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Patriot Number One

Best Seller
Patriot Number One by Lauren Hilgers
Paperback $16.00
Apr 09, 2019 | ISBN 9780451496140

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A New York Times Notable Book of 2018
New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

“Rich and absorbing… 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… Hilgers observes all this with a sharp eye and an open heart… As evocative and engrossing as a novel.”
New York Times

“A superb account of Chinese immigrants in America… Stealing the show is Zhuang, irrepressible, quixotic, an endlessly scheming operator who finds his calling in activism…. [Patriot Number One] tells a powerful human story about America and the world in 2018.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Excellent… a well-researched, informative look at the realities of Chinese immigration. It also depicts one man’s battle to figure out who he is.”
Wall Street Journal

“Hilgers is a gifted writer and reporter whose talent for observation shines through the book’s opening chapters…. [Her] deep reporting and relationships grant her access to a world that is almost completely unknown to others.”
New York Times Book Review

“[A] clear-eyed, humane look at modern immigration… Hilgers’ narrative intercuts between the dramatic rebellion in Wukan and a vibrant portrait of Flushing’s Chinese diaspora built around fine-grained character studies drawn with equal parts empathy and humor. The result is a quintessentially American story of exile and renewal.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)

“With admirable attention to narrative detail, [Hilgers] gives a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood…. This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Zhuang and Little Yan jump off the page fully realized; it’s impossible not to root for them and their friends… A highly readable story about starting over in a new land; a must-read for all.”
Library Journal (starred)

Patriot Number One is a wonderfully intimate portrait of Chinese immigrants. Lauren Hilgers followed her irrepressible protagonist (or rather he followed her) from a village in southern China to Queens, N.Y., and her book is chockablock with fresh observations and humor about both worlds.”
BARBARA DEMICK, author of Nothing to Envy
“A timely, informative book that offers a truthful account of the immigrant and exile experiences in the Chinese-American context. Hilgers captures the lives of her subjects with generosity, nuance, and psychological acuity.”
HA JIN, author of Waiting, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
“With her fluent Chinese and meticulous reporting, Lauren Hilgers has crafted a deeply sympathetic portrait of some of the country’s newest Chinese-Americans.”
PETER HESSLER, author of River Town and Oracle Bones
“Lauren Hilgers has found an unexpected hero in the southern Chinese teashop owner Zhuang Liehong, who launched perhaps the most important grassroots political movement in China since Tiananmen Square. In this fascinating book, Hilgers shows us how one person and one village can make a difference—and how precarious a life in exile can be.” 
PAUL FRENCH, author of Midnight in Peking
“In Patriot Number One, Lauren Hilgers deftly weaves the personal with the political, the sweeping with the intimate, an immigration story that is genuinely timeless with a bracingly specific picture of Flushing, Queens, right now. She captures the ambitions and foibles of a trio of Chinese strivers, and demonstrates, in rousing detail, that whatever happens to America, it is still a country built on dreams.”
PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE, author of The Snakehead

“Lauren Hilgers’s Patriot Number One tells a great story spanning China and America, shedding light on the most complex and tangled relationship between any two nations in the world. It’s a great yarn.”
JOHN POMFRET, author of Chinese Lessons and The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom
Patriot Number One is an intricate and engaging dual portrait of the struggles of New York Chinese working class immigrants and the struggles of China’s village democracy. Its carefully rendered scenes offer a rare depth to worlds we know mostly from headlines.”
JENNIFER 8. LEE, author The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
“The humanity, sly humor, and drama of Patriot Number One make it a delight to read. Its intertwined China-and-America narrative is revealing about both countries. This joins the list of books that easily convey larger messages through a vivid focus on the particular.”
JAMES FALLOWS, author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China and Our Towns
Patriot Number One brilliantly captures the bittersweet combination of joy, sorrow, and transformation of Chinese immigrants in New York City. Lauren Hilgers’ vibrant, compassionate writing transports readers to the gritty streets and vertiginous world of the recently arrived, enabling you to see America with a set of new eyes.”
ROB SCHMITZ, author of Street of Eternal Happiness; Shanghai correspondent, NPR

Patriot Number One is a page-turning tale of the sub-world of exiled Chinese dissidents in American society. While Chinese immigration dates back generations, Lauren Hilgers has tapped into the more recent wave of Chinese political exiles and asylum seekers—and she astutely tracks their various struggles adjusting to life in America. A fascinating read.”
DAVID SHAMBAUGH, author of China Goes Global; professor of political science, George Washington University

“In Patriot Number One, Lauren Hilgers expertly weaves history and current events into a compelling human narrative, writing with clarity and compassion about how the outsized dreams of immigrants can collide with the an indifferent world. True patriotism, this book shows us, means demanding better of the place that you love.”
LAUREN MARKHAM, author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life

