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'Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown' expertly reveals a hidden immigrant world

This story of a Chinese activitst's efforts to make a new life in the US is startling but heartening.

Patriot Number One By Lauren Hilgers Crown/Archetype 336 pp.
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  • Randy Dotinga

On their first day in New York City, the young couple from China ignored the bagels and lox set out before them, marveled at the very idea of a laundromat and wondered why anyone would possibly need more than one knife in the kitchen. Then the husband and wife – one bold and blustery, the other quiet and shy – set about making a new American life like tens of millions of immigrants before them.

But Zhuang and "Little Yan" Liehong are anything but typical newcomers. Back home in China, Zhuang had risked his life by transforming himself into a high-profile political protester who'd led a "mini-revolution." He's certain he'll become a runaway American success story as the US bends to his high profile and confident will.

Events then unfold under the gaze of a sharp-eyed and sympathetic journalist named Lauren Hilgers. It's she who provides the lessons in American cutlery, cuisine, and clothes-cleaning when the Liehongs arrive in the Big Apple on a secret mission to seek asylum. And it's she who expertly reveals a hidden immigrant world in the perceptive and thought-provoking new book Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown.

The Chinatown in the title isn't one you're likely to have heard of. It's not in Manhattan or San Francisco or Los Angeles but instead in Flushing, an unfortunately named neighborhood in the sprawling borough of Queens. It's become the "destination of choice" for most working-class immigrants from mainland China, and Zhuang thinks he'll have the best chances of success there.

He has reason to be sure of himself. He helped turn the little Chinese village of Wukan into a global symbol of the tens of thousands of Chinese protests each year over land grabs by local authorities. Zhuang helped lead the outcry, first as an anonymous online poster named "Patriot Number One."

As a 2012 Christian Science Monitor editorial noted, the Wukan protesters made "a clear link between land rights and individual freedom." Chinese leaders granted them some concessions but also cracked down by imprisoning their critics and worse.

Zhuang eventually decided he'd had enough and wanted to leave. No nation beat the US in his mind, "a country of justice and freedom, a place with values that paralleled his own. He had to whisper when he said it: America."

The US wouldn't just welcome him, he believed, but he'd easily find work. All he'd have to do would be to leave his young son in China, get to the US with Little Yan on a tourist visa, run away from their tour, and find a home and asylum with the help of a certain friendly foreign correspondent he knew in New York. And so the pair showed up on the doorstep of Hilgers and her husband.

Hilgers is a thoughtful chronicler with an eye for telling details about the Wutan uprising, the revealing upbringing of Zhuang and Little Yan, and their complicated, sometimes-tense marriage. She also vividly tells readers about the challenges facing immigrants, from bus stops that must be memorized to disagreements over gender roles (Zhuang doesn't want Little Yan to get a job unless he can work with her).

Many dissidents like Zhuang are obsessed with life back home: "Their bodies were in New York, but their thoughts were elsewhere." But they have to be more than just physically present in America, especially when many face mystifying hassles when government, tax, and insurance bureaucracies make mistakes and fail to fix them. "It was," Hilgers writes, "like making your way through a fog: Obstacles would appear without warning, outlined but not complete."

Hilgers also brings in intriguing characters like the veteran dissident who'd organized marches supporting the Tiananmen Square protests, tried to register a democracy party, and served eight years behind bars in China. In 2001, he swam from a boat to Taiwan, where a soldier demanded to know what he was doing there. Defecting, he said. The reply: "Swim back!"

In the US, he promotes Chinese democracy and help dissidents and other immigrants reduce their overly optimistic American expectations "as painlessly as possible."

But the cautions don't stick. Immigrants cry in their asylum court hearings whether the news is good or bad, their emotions so high because, the democracy activist says, they catch the American dream on the way over from China as if it flows through the air vents on airplanes. (As Hilgers notes, more Chinese people seek and get asylum in the US than any other nationality.)

Ultimately, "Patriot Number One" is an eye-opener. It's startling but heartening to realize how much of a beacon the US still is to the rest of the world when so many Americans of different stripes feel our nation is deeply flawed and our rights too limited.

A friend of Zhuang says talking without a filter can be seen back home in China as a sign that someone is simple and too trusting. But Zhuang wants his kids to open their mouths and speak their minds. "I don't think this is innocence," he says. "I think it's freedom."

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