March 2011

Terry Hong


An Interview with Xinran

People, even complete strangers, feel compelled to tell Xinran their personal stories, from the simple happiness of sweet everyday lives to the most horrific memories of shocking abuse. Something in her soothing voice, the wordless encouragement to keep talking, exudes a sense of undeniable comfort of being heard, of being truly understood. Her very essence gently says, Tell me more; I am here to listen.

Xinran has built a remarkable career by listening carefully, and always with the greatest empathy. She had an audience of faithful millions as a journalist in her native China when she hosted a nightly radio called Words on the Night Breeze. The show debuted in 1989 on Radio Nanjing and ran for seven years. As the first show in China to give voice to the personal issues of women, Xinran received hundreds of calls and letters every day; women from all walks of life poured out their stories of incest, rape, kidnapping, brutality, suffering, torture, and neglect. Xinran often wept.

Eight years later, in 1997, she moved from China to London, and took those stories with her. She felt she had been entrusted with these womenís lives, so much so that she risked her own when she was mugged on her way home from her London University teaching job. She struggled desperately with her attacker, refusing to give up her bag, which contained her only copy of a manuscript that would become her debut title, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices. She †refused to let these women sink into obscurity without a fight to the death.

When I first interviewed Xinran almost a decade ago, she was on her US tour for Women. By the time she hit American shores in 2002, Women was already a major international bestseller, published in 50 countries and 27 languages. As with just about everyone lucky enough to meet her, I felt an instant connection, buoyed by the serendipity of a shared geographical proximity. At the time, Xinran lived around the corner, literally a stoneís throw, from what had been my last London address years earlier; she could see the same familiar stretch of the Thames, she walked the same streets, took the same underpass to the High Street, she ate and drank in the same neighborhood restaurants. So warm and intimate was our first conversation that I felt we were practically related by the time we finished our long conversation.

How blessed Iíve been to share small portions of Xinranís life since. In between a staggering world travel schedule of countless talks, presentations, projects, and conferences, Xinran has graciously allowed me more interviews; together, weíve grabbed hurried cups of hotel caffeine and enjoyed a few lingering meals (ever nurturing, Xinran picks out the best tasty morsels to place on her companionís plate!), and of course, Iíve never missed any of her books.

Over the last nine years, strangers, colleagues, and friends alike have continued to entrust some of their most heartfelt experiences into her literary care. With her signature honesty and deep respect -- not to mention her warm patience -- Xinran has ushered those stories into bestselling, illuminating titles. She followed Women with Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet about a young Chinese doctorís three-decade search for her missing husband, published Stateside in 2005.

In 2006, Xinranís regular cultural column for The Guardian, one Londonís leading newspapers, was compiled and published as What the Chinese Donít Eat. Her first (and thus far only) fiction title, Miss Chopsticks, about three village girls trying to navigate their labyrinthine new lives in the big city, hit British and European shelves in 2008. Back on both sides of the Pond in 2009, China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation was an ambitious, rich tome filled with unforgettable stories from the survivors of Chinaís tumultuous past century. ďThis book is a testament to the dignity of modern Chinese lives,Ē Xinranís introduction begins.

Each of Xinranís titles have been tenacious extensions of her lifeís work: to acknowledge and preserve the disappearing stories of ordinary, everyday people who have managed to survive extraordinary experiences. What was missing was Xinranís ownÖ until nowÖ and still just a glimpse, but what a heartbreaking, compelling, unforgettable moment of her life she shares in her latest title, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love, finally available in the US this month.

Her single childrenís book published in 2007, Motherbridge of Love, hinted at what was coming. That poem of love was originally submitted anonymously by an adoptive mother to Xinranís charity, Mothers' Bridge of Love, a London-based group Xinran founded in 2004 that reaches out to adopted Chinese children around the world. The book celebrates the adopted child who is deeply rooted in love, who bridges two mothers, two cultures, two lives.

The wondrous Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is by far her most personal. That I read Message in full on Motherís Day last year was truly a gift. Contained in these 200+ pages are heartbreaking stories of Chinese mothers longing for the daughters they lost, either forced by cultural expectations to Ďdoí away with newborns, or to give up for another mother to nurture, hold, and love. Regardless of that loss, the ultimate message is clear: a mother/child bond remains forever unbreakable.

