent his village into an uproar—pitting residents against a corrupt local government. Under the alias Patriot Number One, he had stoked a series of pro-democracy protests, hoping to change his home for the better. Instead, sensing an impending crackdown, Zhuang and his wife, Little Yan, left their infant son with relatives and traveled to America. With few contacts and only a shaky grasp of English, they had to start from scratch.

In Patriot Number One, Hilgers follows this dauntless family through a world hidden in plain sight: a byzantine network of employment agencies and language schools, of underground asylum brokers and illegal dormitories that Flushing’s Chinese community relies on for survival. As the irrepressibly opinionated Zhuang and the more pragmatic Little Yan pursue legal status and struggle to reunite with their son, we also meet others piecing together a new life in Flushing. Tang, a democracy activist who was caught up in the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, is still dedicated to his cause after more than a decade in exile. Karen, a college graduate whose mother imagined a bold American life for her, works part-time in a nail salon as she attends vocational school, and refuses to look backward.

With a novelist’s eye for character and detail, Hilgers captures the joys and indignities of building a life in a new country—and the stubborn allure of the American dream.

Advance Galley Reviews

Hilgers' book should stand out on the shelves of immigration related subjects because its main characters are not from Mexico, or El Salvador, or Guatemala. By choosing to share the story of Zhuang and Little Yan, she reminds us that the journey of an immigrant is relevant across ethnic groups and country backgrounds. Unlike other books I've read on the subject, Hilgers maintains an unbiased tone and uses only facts to portray the emotional side of the immigration journey. While I appreciated the clear voice, sometimes I wished for a bit more passion. She never quite stirred me to shock or anger - but maybe that was never her intention? Besides a few obvious editing errors (entire words missing from sentences) I grained new knowledge and understanding from the book, and that's exactly why I selected this title.

I am really into this book so far! It's nothing I would have ever normally picked ,which is why I wanted to expand my horizons and try it. Examining the life of a Chinese immigrant in New York City has been a fascinating journey for me and has really opened my eyes into the lives of modern immigrants into the US and the many barriers they face.

Sometimes, in order to understand the macro, you have to examine the micro. “Patriot Number One” takes us into Chinese immigration by focusing on the struggles of small-town democracy advocate Zhuang Liehong, his wife Little Yan and their friends and fellow immigrants. Values and concepts held by other ethnicities can be difficult to grasp in the abstract, but by getting to know these people, you get to know their culture as much you do the people themselves. The book is both humorous and heartbreaking, sad yet hopeful. Americans often ask why, if an immigrant has so much pride in his origin, why he or she moved to the United States. I think this book does a better job at answering that than anything else I’ve read lately.

This is an enlightening look at the ordeal of immigrants in the United States, especially those from China. The focus is primarily on Zhuang and his wife, Little Han, and their sometimes rocky road to find a place for themselves while still trying to stay in touch with the protest movement that led them to flee their home. Hilgers also sheds an important light on the oppressive regime and lack of real freedom for the people of China, particularly those from the more rural areas of the country. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the struggle of both the immigrant population of the U.S. and the situation in China, which seems to be growing in power and influence. I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin’s First to Read program in exchange for an honest review.

"Patriot Number One" tells the story of Chinese democracy and anti-corruption activist Zhuang Liehong and his wife, Little Yan. For most of the book, the setting switches back and forth between Zhuang's life and activism in China and his emigration to Flushing, Queens and his struggle for legal status and to adapt and thrive in the United States. It is a fascinating story, though at times frustrating, just like the lead character. At times he makes decisions that seem nonsensical, and his stubbornness and inability to change often place huge burdens on his wife and family. In fact, I found the most interesting people were Little Yan and her friend, Karen. Their issues and dreams for themselves and their families were more compelling than Zhuang's anti-corruption activism in China, at least to me. Overall, this was a beautifully-written and compelling story, and I think it will appeal to many different kinds of readers. Four out of five stars.

In 2011, journalist Lauren Hilgers reported from a small village located on the southern coast of China. There, villagers had revolted against corrupt local government when it was discovered their farmland was being sold out from under them to real estate developers. The unlikely leader of the rebellion was a fisherman's son named Zhuang Liehong whose activism soon drew the ire of police and government officials. Zhuang knew he needed to escape while he could, before his passport was blacklisted. Together, he and his long-suffering wife, Little Yan traveled to America on a tourist visa. They left their infant son with Little Yan's parents with the intent of sending for them once they were settled in America. Once the pair had defected from the tour, they headed to New York City where Zhuang had researched (via the internet) that Flushing in Queens was the best place for democratically minded Chinese immigrants like him. From there, Hilgers weaves an empathetic, often humorous narrative of life as a modern day immigrant - the struggle to survive, assimilate and find affordable housing and jobs - the reconciliation of dreams and visions to the actuality of a cynical, unwelcoming society. The sensible Little Yan quickly finds mundane jobs for herself and encourages her husband to do the same hoping to establish financial security. Zhuang believes a renowned activist like himself, will receive offers to join the other dissidents living in the community and multiple job opportunities will magically surface. He does indeed befriend Tang Yuanjun, a Tiananmen Square protest leader, and the two are part of a protest at Trump Tower where they experience blowback from Trump supporters asking - why should America care about their problems? All in all it's a marvelous look at today's immigrant dilemma and an argument FOR rather than against, making sure America remains a sanctum for dreamers everywhere.


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