“Lauren Hilgers captures with poignancy and humor the courage of immigrants who reach for the American dream. As we follow the tale of Zhuang and his wife Little Yan, we stumble along with them, suffering the indignities of those new to this culture and language, buoyed by their successes. The result is a touching and insightful portrait of modern Chinese immigrants and their community.” 
JEAN KWOK, author of Girl in Translation


Kirkus Prize for Non-Fiction NOMINEE 2018

PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography FINALIST 2018

Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize AWARD 2018

J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize SHORTLIST 2019

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Lauren Hilgers, author of
PATRIOT NUMBER ONE: American Dreams in Chinatown

(Crown; March 20, 2018)

Q) You first met the protagonist of your book, Zhuang Liehong, in China in 2012, while you were reporting a story about political unrest in Wukan village. What were your first impressions of him? Did you stay in touch with him?
A) When I met Zhuang, he had only recently opened a teashop, and music was pouring out onto the street. I had seen his name in earlier reports on the unrest in the village, but Zhuang noticed me before I realized who he was. He called out as I was walking by, inviting me to come in and sit. The mood in the village on that visit was subdued. Zhuang’s former colleagues on the village committee were, upon first meeting me, businesslike and serious. Zhuang, in contrast, was exuberant from the start. He told the story of the village uprising with obvious enjoyment. He was charming, warm, and wanted to make sure my reporting in the village went smoothly. At the same time, I wasn’t sure how seriously I should take his stories. Early on I suspected Zhuang was grandstanding. I underestimated him.

Q) Two years later, Zhuang and his wife Little Yan showed up on your doorstep in Manhattan with almost no warning. What was your reaction?

A) Some months before he showed up, Zhuang told me that he anticipated another crackdown on the village and explained his plan to flee to the United States. I was skeptical, but I would eventually realize that underneath Zhuang’s big grin was a fiercely determined individual. Later, when he and Little Yan called from their tour of California, my husband and I never questioned whether or not to let them stay with us, but we suspected they would not feel comfortable in our Brooklyn neighborhood. We spent the last few days before their arrival frantically trying to familiarize ourselves with the Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking neighborhoods around New York City.  

Q) In PATRIOT NUMBER ONE you shed a humanizing light on the challenges Flushing’s immigrants face in making a sustainable life. What were some of the biggest obstacles or surprises Zhuang and Little Yan encountered when they first arrived? How did things change over the course of their first year in the United States?

 A) Zhuang had been so preoccupied with planning how he would travel to New York that he had not given much thought to the specifics of living and working there. Both he and Little Yan had vague ideas—that it would be nicer, cleaner, and easier than living in China. Zhuang, to some degree, expected a warm welcome from activists and academics who were interested in China. He did not expect to get a green card overnight, but the lengthy delays in his asylum case came as a shock. He had anticipated life in New York would be expensive and budgeted $400 a month for a place to live—far more money than he had ever spent on housing. He quickly realized that $400 would not get him much. Life in Flushing was isolating and sometimes humiliating. It was harder than either of them had imagined.

Q) People may be surprised to learn that Asian immigrants make up the fastest-growing immigrant population in the United States, outnumbering newcomers from Mexico and Central America. What does the national conversation about immigration get wrong, overlook, or exclude about the Chinese experience?
A) When we grapple with the ways immigration is changing our national identity, Asians are frequently left out of the conversation. And when we do talk about Asian immigrants, we almost always focus on those who are highly educated and well off  when, in fact, the story is much more complicated. Many immigrants from China are working-class. When compared with the rest of the foreign-born population in the United States, they are less likely to be proficient in English. They bring with them their own set of traditions, ambitions, and challenges.
Chinese immigration also has a long history in this country, which echoes in the debates we’re having today. When immigration reached historic heights in the late 1800s, a large part of the ensuing backlash was focused on the Chinese. Political comics depicted Chinese immigrants as rapists and thieves. Chinese laborers were the targets of violent attacks. Chinese-owned shops were vandalized. The fears we see expressed today are the same, although the groups targeted may differ.  Chinese immigrants have been leaving their imprint on the United States since the nineteenth century, and will continue to do so. Their stories are American stories, and it’s important that they are told.

Q) In what sense are Zhuang and Little Yan “typical” or less typical of Chinese immigrants? Why did you decide their story was one you needed to tell?
A) Zhuang and Little Yan, like so many in Flushing, are ambitious and hardworking, but limited by their immigration status and their lack of proficiency in English. Without the support of their families and villages, they struggled with isolation, and the pressure of their daily life took a toll on their relationship. On the other hand, Zhuang and Little Yan stood out from those around them. They arrived in the United States with no family network. Zhuang did not see his arrival in the United States as an economic opportunity, but a political one. He also arrived unburdened by debt, which allowed him to be more selective in the jobs he decided to take. Zhuang was always determined to build a life for himself rather than a bank account. His drive to live life in the United States on his own terms, however, left Little Yan shouldering most of the burden of maintaining their everyday lives.