The final story in Message belongs to Xinran herself, as she remembers her own foster daughter whom she was not able to keep forever. Little Snow is 21 this year. Since 1990, Xinran has never stopped searching for Little Snowís distinctive pink birthmark in the faces of the thousands of girls -- and now young women -- she meets around the globe, hoping someday she might hold her daughter in her arms once moreÖ

This time, I caught Xinran in London, just returned from celebrating her husbandís 70th birthday in Morocco. Even as she shared the happy joy of surprising her husband with a gathering of some of his closest friends from decades past, she couldnít help but also speak of the women she encountered on her travels. What she noticed most were the women on the building roofs, waving to each other, communicating from a distance. She learned from the locals that women take to the roofs because they are kept off the streets, away from the public unless escorted by a husband, or a brother, or a father. ďI had so many personal questions I wanted to ask them,Ē she says, ďbut I couldnít reach them.Ē Even amidst her own personal celebrations, Xinranís concern for women is never farÖ wherever she goes, she notices silenceÖ and struggles to hear, to truly listen, to their waiting, wanting voices.

Letís begin with Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother. As revealing as it is, was it difficult to write?

Yes, it was very, very difficult to write, because it brought up too many difficult feelings for me. Until I was 30, I always thought I was adopted. I didnít believe my mother was my birthmother, because she never gave me any time, never even gave me a hug. All my life, Iíve always missed my mom. I thought that maybe because I was girl, I had been given away to someone else. So many girls -- whole generations of girls -- were given away. Maybe I was, too.

I found it very difficult to think about mother/daughter relationships, especially as a daughter. I always had young girls and women talk to me about their families. But I just didnít know how to write about all that. Meeting American adoptees in 2006 helped me decide to write this book. I met adoptees of all different ages, but they all asked me the same question: ďWhy did my Chinese mother give me up?Ē I met a little girl, maybe about three years old, who came to one of my readings and asked, ďCould you ask me why Chinese Mommy why she didnít want me? Was I not pretty enough? Smart enough? Why didnít she want me?Ē

The tears came again and again. Those girls searching for their mothers will someday become a mother like me. They will need to hear from their mothers. Even if itís a message of loss, it is also a message of love.

My mom still refuses to talk to me, to even meet me. I know sheís struggled now and then to talk to me. Daughters need to hear from their mothers. Mothers need to be heard. So thatís why I wrote this book. I didnít think I was brave enough to do it -- I still donít feel brave enough and just want to hide. Iíve asked my publishers, ďPlease donít ask me to do any publicity!Ē Many, many people had to persuade me to write this, so I finally wrote it, but yes, it was very, very difficult.

As your readers close Message, what might you hope will be their reaction?

When an adoptee finishes the book, I hope they will understand a little more about their secret mothers, especially the challenges these mothers had to fight against their government, their families, and even themselves to have to give up their daughters.

Many countries have adoptions, but most people never talk about adoption in public. But people come to me with their emotions: some tell me they never thought about birthmothers, others tell me stories of why they gave up their children. They thank me for this book, because they feel they can share a motherís love, and a motherís pain through the book.

Has a Chinese edition of Message been released? If not, will it be available in Chinese? How do you think a Chinese audience might react?

I wrote this book originally in Chinese; except for my Guardian columns [collected and published as What the Chinese Donít Eat], all my books are written first in Chinese, then translated into English by my translators. I didnít have good reactions from Chinese students a few years ago because they thought that my writing made the Chinese people ďlose face,Ē or they thought I was lying about Chinese history because they had never heard of the suffering the poor endured during the Cultural Revolution. But now more and more Chinese read my books because they want to understand what is happening in China; my books are very different from their Chinese history textbooks in their Chinese classrooms.

