CHICAGO — “The motherland is by your side” read the message printed on the plastic envelope. The characters were set in bright yellow against a crimson background, the same colors as on China’s national flag. “Genuine affection from 10,000 miles away.”
This spring, as the novel coronavirus became a global pandemic, the Chinese government started sending out care packages to Chinese students abroad, distributed by its embassies and consulates. They contained several face masks, disinfectant wipes, a pamphlet on how to protect oneself from the virus and two packets of “lianhua qingwen jiaonang” — lotus flower plague-repellent capsules.
From my studio apartment in Chicago, which I have barely left for weeks, I looked up the content of the capsules. No fragrant summer blossom; the drug’s name is just a homonym for the two main ingredients, forsythia and honeysuckle.
I smiled at the screen. “Hello there, old friends.”
As a young child in China, once, twice, sometimes three times a month, I would come down with a cold that would develop into a cough, and my mother would take me to the city hospital for traditional Chinese medicine. The friendly silver-haired doctor would write down a prescription to be filled at the pharmacy on the first floor, where the technicians used a bronze balancing scale to measure out the exact amount for each ingredient.
I spent many hours studying those prescriptions, spotting tiny differences between each visit: three extra grams of this, a little bit less of that. I memorized the names of the usual ingredients: gold and silver flower, fish grass, grand yellow, ruby sky. They read like a poem.
I admired the handwriting, the long elegant strokes in indigo ink. “Much better than those of doctors at Western-style hospitals!” my mother would say. An elementary schoolteacher, she saw penmanship as a reflection of character.
Standing in our kitchen, she would carefully pour the bag of dried leaves and roots into a small clay pot whose dusky red exterior had crusted into a grayish brown. Water was added to just below the opening. As the concoction simmered on the stove, our apartment would be painted by a sharp, earthy smell. I would take a deep breath, swallow the thick, bitter liquid in as few gulps as possible and clench my teeth until my stomach settled.
My illness would retreat, slowly. Chinese medicine requires patience, my mother explained; it mediates opposing forces in the body, restoring the natural balance among the organs.
“That sounds like superstition!” I protested one day. My adolescent mind had started to question the theory of yin and yang. The sight of the clay pot brought on deep shame, about my frailty and my mother’s backward thinking.
My mother said Chinese medicine has been passed down by our ancestors through thousands of years. I pushed back, citing the great writer Lu Xun, whose essays and short stories I had read in my government-issued textbooks. Almost a century ago, Lu Xun argued that traditional Chinese medicine should be abolished as a practice, though certain drugs could be retained. He famously quit medical school in 1906 to pursue literature: Instead of saving individual bodies, he would work at rescuing China’s soul.
As the Qing empire crumbled under foreign invasions and internal upheaval, intellectuals of Lu Xun’s generation looked to the West for ways to heal their nation. They thought that their own cultural heritage was terminally ill; modernization demanded a radical break with the past.
After the Communist takeover in 1949, traditional Chinese medicine was institutionalized. Folk remedies helped fulfill both a tangible need — credentialed doctors were scarce — and an ideological end: That system of knowledge is quintessentially and uniquely Chinese.
Today, the Chinese government sees a political opportunity in the continuing emotional appeal of traditional medicine. If Chinese people can embrace an Eastern alternative to Western medicine, they might also be more likely to accept the Communist Party’s governance model and reject liberal democracy and universal human rights as foreign impositions.
China’s National Health Commission has included traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for Covid-19, despite little clinical proof that it is effective against the disease. Herbal formulas are also a potion for national cohesion.
“The motherland is by your side,” China’s Covid-19 care package says. I frown at the glaring propaganda, then instantly feel embarrassed by my skeptical disposition. The slogan is meant to conjure up a deep longing, a swell of passion. It evokes intense unease as well.
I remember the moment I received my first Chinese passport. It was 1998; I was 8 years old. The maroon booklet felt like a pledge from the state that it would be my protector. A decade later, I took my passport to the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai to apply for a visa to study in America. I was eager to start a new life then, and saw that proof of citizenship mostly as a permit to depart.
By the time I renewed my passport again three years ago, at the Chinese Consulate in New York, I had started writing essays critical of Beijing’s authoritarian politics and was briefly worried, paranoid or not, that I might encounter trouble with the bureaucratic process.
Living outside China has allowed me to access parts of my country’s history that my government tries to erase — and it has given me the freedom to express myself. My words have helped me reclaim my Chinese identity as a cultural and linguistic belonging, as an origin story. I grow more in love with the land I left as I become more estranged from the state that represents it.
During a call this spring, my mother asked if I had picked up one of those “health bundles” the Chinese government had been sending to students abroad. You can buy masks and wipes yourself, she said, but lotus pills are only available in China.
I could hear the patriotic pride in her voice, so I did not remind her that I am no longer a student, a fact that never registers. Nor did I point out that if the drug is at all useful in “opening up lungs” and “ridding the body of toxins,” as the packaging claims, it should be made available to more than just Chinese people.
Is the Chinese government suggesting that Chinese medicine works only on Chinese bodies? Or maybe efficacy isn’t the point at all, if the main purpose of the lotus pills is to affirm a collective identity.
