Made in China: Book Review

Threads connect, but they also unravel. When they do, the process is messy, intricate, and in its own way, a kind of becoming.

In Anna Qu’s Made in China: A Memoir of Labor and Love, the threads of identity are interwoven with threads of the past and the family. These threads are all connected, but what Qu does best is chronicle their unraveling. The memoir follows Qu’s childhoods in China and America, delving into the turbulent relationship between Qu and her mother and the subsequent impact of that relationship on Anna’s own life.

Qu speaks at length about the intersection of family trauma and immigration, an experience that may resonate with many children caught between two worlds. Made in China is heartbreaking, but it’s also a deeply honest rendering of domestic conflict. Qu’s writing feels brave and authentic; she doesn’t attempt to apologize for the decisions she’s made or spin trauma in a positive light. For a young Anna, abuse is a part of her life that inevitably shapes her. Those influences reflect the title’s symbolic meaning, where an older Anna is similarly determined by her context. 

A young, deeply sad and angry Anna makes the decision that her mother must be reported to child services. When she does, she describes the psychological unrest that resulted from her confession as she waited for its consequences. 

The implications of this decision aren’t explored until later, when an adult Anna discovers that her report never revealed her personal truths at all, that it was largely dismissive of the abuse she faced. There was no care, something Anna desperately craved throughout her life. Adult Anna is sickened — and rightfully so — at this realization, and it leads to her questioning who has the power to define and determine what constitutes abuse.

Made in China is sensitive to these struggles of power and is both delicate and responsive to the narrative it tells. The story spends time examining different events in Anna’s life — a move to China, graduating from college, working at a startup — but always centering their formative impacts on Anna as a person.

The title of Qu’s memoir is Made in China, and there’s no title more aptly fitting for this story. On one hand, the term is a reference to Anna’s labor in the sweatshop: the tiny tags that say “Made in China” that are often stigmatized, racialized, and ridiculed, just as the people who make them often are. On the other hand, “made in China” appears to be a larger metaphor about Anna and her literal experiences in China, and what they reveal about the more fluid notions of diaspora and retrospective perspectives. What does it mean to be made? What does it mean to have a place simultaneously stitch you together and pull you apart? Qu deals with all of these questions on large, thematic scales before drawing the reader into a space of specificity. 

Despite being a memoir, the story flows easily, for the most part never getting lost in unimportant details. This is a memoir about love and labor, and Qu pushes those two ideas to the forefront. The complex relationship between Qu and her mother is one that’s mirrored by the complicated relationship between Qu’s body and work. Labor in Made in China is fraught with tension as Qu connects different historical labor experiences to her own. Anna witnesses her startup’s disintegration and reflects on how workers so often define themselves by their work, and must pay the price. Her words are full of keen insights. They compel the reader to re-examine the roles that authority plays in socially accepted narratives.

Made in China is dynamic, a subversive and yet inherently personal piece of work that asserts the nature of Qu’s identity beyond it. In this memoir, Qu doesn’t conform to labels. She rips off the tags others have created for her and creates her own. 

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