I was giving a talk at Harvard University in Boston in 2010, and a Chinese student stood up and asked me if I had ever written something about the killing of baby girls in China. She told the audience about her family living in the countryside of north China, where her parents had forced her elder brother and sister in-law to kill two of their own daughters so that their family tree could continue with a boy. She cried out in front of all the people in the theater: ďI studied so hard, I got a scholarship and came to Harvard! I want more people to help these women like my sister in-law, but no one believes me. Even my Chinese friends thought I was mad! You will feel that pain if you could see my sister-in-lawís face -- it is weathered by her painful loss!Ē

Many, many students from the countryside Iíve met want the Chinese to read this book. But not just the Chinese; these students want young people from other Asian countries to read this book, too. I was in Singapore in February 2010 and after three days of interviews, I was invited out to tea with a group of young women. All of them said to me that in Singapore, people use modern technology to kill baby girls in the first months of pregnancy. Even now, if the first child is a girl, the wife loses any power and authority in the household. So she must have a boy first!

I was so surprised that this would happen in such a modern country like Singapore! But all these young women were telling me the same thing: Women feel pressured to have abortions if the baby is a girl! That made me so angry. People are always talking about democracy and equality, but they still never really respect the value of a girlís life!

I felt so very sad for these women. Theyíre highly educated, so I think the pain must be much deeper than countryside women who just donít know better. Village women are so isolated and trapped by tradition that they think getting rid of baby girls is part of ďnormalĒ life. But these modern young women know so much more, and yet they still have to do this.

In December 2010 when I was in China, I saw my book in English at the Shanghai Museum and in foreign-language bookstores in Beijing. I was told the book was selling very well. But I dreamed that this book will be able to be published in Chinese. The book needs to be heard in the countryside where people canít read and write; even though these villages are just a few hours away from the cities, they are such a completely different world.

Now that youíve told a part of your own story, do you envision yourself writing a memoir someday, just about you?

I donít think Iím brave enough. Iím quite scared that if I write down my life, then Iíll have no more reason to go on.

I have tried to forget the past, forgive others, forgive something and someone in my past -- but that has been very painful. I think thatís why I can feel othersí pain so strongly, that I could understand the secret mothersí pain.

Sometimes I think my story will be my last book. Sometimes I want to write everything down for [my son] Pan Pan. Heís 23 already, and he asks a lot of questions. I canít write about my life, about our family, until I have told him everything first. But if I tell him everything, I think it might be too painful and I canít go on.

Every night, the pain comes to me. Every night I have to shrink it again and again. If I have to talk about the past, I donít know if I will be able to shrink the pain. My mother is still alive, and I want to write my story for her. She knew something happened to me, but she never checked, or showed concern, or asked others to find out... I think it might be an unbelievably painful journey for her to reopen her past and find out her own daughterís life.

Pan Pan asked me what I thought was the most successful achievement in my life. I told him, ďIím still alive, I didnít commit suicide.Ē I tried to kill myself four times before I was 20, but Pan Pan saved my life. I have to live to bring him up and make sure he is healthy and happy.

I think my life will be easier to tell as a story. One day I will, I promise you.

If you were to find your foster daughter Little Snow somehow, somewhere, what might you tell her?

First, I want to just listen to her, listen to her tell me about her life. I want to share photographs with her.

I want to tell her Iím still so mad I lost her, that I look for her everywhere, that sheís still a part of my life.

I want her to know that she has three or maybe even more mothers, how lucky that makes her. Some of the mothers, like me, are not with her, but we all care about her, think about her, love her, even in different languages!

I want to thank her for the trust she gave to me: the first time I ever touched her little fingers, she just held on to me immediately. I will never forget that.

I want to tell her how guilty I feel, that I should have done more for her and for that orphanage she had to stay in, that I was so stupid and didnít know how fast the Chinese government could change things. If they can rebuild streets and construct whole cities, of course they can take her and other orphans just like that! I had no idea, no knowledge then how quickly they could make things happen.

And I want to say I have hope that maybe she or her family or friends might get some information about me from my writingÖ and maybe someone will help me find her.

You have met many Chinese adoptees because of The Mothersí Bridge of Love foundation you founded in 2004. And youíve certainly met Chinese adoptees from around the world. Do you notice any differences from country to country -- for example, the UK vs. US -- of how the adoptees are perceived, and how they perceive themselves?

