"Where are you from?"
"China," my mom says, with audible pride.
"Oh," said the lady at the thrift store, her eyebrows disappearing into her thick brown hair. "Was it scary over there? Were you not allowed to say things or use the internet?"
"China is a repressive dictatorship where the government exercises total control over people's lives. The citizens have very few human rights compared to in the US."
"That's not true," my sister blurts out. "I lived there and it wasn't like that at all."
"Don't talk out of turn," said her fourth grade teacher.
"You know, life in China wasn't really all that different," I say.
I watch the shock in my friends' eyes. Feeling awkward, I continue on.
"I went to school in the morning and came home at night. I had a lot of homework. On the weekend, I would go out with my friends, and we would go to the park, or go window shopping, and gossip about our teachers and classmates."
They gape at me, and I change the subject.
I want to talk about China. I want to talk about my country and the many years I lived there, the laughter and the tears and everything in between. I want to share the experiences that shaped me and the people that changed me and the places where it happened.
But I can't, because the China in their eyes, in their minds, is not the China I come from, where I lived for most of my life. It's a sick, distorted version, like through a funhouse mirror, except there's no fun in this house, only propaganda and racism and lies. From those materials they built this diabolical interpretation of China that exists only in fantasy, and put me in it like a doll in a dollhouse. And thus I was expected to play my part as a liberated victim of horrific oppression, grateful for my salvation, for my new life in the "enlightened" west. I refused. I'm going off script.
We, the Chinese people, are spoken of like birds in locked cages, afraid to sing, the keys held by a brutal totalitarian government that cares nothing for our welfare. We are huddled together, suffering, waiting for civilized countries to swoop in and rescue us from our awful plights, to unlock our cages and heal our wounds and set us free. We are dehumanized, reduced to objects of pity and victims in need of deliverance.
And thus they cry, "I love the Chinese people! I only hate the Chinese government!"
But they cannot love us, because to them, we are not human. The citizens are not humans, but caged birds desperate for a fairy tale hero to save them. The government and those who compose it, are not humans, but blood-sucking demons, bent on surveilling, controlling, destroying the citizens for their own gain.
The people of China are not caged birds, and the government of China is not a group of cartoonishly evil demons.
This is the China they built in their minds, that they project onto me when I stand in front of them with my yellow skin, black hair, brown eyes. And I want to tell them, that's not the real China. The real China is neither a paradise, but nor is it a hell.
The people of China are not helpless caged birds, but human beings. Human beings with hopes and dreams and interests and opinions and stories. And yes, human rights.
We can travel, and many do. More than 100 million Chinese go abroad every year, for school, work, tourism, and other reasons.
We can practice religion. Religion is not allowed to influence politics, and especially not allowed to promote separatism, terrorism, or other types of extremist thought.
We can criticize the government. We can even hold protests. But we cannot humiliate or slander our leaders, we cannot spread lies, and again, we cannot promote separatism or incite mass unrest. Maybe that seems like a lot of conditions. But swearing at our leaders isn't productive engagement. It doesn't lead to problems being fixed.
We can vote. There are elections in China, but not for the president. The people directly elect district representatives to the People's Congress, who then elect representatives at the city and province level. These representatives, just like Congresspeople in the US, are responsible for expressing their constituents' suggestions and grievances. They provide oversight for politicians. And if they don't do their job, they can be fired via petition from the people.
All citizens of China are entitled to these rights. All fifty-six ethnicities.
The people of China are not caged birds, and the government of China is not a group of cartoonishly evil demons. In fact, it enjoys high levels of support among the people - not because there are no other options, as often claimed, and not because we are brainwashed. To say so takes away our agency, puts us back in the cage. We are supportive because the government serves the people.
Because they lifted 850 million people out of absolute poverty in 40 years (100 million just since 2013), built them free homes, provided them with jobs and healthcare and education. Invested into infrastructure to ensure people in the most distant areas can live a better and more convenient life. Traversed deep into dangerous mountains to find those in need of help.
Because they made enormous financial sacrifices made to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, from the initial lockdown of Wuhan, to implementing the massive contact tracing infrastructure, to free treatment for all patients. Built hospitals in ten days, then mobilized of doctors and medical equipment from all over the country to the center of the epidemic.
Increased life expectancy, increased quality of life, safety, happiness. That is what the government does for the people.
That is not to say things are perfect. Corruption exists. Incompetence exists. Dissatisfaction with the government exists. And the people express it. They make their voices heard.
The government is constantly monitoring public opinion on social media. Vocal criticism, of which there is much, is noted and taken into account. Government agencies have open comment boards online where people can leave complaints. Responses are then published online. Unpopular policies get changed. Unpopular politicians get replaced.
Whether you believe this is because they want the best for the people, or because they're afraid of being violently overthrown by angry mobs, the result is the same. They want to know what's working and what's not working. The needs and desires of the population are heard.
In the end, the Chinese people and the Chinese government are one, and cannot be separated. Together, they are not oppressors and the oppressed, or even the rulers and the ruled, but two sides of the same coin, working together for a better China and better lives for all her citizens.
China is not a paradise. There are problems and unhappy people and bad decisions and things that fall through the cracks. But it's nothing like that China. The fake version of China that exists only in imagination, that is painted in the media and absorbed into the minds of the people who gape at me when I tell them, "You know, life in China wasn't really all that different."
I want to talk to them about China, but I can't. Not until they tear down that twisted caricature in their minds. Not until they see China for how she really is, good and bad.
I don't wish for everyone to love China, or worship China. I want them to know China, understand China. The real China.
And when they do, then we can work together, learn from each other. Become better. That is what I hope to see.