When a local journalist placed her father into long-term Alzheimer's care, she wrote down his life story and introduced his nursing staff – not to an anonymous patient– but to the father she loved.
For nearly a decade, starting in the late 1980s, journalist Xinran’s radio broadcast in her native China served as an outlet for those who had been voiceless, especially women. She has since shared those stories with the world in a number of books that have been translated into dozens of languages. Xinran joins us to talk about the power of radio, her work with Chinese adoptees and the status of women in China.
- Xinran journalist; author, "The Good Women of China", "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother"; founder, The Mothers' Bridge of Love
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, SUPERNOVA comes to Rosslyn, Va., what's expected in this new performance arts festival next weekend. But first, nearly a third of all children adopted in the U.S. come from China, and many of their parents want to help foster an understanding of their birth country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEnter Chinese journalist and author Xinran. She has been sharing stories of ordinary life in China that are anything but for decades, first on her radio show within that country, then through books published widely the world over. And for the last few years, with a charity that aims to build bridges between adoptees and their origins, aided by her uncanny ability to coax stories out of the most reluctant sources, here to tell us how and why she does it is Xinran.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's a journalist, author of numerous books, including "The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices" and "China Witness: Voices of a Silent Generation" and her latest, "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother." She's also the founder of Mothers' Bridge of Love. That's an organization that helps Chinese adoptees and their parents connect to their culture. Xinran, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. XINRANHello. Ni hao.
NNAMDIHello. What did you say?
XINRANNi hao. That means Chinese hello.
NNAMDITook me by surprise. What do I say in return?
NNAMDIOh, well, xie xie.
NNAMDIYour journalism career began in radio in your native China. How did you get the job as host of "Words on the Night Breeze"?
XINRANWell, before that, I had 12 years working experience at a university. When I heard the news and they were going to release the radio for the -- like a little bit of freedom. You know, before that, Chinese -- everything is passed through very strict censorship. It's nothing you can talk about personal.
XINRANSo I always dreamed to be a journalist, so I took the exam. I passed it, so I become luckily one of the 13, 14 people from whole country. And -- but when we started this, to design the program was really difficult because before that no one know how to run this kind of program. And also, we're scared. If something wrong, we could be arrested, or even some people could be executed, seriously. Yeah.
NNAMDIAs a result of doing that program.
XINRANYeah. So we decided put my program in midnight because at that time people hardly had a television or radio. Most people are peasants, more than 90 percent of people. And so they went to bed very early. So no one might not listen to my show, so that's safe.
XINRANThat's the way we started, yeah.
NNAMDIBut to do it late at night is not only safer, but given the way -- radio was even more intimate. Radio does offer a sort of intimacy and at times anonymity that other media, like newspapers and television, do not offer. Why do you think your listeners were drawn to your broadcast and felt comfortable sharing their stories with you and with other listeners?
XINRANAnd, to be honest, I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know, you know, what's going on. And everything I learned is from people's letters. And some letters to me say, oh, very strange, you use such soft voices, not like a communist voice or revolutionary voice. And someone even asked me say, how did you know me?
XINRANEverything you talk, it just happened to me. So -- but I have to say more than 80 percent of people who wrote to me in first three weeks, oh, they hated me. They thought I was evil because I used the voice too soft, like a capitalist. And someone even sent a knife to me, say, if you go on talking like this, like ABC or BBC, we're going to kill you.
NNAMDIBecause speaking softly in the context of those times was considered capitalist?
XINRANYeah. And because after 1949, when the Communist Party took over China, everybody tried very hard -- particularly for women, you know, you have to devote your life and emotion for the party, for the country, and for other people. If you cry, if you use a soft voice, if you try to be cute, that kind of things is evil.
NNAMDIThat meant you weren't revolutionary. It meant that you were soft.
XINRANYes. Because I remember when we gave the training, first thing is a long list of forbidden, something you can't talk. Secondly, you must keep your voice like a central government voice. Third one, if you want to talk of the wars, be careful. Otherwise, you could be punished. So we have been trained in this way. You're always scared all the time.
NNAMDIBut after those first two weeks of a lot of hateful messages coming at you...
NNAMDI...something, I guess, about maybe the softness of your voice or something started to appeal particularly to the women in your audience, right?
XINRANYes. That time my program and my show wasn't for women, just for the people. And, later on, the letters coming every single day, more than 100 letters, sometimes 200, 300, and in the letter, I realized there's so many women and also with their (word?) and also feel the heavy guilty in their letters.
XINRANAnd some letter was very funny I didn't understand. (unintelligible) stop. Then the last sentence say, oh, I didn't have -- I don't have enough potato to pay the letter. Then later on, I realized, because they couldn't write and read, they pay the potatoes, sweet potato to the student to write a letter for them.
NNAMDIWere the letters mostly personal?
