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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One of the Top 10 Books of 2018—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

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

Patriot Number One is Zhuang Liehong, a Chinese activist who has sought asylum and made the United States his home. Any immigrant story has two parts - the life they create in their adopted home and the life they leave behind. Going back and forth in time and place, the book by Lauren Hilgers captures both. On both sides of the story, the book depicts a struggle. One is the activism and fight against corruption. The other is the attempt to navigate the US immigration and justice system in a legal application for asylum. Read my complete review at Reviewed for Penguin First to Read program.

This looked absolutely fascinating to me but then every page felt like it could have been a paragraph. Really over written for what it said.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars. An interesting look at Chinese immigrants start in the USA. The book has a slow start. I learned some things, like how there are more Chinese getting asylum each year than the next three biggest groups combined. How Americans take advantage of new arrivals, especially with their limited English and cultural politeness mores. And, like most, if not all, immigrants to this country just want to succeed and have a safe and fulfilling life.

This is an insightful read for anyone interested in China, human rights violations, corruption, and immigration. Having been interested in China since the 1980s, this was an first-hand nonfiction update of recent events in China. While being increasingly open to the West in terms of trade, one is reminded how China continues to crack down on political protesters. Even when those protesters are demonstrating against government corruption. Melissa Ocala, FL

I received this book as an Advance Copy book. I really enjoyed this book, it gave an honest account of the struggles that immigrant families have to face. Some of the scenes do go on for a bit, but to cut them short would take away from the story. This is a great story of survival, sticking to your beliefs, and how we should never take living in the wonderful United States for granted,

A 4.5 stars book for me. The story is well written and I definitely enjoyed learning more about the immigrants and their lives. It took a bit for me to get into it, but I definitely feel it was worth the read.

Patriot Number One tells one small story of the reality of modern China which appears to be representative of the struggle of the average Chinese citizen against an authoritarian government, alongside an immigration story which is surely universal. Zhuang Liehong became a dissident in his village of Wukan when he and others discovered the systematic theft of village land from the people by government. His online moniker of Patriot Number One allowed him to mobilize locals to protest. After involvement in village government and being briefly imprisoned, he chose to flee to the United States with his wife Little Yan. Their story in NYC helps illustrate the plight of immigrants both in finding their way in a new country and learning how to stay connected to family. While he is a terrific activist, Zhuang is a bit unrealistic in finding his way in the US in a way that is a bit maddening and made me feel for his wife, who shoulders much of their burden. This book allowed me to see an aspect of life in the US that I will never live as a natural born citizen, giving me new respect for my own privilege and freedoms. The narrative nonfiction writing style increased my enjoyment even more, making this rather un-put-downable.