Yes, Iíve met adoptees from more than 20 countries, and they are quite different. Their attitudes about adoption are what is most different. Of course, the familyís culture and background make a big difference. In the US, for example, adoptee families are more connected, they share information with each other, they are like a big community. The UK is not like that at all: the adoptee community is smaller, theyíre more divided into still smaller groups, have different views, and donít function together like a larger community. In Australia, adoptee families have more access to China and other Asian countries because of their location; families take their kids to Malaysia and Singapore, for example, so they experience more of Asia through travel.

In Spain, I noticed that the number of adoptees is growing quickly, and many families are adopting Chinese boys in the last few years! I was very surprised; Iím still researching this!

Iíve noticed a general age difference of adoptees, too. In the US, the Chinese adoptees are older than most other countries, many of them are above age 20; in Europe, the Chinese adoptees are much younger and most of them seem to be under 12.

In the last decade since you published Good Women of China in 2002, so much has changed in China -- at least in the major cities. What are some of most important changes that affect womenís lives since Good Women was published?

The biggest change is growing opportunities for women. I can see that change growing every year: more and more opportunities for education, for a career, even for marriage! The change is very clear, especially in cities.

Last year, I traveled to many places to the north like Harbin, to the south like Guangzhou, and along some parts of the Yangtze River -- and in all the many different locations throughout China, I saw growth in opportunities for women. But in spite of all the change, Iím not sure about the improvement nationally. The changes are immediately obvious in the city, especially among the rich people. But in the countryside, change is still difficult. I see women now working as travel guides and translators outside cities, but these women still have to go back and answer to their parents, to their husbands. They still do not have their own right to choose how they live, where they travel, where they might even shop. When I ask these women about this, they all give me the same answer: ďBecause Iím a girl.Ē These women donít think they have equal rights, even when you tell them they do. They say, ďThatís impossible! We are girls!Ē

Even I am like that sometimes. Iím married, so as the woman, the wife, I feel like I have to be the one in the kitchen, to cook the meals. Itís difficult to change even my own attitude! The laundry? The cooking? Those are my duties, Iím trained to do this; itís my human nature! Sometimes, Iím not sure Iím really educated!

With China changing so quickly, can you envision a time when the one-child policy will finally be eradicated throughout the country and girl babies -- even in the most remote villages -- will be treated equally to their male counterparts?

Actually, the villages wonít change. They donít care about the one-child policy in the most remote countryside; the policy is only loosely enforced so they have more than one child. In the cities, however, the one-child rule has been very strong ď[Communist] Party policyĒ since it began in 1981 -- but it wasnít an official Chinese law until 2001. Today that law is being challenged in some places. In 2009, for example, the Shanghai government challenged the policy, saying that well-educated couples should have two children to replace themselves in the future. The family structure is changing in many places, so the single-child policy is just not working, and more and more local authorities are challenging the central government to change the policy.

According to Chinese culture, the younger must look up to their elders, and the elders rely on the younger generations to take care of them as they age. But young couples these days canít carry so much responsibility, especially with many of the younger generations moving to the cities, leaving elder parents behind. Since the balance of boys to girls is off -- in some remote small towns, the boy:girl ratio is as high as 14:1! -- men have to search for wives in the villages, where the balance is better because either birth control was not available or citizens had no knowledge of the one-child law. Family values are changing, so the number of abandoned girls is finally shrinking.

I worry, though, about the quality of todayís families. I worry that the women are not educated enough to be a good mother, to be a first teacher to their children. We are seeing maturity of the first generation after the one-child policy was instated: theyíre married, they have kids of their own who are about two or three years old. You can see how these families really depend on the mother -- the more educated and knowledgeable the mother, the better for the child.

Given the many generations of lost girls in China especially outside the major cities, the male-to-female ratios will become further skewed before they (hopefully) even out in the future. What will this overpopulation of men do for partners? Does the government have any programs in place for them?

