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Jiayang Fan On 'How My Mother And I Became Chinese Propaganda'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking a lot about how crises collide. In this country, the coronavirus pandemic has led to serious hardship for many people, and at the same time, longstanding grievances have led to street protests, which are exhilarating for some but for others emotionally draining and even destructive. And that's also how it's been for many individuals - one crisis begets another in a way you never expected.

We have a powerful story about that. It's by Jiayang Fan, a staff writer at The New Yorker. In a recent issue of the magazine, she tells the story of how she and her mother, who's living with ALS in a nursing home in New York, became the subject of Chinese propaganda and a vicious campaign of online harassment all because Jiayang was trying to get her mother the care she desperately needed during the COVID lockdown.

But it's much more than that - it's also the story of a mother and daughter coming to terms with how their decades in this country have shaped them both. The essay is entitled "Motherland," and we asked Jiayang Fan to join us and tell us more about it.

Jiayang Fan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JIAYANG FAN: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: First, I have to say the essay is both beautiful and devastating. I mean, what inspired you to write it? And I say that because it had to have been hard to write.

FAN: Right. I mean, I didn't intend to write a personal essay, especially one this personal in nature. I intended to write a much shorter piece about the phenomenon of disinformation and Chinese nationalist trolls and the geopolitical moment that has made their appearance almost par for the course. So when I was writing this much shorter piece, I realized that I wanted to make sure I could give them the humanity that they sometimes don't grant their targets.

So when I was reading through the messages where many wished me to die and to pull apart my corpse and things much worse - there were such rage and fury in their words. And I detected the existence of a person who was very alive on the other end of this anonymous attack. And it made me think of all the times my mother, when I was growing up, in the darkest moments had launched similar attacks on me for being a traitor to her and for disobeying her.

And as I thought about my relationship to her and the trolls on the other side of the world, it made me think about where that resentment comes from and all the sorrow and the indignity and emotions that we don't often speak of that lives on the other side of that rage.

MARTIN: So I guess I'm just - I'm trying to understand, like, why would people be attacking someone who came here at 8 years old through no decision of her own?

FAN: The polarization of China and the U.S. has caused rampant disinformation to be distributed. And I am somewhat stuck in the middle as someone who is of Chinese heritage who spent, as you said, you know, the first almost eight years of my life in China, and then who received an American education and is currently - lives here. So for my detractors, what makes it so personal for them is that China has done a very good job of telling its citizens that their personal identity is aligned with the political identity of China. You know, the propaganda from the Chinese government has been quite successful. And also, I remember as a child, I mean, that, you know, in - from our earliest school primers to what came through the loudspeakers, our personal identity was very much intertwined with that of the national and the Communist Party identity. So for my detractors, they see what I'm doing as a personal attack on them.

MARTIN: At one point in the essay, you write about your concern when your mother found a piece you had written. You write, quote, "I feared being misunderstood by someone whose life was so kneaded into my own, whose choices had both bound and liberated me and whose words even when blinked with the last functioning muscles of her body could utterly undo me." And I feel like the sort of the push and pull in your relationship is also kind of that push and pull with China in a way. It's both and. And I just sort of wonder about that. Like, how long did it take you to kind of understand that you would always feel this twoness or that - I don't know always - but that this twoness is something that is just a part of your your life. It's like being bilingual. But it's also the sense of both belonging both places and in a way belonging neither. Does that make sense?

FAN: I think now my framing it is quite different. I know that I will always feel my Chineseness, and I will always feel my Americanness. And the most honest way of inhabiting my identity is reckoning with it on the page and letting others - my readers in this sense - know that this reckoning comes with no small amount of agony and self-doubt.

MARTIN: And does the harassment continue?

FAN: I've been luckily, I think, liberated from the kind of effect that those taunts can have on me. I feel that they reach me, but they no longer touch me.

MARTIN: Jiayang Fan is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her essay, "Motherland," is in the September 14 edition of The New Yorker, and it's on The New Yorker website. Jiayang Fan, thank you so much for speaking with us about it.

FAN: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.