4.5 stars With the ongoing immigration debate in the U.S. as of late, this book that takes a deep dive into the Chinese immigrant community through the stories of several immigrants pursuing their version of the American dream is a timely one that I feel everyone should read. Written by American journalist Lauren Hilgers, this a real-life, first-hand account of the Chinese immigrant experience through the story of Zhuang Liehong, a young man from the village of Wukan in China who finds himself seeking asylum in the United States in order to escape political persecution back home. Using the pseudonym “patriot number one,” Zhuang had organized protests and wrote letters exposing the corruption of local government officials who had requisitioned land belonging to the village and sold it to developers for profit, all without approval or consent of those who owned and/or lived on the land (a “practice” that still goes on quite frequently in China and Hong Kong currently). Despite his boundless enthusiasm and love for his village, the place where he grew up and where he hoped to raise his son, Zhuang came to understand that he was fighting an uphill battle and in 2014, he and his wife Little Yan decided to leave China for New York, eventually settling in Flushing, amongst a larger community of Chinese immigrants. From there, we follow Zhuang and Little Yan on their journey as they attempt to carve out a new life for themselves in a country where they not only didn’t know the language, they also had little in the way of friends and/or acquaintances to guide them (the author Hilgers was the only “friend” they knew in the U.S.). The challenge to survive was an everyday reality for this couple, as they fought to get their asylum case approved so that they could reunite with their infant son, whom they were forced to leave behind in China. In addition to Zhuang and Little Yan’s story, Hilgers also paralleled the stories of a few other Chinese immigrants – Karen, a young woman Little Yan meets at night school who is trying to build a new life for herself after being sent to study in the U.S., and Tang Yuanjun, a former leader of the Tiananmen Square protests who survived his fair share of imprisonment and abuse in China and upon settling in the U.S., decides to devote his life to helping fellow immigrants who, like Zhuang, continue to fight for justice and change in their home towns. I first read about this book in Book Page and was immediately drawn to it because of my own background as a Chinese immigrant. Of course, having immigrated to the U.S. as a small child, my experiences were very different from Zhuang and Little Yan’s, but being so connected to the Chinese community (both locally as well as back in the place of my birth – Hong Kong) most of my life, there were many elements of their story (as well as the stories of Karen, Tang Yuanjun, and others described in the book) that I knew I would be familiar with and be able to relate to. The other reason I was drawn to this book was because of my own family dynamics – my brother’s wife is from China, also from a village in the more rural areas, and even though it has been 10 years since she immigrated here and since then, she has overcome many of the struggles she herself had faced, balancing life as an immigrant continues to be a challenge due to the extended family she has both here as well as back in China. Though the circumstances of my family members’ stories were vastly different than those described in the book (for example – my family immigrated here the traditional way due to wanting a better life for themselves and future generations rather than needing to escape political persecution), many of the experiences once here were similar. The struggles of working class immigrants are very real and while I don’t fault those who paint all immigrants with a broad brush or who dismiss immigrants’ struggles as less important and somehow “legitimate” because they are viewed as “imposing” themselves on another country, it is hard for me to share these same sentiments knowing as deeply as I do the “price” behind those struggles. I understand what it means to leave behind family – parents, siblings, in the case of Zhuang and Little Yan, their infant son – and travel to a place that is completely foreign to you, a place that you’ve only read or heard grand stories about, a place where you don’t know the language and barely know anyone and where the question of survival is constantly on your mind. Having to work through bureaucratic red tape in efforts to do things “the right way” while figuring out a means to survive financially without becoming a burden to others, not knowing how long the “wait” will be yet wanting to be useful and contributing to society, learning English and going beyond that to gain new skills and knowledge in the hopes of bettering one’s position in the future, the constant worrying that perhaps all this hard work is in vain and the toll it takes physically / mentally / emotionally, having to deal with racism and discrimination in all its different forms while trying to understand why one’s facial features or the color of one’s skin should matter so much – these are but just a few of the struggles, all experienced at one point or another by the real people described in this book, struggles that many of my family members are also all too familiar with. The struggles, the hardships, the stress of trying to survive, sometimes it is hard not to become disillusioned and disheartened, yet many are willing to endure because compared to what they face in their home countries, this is but a small price to pay in exchange for the freedom that so many of us take for granted. Some of the situations described in the book may seem unfathomable to some people, maybe even “far-fetched” and “unbelievable” that things like that could happen, especially in this day and age, but yet so much of what occurred was indeed authentically recounted -- this I’m sure because I also follow what goes on in those parts of Asia (China and Hong Kong especially) and so I was already familiar with much of the narrative’s backstory. In fact, I was actually surprised (in a good way) to see some of the real-life news stories from that part of the world (such as the 2015 Hong Kong bookseller disappearances for example) mentioned in this book -- this was something I wasn’t expecting but am very appreciative of because of the awareness that it brings, which hopefully leads to much needed understanding on a deeper level…a necessity given the current world we live in. I have so many thoughts about this book and to be honest, for this review, I didn’t even include half of the notes I had written down. To me, this is a book that is hard to do justice with a review because there is just too much worthy of discussion in here. The author Lauren Hilgers is obviously a talented writer and also a compelling storyteller -- there were a few times throughout the book where I actually had to remind myself that I was reading a work of nonfiction rather than a fiction novel and that everyone mentioned in the book – Zhuang, Little Yan, Karen, Tang Yuanjun, etc. – are all real people. As mentioned earlier, this is a story that I absolutely felt a personal connection to and in fact would have liked to see an update of sorts in the author’s note on how each person is doing currently, since a year has passed since the last occurrences described in the book. Also, since Zhuang’s story was about his escape from political persecution in his home country and his efforts to rebuild his life as an asylee in the U.S., it was inevitable that there would be some parts of the narrative related to politics in the book, which is something I tend to stay away from if I can help it. Luckily, Hilgers dealt with the politics piece in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed – in fact, it was more a “side story” in the book, incorporated primarily as background to understanding Zhuang’s story, which I definitely appreciated. With all this said, I feel that this review merely skims the surface and really doesn’t justify how important and necessary a book like this is, especially right now, in our current situation. This is a timely read and one that I absolutely recommend for its honest, authentic portrayal of the Chinese immigrant experience. Received ARC from Crown Publishing via Penguin First-to-Read program.

I received this book through First Reads for my honest opinion. PATRIOT NUMBER ONE is a chronicle covering several years and two countries, a documentary of immigration and political rebellion. Lauren Hilgers came to know Zhuang, his friends, and wife well, even aiding them in the asylum process. She captures their personalities and quirks, even their flaws; you are always keenly aware that these are real people with real struggles, who care about individuals struggling even harder than they are. The problem is that there just doesn't seem to be much at stake. Which sounds like a bit of a paradox, because of course there WAS very much at stake, and still is. But the book aims at going bigger, and then seems to settle into being a personal story. Which has its own benefits, but there was potential for it to be something bigger than itself. Add to that Hilger's extended focus on characters outside the immediate Zhuang/Wukan family (interesting characters, yes, but perhaps unnecessary for this telling) and one gets the sense the book could have been more impactful than it is.

Highly relevant in today's world with so many discussionscsbout immigration. Patriot Number One shares the story of a Chinese dissident who, fearing repurcussions for his protests, travels to the US with his wife on a tourist visa, then seeks asylum. They choose Flushing, NY as their destination because Zhaong Liehong has read that this is a community of his peers. The book recounts the difficulties of navigating not only the way to legal status but also assimilating into a new culture. Expectations of "the American dream" vs reality of the immigrant experience make a fascinating, thought-provoking read. Highly recommend. I received an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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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