The government has no programs. Too many people donít see this imbalance as a problem. The young people are all going to the cities. If you drive through the countryside, youíll see that only the very old and the very young children are left. As soon as they can, the young people all to go to cities in search of a better life. If they donít find a wife there, sometimes they look at other Asian countries. As I heard, some Chinese men are now marrying Korean women.

The relationship between China and the West has changed significantly, especially in the last decade. The economic changes alone are staggering! What are some of the biggest changes youíve witnessed as a Chinese native living in London?

China and Chinese people are perceived to be more interesting than ever before. When I moved to London 1997, I had a part-time teaching job at London University when the Chinese department was one of the smallest. Five years later, itís now eight times larger than the Japanese department. Back then, there was just no interest in China.

Now it seems everyone has some sort of knowledge about China, whether the history or art or politicsÖ people know at least a little something. Much more knowledge about China is easily available, too, because many overseas Chinese are living here. And some have become very rich! Attitudes are definitely changing -- everyone can at least say ni hao. There is new interest in partnerships, whereas before, I didnít feel like the British thought of a Chinese person as a future partner. The level of respect has definitely changed -- even since a few years ago.

I told my husband that I had to spend 10 years with his friends for them to know who I am. But now, I see attitudes changing towards me.

Now that youíre no longer a full-time resident of China, are you perceived differently when you go ďhomeĒ?

Oh, very much! When I go back to China, I feel like a trained wild animal thatís going back to the forest, back to my real world.

In London, I feel very Chinese; I told Pan Pan that even if I were to speak perfect English, the first impression people have of me will be my Chinese face.

In China, very often people point out that Iím from the West, that Iíve become too western. My body language now speaks the English language.

Could you go live in China again? What would you do if Pan Pan decided to make China his home?

Personally, I want to go back. I have a very strong longing for the culture, the language. In China, I donít need to pay attention to peopleís reactions to me, to be careful in my conversations, I can just relax. I miss that. To have to pay constant attention is quite tiring. I have to always think, as if Iím always doing homework.

I miss China terribly. But every time I go back and spend time with friends or family, I question myself -- would you really want to move back? China is, in some ways, cut off between people, between culture and money, and everyone wants bigger, bigger, bigger! No one has time for children, or for the older generation. The older generation has no chance to even see their children, or give them any advice. The city people donít know whatís happening in countryside -- they live in such different worlds.

Iím reminded of Picassoís faces -- the eyes, nose, lips, are all there, but as a whole, itís not a recognizable face. So I find the thought of going to live in China very difficult. If Pan Pan †goes there, and he loves being there, then Iím more than happy to go, too. But I donít knowÖ

I miss China, I want to be there, Iím a part of it. But I really am a wild animal thatís treated as valuable here [in London], and when I go back to the forest, Iím not so accepted anymore.

Liu Xiabo made international headlines, not only for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but for remaining imprisoned by the Chinese government. Do you think given the ongoing changes throughout the China that he will be released soon?

Before he won the Nobel Prize, Liu was arrested then released several times since his involvement in Tiananmen Square. But now that heís won, he wonít be so lucky in getting out. He used to be a little person, but now he is too famous, too powerful. So heís very valuable in prison.

There is a big voice from everywhere in China that in 2012, the Chinese government will change. The new guard coming in might be more knowledgeable, more open-minded. I only hope that all the political prisoners will be released. China has never had an independent, democratic legal system. So it might take another two or three generations before the people get out from political control.

Like Liu, you, too, have written extensively now -- many books and articles -- about the fundamental human rights abuses the Chinese people continue to suffer. Do you think China can become a truly modern nation given its troubling human rights record? When and how might this be possible?

The Chinese people first need to understand what human rights are, what that means. Most people think human rights is a personal benefit only. But what about the nation?

Say youíre driving a car, and you want to cross the traffic light. You believe you have the right to that. But there are other cars, other drivers on the road, at the intersection, so you canít just cross on your own. Those rights have to be shared by everyone.

The Chinese first need to learn what those shared rights are. But the Chinese also come from a very different culture than the West. My husband Toby says, ďDonít come in when I am cooking, itís my kitchen!Ē But my Chinese friends think they have the right to go into that kitchen and help him because thatís what good Chinese people do. ďWe must help!íí they say to Toby. So what are human rights in that situation? Are human rights the same for all cultures?