XINRANMost people told me about their personal story because of my voice and my program and tried to get people and open people to say, yes, we spend our time and life for our country, for our party, but we are human being. And we are women. You know, as myself, as a mother, I love my son. So when you talk, you can guide people, say, oh, I can't talk about this.
XINRANAnd people come to you and say, oh, I have a problem. Why my father hated me because I'm a girl. And someone said, why I have to start working? I'm only 7, very short sentence. And then some boy said to me, oh, I love a girl. I don't know how to do it. My body is burning, but I can't talk to anyone -- all different kind of stories.
NNAMDIThe most intimate of stories being told to Xinran when she started her radio broadcast in China back in the 1980s. She joins us now in studio. She's a journalist and the author of numerous books. Her latest is called "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIIf you are from or have lived in China, call us to share your personal stories of life there, 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. Speaking of personal stories, when you began your program, China was about a decade into its one child policy. How big an effect did that policy have on the lives of the women that you were hearing from?
XINRANWell, that is a quite lot. I didn't know that until first time I went to this small village in Shandong, and when the older lady asked me, how do you, you know, kill or finish the baby girl? I was really shocked. I said, what do you mean? And she was surprised. She said, are you a woman? I said, of course. Then she said, you don't know how to end a baby girl? I said, what does that mean?
XINRANAnd she said, oh, how can you do if you have a child, it's not a boy, you're a criminal of your family, of the village. So then I realized that this situation become very serious. Then the single child policy started from in 1979 wasn't the policy everybody knows until 1981 become a very strong policy but not law. In 2002, September, this policy become the law. But because the party is number one of the world, so everybody has to follow that.
XINRANSo that time each single family, you have to follow that. Otherwise, the women couldn't have permission to give birth at a hospital. So you see the situation. I interviewed so many women left in front of a hospital because they didn't have this -- the policy paper. And also, after my 20 years of research, I just realized over 150,000 Chinese girls, many girls have been adopted by 27 countries.
XINRANIn United States, over 80,000 Chinese girls adopted from China from 1991 maybe until yesterday. So, so many girls have written a letter to me, and they ask me all the same questions between the age of 2, 3 years old until 30 years old. They said, why my Chinese mom didn't want me? I feel it's so difficult to answer the question, but I know I have to because those girls, one day, they will become a mother, they need a story for their own children, where they come from, why this happened.
NNAMDIIs that what inspired you to focus on this issue? Because, as you said, Chinese children account for nearly one-third of those adopted here in the United States. The organization that you have started, Mothers' Bridge of Love, aims to help those adoptees stay connected to their birth culture. Is that kind of story what got you started on this mission, the fact...
XINRANAbsolutely. Because when I published my first book, "The Good Women of China," I had a world tour. And so many children asked me and families said, how can we get help? But China still, you know, not freedom of the speech or media or independent legal system, so, so many information. We're not sure, is it fake or real or, you know, the building (unintelligible) on the street, a pole down, is a lot of information is not there anymore.
XINRANSo I try to set up this charity, and we have over 200 volunteers help from inside of China, so we can help family to check their information, like a birth ticket and orphanage record or medical record. And also we set up pen friends for their adopted children. So they can be able to have their own ad work with the Chinese in China for the future needs. And also, don't forget, we still have over 4 million poor people in the poor countryside. Lots of disabled children get left. So we help them to build more than 14 libraries for the poor kids there as well.
NNAMDIYou mentioned kids wanting to know about the country that they came from. Apparently, generational divides are a big issue in China. You note that many Chinese residents know very little about what you and I were talking about before the broadcast...
NNAMDI...the cultural revolution, which I certainly know about, but why is it that so few Chinese children today know about it?
XINRANWell, if they brought up by the silence of family, we never talk about and then nothing in the textbook from classroom and then no public information in the society, how could they know? Like this book I published two years ago, "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother," if you go to Chinese website before this year, they said, oh, so you made up stories for the Western media. We never kill baby girls. We never burn the baby girls.
XINRANThen another group said, oh, come on, look at a street in the United States. Adopted Chinese girls are everywhere. Where they come from? But that time helped me. And two months ago, in March of 2013, Chinese government first time announced, by 2025, we would have 30 million men more than women. So everybody worried about those men, how they find wives. But my question is, as the nature, where are those 30 million missing girls?
NNAMDITwo questions: One, when you were broadcasting inside China and hearing all of these intimate stories, many of them, as you mentioned, about women who were trying to find a way to, well, get rid of babies, how did you escape censorship in China at that time?
XINRANOh, impossible. I interviewed Chinese women, more than 250 face to face. The only -- I would say less than 30 percent materials that I could broadcast. And by 1997, still 60 percent materials I couldn't broadcast at all. So this is why I set up this kind of system. We call the charity here. But in China, there is no such thing as NGO system there by that time. So with lots of the people's help, from doctors, policemen, postmen and (unintelligible) to discover stories. But again, in that time, I have no idea. I wrote my book when I moved to London.