Q) Though this is in many ways an American story, several chapters take place in Wukan, Zhuang’s home village in Southern China, where he began a protest movement before fleeing state persecution. What has been the legacy of the Wukan protests, and what is the political situation there today? Did Zhuang accomplish anything with his activism?
A) Zhuang helped spark the protests in Wukan using the online alias Patriot Number One, and he has been dedicated to his village ever since. While the protests were focused, initially, on local corruption and the private sale of communally owned village land, Wukan became a symbol of grassroots democracy. It was a glimmer of hope for a future in which one person, and one village, could stand up for their rights and effect change. The promise of those early victories, however, turned out to be elusive. Zhuang fled to the United States and many of his friends ended up in jail. Still, Zhuang will always consider Wukan his true home. As one of his friends in Wukan told me, “His body is in the United States, but his heart is here.”

Q) Has Zhuang continued his political activism since arriving in the United States?
A) One of the most difficult things about coming to the United States for Zhuang was the loss of identity. He had spent his life trying to build a good reputation among his fellow villagers and he had, over time, succeeded. By helping to organize the Wukan protests he achieved something that most Chinese considered impossible. Once he was in Flushing, however, none of that mattered. There were other activists, but they were interested in their own causes. Zhuang was the only man from his village living in New York. During his first two years in the United States, Zhuang did not participate in activism. It was difficult to determine how, from his new home in the United States, he could be useful to his friends and family back in the village. Over time, however, the situation in Wukan grew worse. His friends were jailed, and Zhuang felt compelled to raise his voice. He tells people that he is the only person left from Wukan who is able to speak freely.

Q) Another character in your book, a political exile named Tang Yuanjun, believes that “most immigrants, Chinese and otherwise, come to the end of their lives with two stories to tell: one set in their country of origin, and one for the United States.” To what extent do the two worlds come together for Zhuang and Little Yan?
A) Tang Yuanjun is an astute observer of the people around him. While many of the Chinese immigrants I met sought to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, Tang had a talent for finding the common threads between the farmers, petitioners, and famous activists who came through his door. Zhuang and Little Yan dealt with their two stories—the rupture in their lives—differently. Zhuang, like Tang, will likely always consider China his home. Over his four years in the U.S.,  he has built a community around himself in Flushing, but it does not compare, in his estimation, to the companionship of life in the village. Little Yan, on the other hand, spent her childhood knowing that she would leave home for work and, eventually, marriage. She had already given up her life in Guangxi Province for one in Guangdong. Moving to the United States marked an enormous change in her life, but it was more easily integrated into the story she had been telling herself since birth. Little Yan had long been prepared to exchange one reality for another.

Q) Another compelling character is Karen, one of Little Yan’s friends from night school, who came to America mainly because her mother insisted. Why was it important to include Karen’s story in the book?
A) Little Yan met Karen about a year and a half after she had arrived in the United States, after signing up for night classes in English as a second language. The two women were different in many ways , but they shared a practicality about their situation in New York. Neither woman had made the decision to leave for the United States on her own; each had been driven by the dreams of family members. And yet both of them were determined not to dwell on the past and to carve a new life out for themselves in Flushing. No one I spoke with saw the challenges of leaving one life for another so clearly as Karen, who lost all her safety nets during her first few years in America.: The boyfriend who’d stayed in China broke up with her, and her relatives in the United States attempted to coerce her into indentured servitude. Rather than give up, Karen came up with a list of things that she would need in order to feel happy and safe and she has pursued them single-mindedly.     
Q) Where are Zhuang and Little Yan now? Do they feel they’ve made inroads towards achieving their American dream?
A) Zhuang and Little Yan are still in Flushing, eagerly anticipating the birth of their second child. Their four-year-old son Kaizhi has enrolled in preschool and has an expanding English vocabulary, and an obsession with dinosaurs, that is a source of great pride for his parents. They continue to live on a shoestring, the family all sleeping in one bed, and Zhuang’s activism still gives rise to worries about his physical safety. They are still waiting to receive their green cards. On the other hand, the extreme pressure of their first years in the United States has lifted. They have friends in the city who respect Zhuang and understand the history of Wukan. Zhuang is able to provide for his family—he has traded in his car for a larger vehicle that qualifies for Uber Black—and Little Yan feels comfortable enough to stay home and rest during the last months of her pregnancy. For years the two of them felt that their arrival in the U.S. had not marked a fresh start, but rather a bottoming-out—a blind alley where all their ideas and dreams met insurmountable obstacles. Now, finally, they are starting to anticipate the future.   

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