Iím Chinese. I went to Africa; I couldnít believe the hard work the women did. I went to Tibet; the women there didnít have one second to rest. For me, I felt that these women were abused, but for them, the work is second nature.

Is there one standard of human rights that everyone can agree to? Even the new generation of Chinese doesnít understand this. Modernization has made China a superpower, a huge economic power, but what about the soul and mind of the people? Iím a bit worried that people have no understanding of their own power and size. I donít think you can use your same standards across other cultures because we live with so much difference.

Todayís new generation in China is changing the culture. They say, ďI have my rights to live my own lifeĒ while the elders say ďListen to me, otherwise I will beat you.Ē They both think they are using their rights. So the situation is difficult here.

Some of the stories youíve captured so vividly onto the page are difficult to live with, to say the least. Having such knowledge, having shared such experiences must take a toll on your own psyche. How do you keep yourself sane given all that you know, all that youíve witnessed, all that youíve shared?

I canít just turn myself off. I canít walk away. I thought that maybe if I wrote this book and others, I could make a space for some of my memories to keep somewhere else, to put them somewhere outside of me. But the memories keep coming back. I guess I might be different if I were a fiction writer.

I realize the reason I go back to China is because I canít be cut off from my roots, from my country; I have to go back. I go for the connections with the people, to feel them, to share with them what they want, see, think. That sort of connection brings about transformation because your body becomes a bridge to those connections. †

Sometimes my own life feels kind of futile, but I think that if I do this, write these stories, then these girls can have something of their moms. You canít believe how much these girls give meÖ I give them something tiny -- maybe a piece of paper -- and theyíre so happy Ö when I go back two years later, they still have the paper that theyíve been keeping as if it were a precious doll. I canít forget these girls, I canít let them go. They trust me, they trust me with their letters, their stories.

Every night, I try to write back to those girls, those students, the mothers. Once I heard from an older man from New Zealand who had been adopted, who had never thought about his birthparents, who had never been able to tell his family of his adoption! After he read my book and told me his story, he finally decided to share the truth with his grandchildren.

I canít walk away from that sort of trust. In Paris, I met a girl with an Indonesian Chinese birthmother who had been adopted by a French family. ďI hate my Chinese mother,Ē she said. ďWhy did she drop me like that?Ē She read my book, and started to think another way, and began to understand her birthmother who gave her her life.

Itís beautiful to be trusted. People are giving me so much love, for free.

So whatís on your writing desk now?

My new book is about the single-child policy. The book should be coming out sometime in the next year, if the translation is finished on time. Itís been in my mind for 1.5 years; Iím structuring it now, getting my notes all tidied. I hope to finish this summer.

This year will be 30 years since the policy was politically put in place. The first generation since the policy is having their families now, and you can see the changes in the attitudes of the people, and the consequences and failings of such a policy.

The attention once showered on the single child has now moved to that childís own child. The spotlight has shifted somewhere else. Can these single children enjoy bringing up their own children?

Iím trying to select 10 of the best stories from the 50 interviews I did. Their stories made me really think. What surprised me most about this generation was their sense of loss. Now that they have own families, their own babies, they feel as if their married life is finished. They feel as if their own child has stolen their [the parentsí] lives, even destroyed their lives!

They donít know how to share the attention. They donít know how to love their own babies. And then there are the four grandparents all fighting to spend time with that one baby. Itís no wonder that more local authorities are challenging the one-child policy Ö this is not the way the family structure should be.

I was in Harbin and overheard a young boy say to his mother, ďBuy the Songhua River for me!Ē I went to church and heard a child say, ďI want you to buy me the churchĒ! The newest generation believes it can buy the world. And itís not just boys, but even the girls who have this sense of entitlement. This is another reason why mothers need to be educated! If these single-child mothers were so protected by their own parents, to the point they couldnít even cross a road alone until after they were 18, then how can they possibly manage their own lives enough to bring up the next generation in such a fast-changing China?

Terry Hong writes a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.