NNAMDIYes. And since then, have your books -- any of your books been published in China? And have you been able to go back to China since you started publishing your books?
XINRANOh, first of all, I go back to China twice a year. I have to update my knowledge because China has developed so much between the city and the countryside, you know. I want to see how big a gap is as a Chinese, you know. And I have to say now is much better -- even sometimes I still get the trouble to have a visa. And -- but last five years is much better than before.
XINRANAnd my first book had been -- was published in China 2003, but it was stopped in two month's time. But my Chinese publisher told me -- said, oh, that sold too well. We aren't to be worried. So -- and, actually, the real reason was, before the (unintelligible) conference, they have to stop certain books which talk about history.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Xinran. She is a journalist and author of numerous books, the latest of which is "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother." She's also the founder of Mothers' Bridge of Love, an organization that helps Chinese adoptees and their parents connect to their culture. A lot of your work focuses on the lives of women, but you note that in China, the gender divide is not the only one that matters. Just how stark is the divide between the wealthy today often centered in urban areas and the poor in rural parts of the country?
XINRANYes. Thank you for you mentioned this question. That is part of my passion for that, to tell people how big a gap it is now. If you go to Shanghai, Beijing, it's over 30 big cities or 662 small towns. You know, the life there is completely different from countryside. The countryside -- all the way back to 500 years ago. Some Chinese writer said to me, Xinran, that could have been thousand years ago. So there's a huge gap between a city and a countryside. For example, you drive from Shanghai to Anhui. Just five hours of driving, you can drive back to 500 years ago.
XINRANSo this is why I spend lots of time, listen to story from a little village, mountaineer or poor people who hardly had voices to be heard, you know, because I believe that real China for the future and for today is not just only made by the riches or history makers or by the winners, also by those mothers who have never had the chance to have good food for themselves, good clothes for themselves. Those mothers is the mothers of Chinese today.
NNAMDIHere is Belle in Silver Spring, Md. Belle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BELLEThank you. My question is I was wondering how many boys are adopted in the United States there have been in recent years as compared to that very large number of Chinese female children.
XINRANOh, actually, this -- I just met last few days on my tour in United States. I met a few groups. Some group from FCC in the local and one group called the CCI and the children over 600 members between the ages of 16 to 29. I asked them -- actually, very few boys who only adopted after 2005. This is the situation: Compared to Spain, that country have adopted more than 3,000 Chinese boys. It's very unusual. For the United States and the people I know, I would say less than maybe two or 300 boys.
XINRANMaybe less than this number.
NNAMDIAccording to The New York Times, a total of 2,587 Chinese children went to American homes in the year 2011, Belle, most of them girls, most between the ages of 1 and 2. I don't have a breakdown and exactly how many boys would be included in that number. Belle, thank you very much for your call.
XINRANThank you, Belle.
NNAMDIHas technology made it easier for adopted children to stay connected to China in general or to their birth families in China?
XINRANNo. Actually, this is -- yeah. Internet is a big help, yeah. Like a Chinese would say, we'll have three cultural revolutions. The first one is in 1917 when China opened the, you know, and we started thinking how to use the 26 letters as a Pinyin system into a contact (unintelligible) or bend the way that our 18 (word?) characters. So that is the first cultural revolution. Second cultural revolution were the political killings, and the third cultural revolution is Internet.
XINRANSo Internet really bring everybody's voice together, but the problem is because we don't have the independent legal system. So the Internet, at the moment, is not very healthy. So people put a lot of the information there. We don't have this kind of knowledge or judgment system to see which one is right or truth. So for adoptive families, you might have a lot of bubbles of information, but which one could be the truth, or which one is the computer game or some dirty game? I don't know.
XINRANBut I think it's very important is to follow to some news and to get people, like from our volunteer from local support, to confirm the information in the street. But don't forget, in China, we still have more than 70 percent of people who come from countryside. They didn't have any Internet there, or they did not -- we are larger the number of Internet in the world. But in the countryside, which is 100 years ago, is no such things. But most the girls adopted outside of China come from countryside.
NNAMDIWhich makes communication very difficult with their birth families who live in rural areas. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Xinran is a journalist and author of numerous books, her latest being "Message from an Unknown Chinese Writer." She's also the founder of Mothers' Bridge of Love, which helps Chinese adoptees and their parents connect to their culture. Xinran, thank you very much for joining us.
XINRANYes. Anyone need help can go to ww.mothersbridge.org.
NNAMDIAnd we will provide a link to that at our website, kojoshow.org.
XINRANThank you so.
NNAMDIWe got to take a short break. When we come back, SUPERNOVA comes to Rosslyn, Va. What's expected in this new performance arts festival? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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