At a public lecture in mid-April, Dr. Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert who led the effort against Covid-19 in Shanghai, emphasized the importance of a high-protein diet to boost the immune system: Parents must prepare “plenty of milk and plenty of eggs” for their children, he said. “No congee in the morning.”
Drinking milk is not a Chinese tradition; online, some called Dr. Zhang’s dismissal of our staple breakfast an act of “foreign worship.” Fresh dairy was only popularized in the 20th century, with the rise of industrialized agriculture and the drive to build a strong, modern state after the devastation of war. Milk became a symbol of progress, and its consumption an act of patriotism.
“A bottle of milk strengthens a nation!” my grandfather used to say. “Look at Japan!” He told me stories about his childhood during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, about ducking under his bed at the first sound of sirens. In literature from imperial China, Japanese pirates had been referred to as “wokou,” shortie bandits. Then mass milk consumption lifted the height of Japan’s people and sped up the country’s recovery from World War II, or so the narrative goes.
From as far back as I can remember until I moved out to go to college, my mother made sure I drank three bowls of milk a day, one after each meal. She appealed to my vanity: “Milk whitens the skin!” From lingerie to sportswear, almost every fashion campaign I saw featured European models. Beauty products boasted the ability to bleach and brighten the complexion; some claimed to contain milk extracts.
By the time I was a teenager, I was the tallest in my family. Nothing in local clothing stores suited my oversized frame. During one fruitless shopping trip, my mother, exasperated among the racks of jeans that barely grazed my ankles, asked the store assistant, “What about Yao Ming?!” China’s star basketball player had just finished another season with the Houston Rockets.
“Yao Ming does not shop here,” the lady deadpanned. She looked up at me and said, smiling, “Study hard and go abroad. Foreigners are tall.”
For many decades, while China was still underdeveloped, the best of the country — be that students, young professionals or manufactured goods — would leave. Finding a way out was in itself a badge of success. The honor grew with the time spent away. Returning could be seen as an admission of failure.
In the summer of 2008, a food safety scandal shook the nation. Products from China’s major dairy brands were found to contain melamine, a toxic compound used to fake a higher protein content. Some 300,000 infants were sickened. Six died. Chinese parents with means rushed to purchase foreign-produced milk formula.
I had just finished my third year at university and was preparing to apply for graduate school in the United States. Watching the crisis unfold in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics carried a particular irony: China, for all its flashy splendor, couldn’t safely feed its babies. Sometimes emigration is as much about wanting untainted milk as yearning for a place to belong.
My mother has agonized over the slow and frayed response to the coronavirus in the United States. “White people must have a stronger immune system. They drink milk and eat cheese,” she has said, before reminding me to always put on face covering. “Chinese people wear masks.”
In the first few months of the pandemic, many in the West saw Covid-19 as a foreign disease in a distant land. While some of us overseas Chinese had started practicing social distancing and were stocking up on cleaning supplies, it was business as usual for almost everyone else. If anything, our precautions seemed to confirm a pre-existing bias — that the virus affected only Chinese bodies.
“Jiren lixia” is a Chinese idiom that means to live under someone else’s roof. When I was little, my mother would mention it to scare me into submission: It was a warning that were she to abandon me, I would then endure horrific abuse in another family. When I was about to leave China, she used it to remind me that I, a Chinese person, would never be fully accepted by a white society. I would have to live at the margins, begging for scraps.
My life in America has been a record of proving my mother wrong. I put ice cubes in my drinks, and the chill does not make me sick. I completed my doctoral program; my female brain does have the capacity for physics. I sit at tables where I am the only Chinese woman: I do not blend in, and I do not want to.
Yet these days “jiren lixia” comes to my mind often without any prodding from my mother. The president of the United States wants to wall in the country against immigrants. Relations between my homeland and my adopted home keep deteriorating. In the name of national security, the White House is restricting scientific collaboration with China; in every Chinese student, it sees a potential spy.
China has become a superpower, and that has brought not confidence or magnanimity, but menace and insecurity. The country’s expanding wealth and hawkish posturing conceal a shrinking civic space. Lu Xun’s writings are disappearing from textbooks.
Select symbols of traditional culture are hailed as sacred, even as their historical context is hollowed out. The government has been cracking down on religious practices and ethnic customs, and it is tightening its grip over Hong Kong. There is only one politically correct way to be Chinese.
In April, a white reporter eating at a McDonald’s in my hometown was accosted by a young man who called him “foreign trash.” As I read that story I felt inundated with guilt, which I often do when I read news about China. I know it is egotistic to assume the moral burden of a nation. I also know that there is no other place whose actions I feel both so responsible for and so helpless about.
Last month, the municipal government in Beijing announced plans to criminalize the “defaming or slander” of traditional Chinese medicine. Bad-mouthing acupuncture or herbal remedies could amount to “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an offense in the penal code that covers neighborhood brawls as well as political dissent.
“The motherland is by your side.”
But what is left of a person if she doesn’t have a country? And what is left of a country that cannot accept foreign bodies or unruly minds? The China I carry in me is not only the country as it is, but also China as it was, has never been and could still be.
Yangyang Cheng (@yangyang_cheng) is a particle physicist and a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University.
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