Immigrant struggles in America forged a bond that became even tighter after my mother’s A.L.S. diagnosis. Then, as COVID-19 threatened, Chinese nationalists began calling us traitors to our country.
Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker
The messages wishing me a gruesome death arrive slowly at first and then all at once. I am condemned to be burned, raped, tortured. Some include a video of joyful dancing at a funeral, with fists pounding on a wooden casket. The hardest ones to read take aim at my mother, who has been immobilized by the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2014. Most of the messages originate in China, but my mother and I live in New York. As the COVID lockdown has swept the city, I find out that the health aides she depends on are to be banned from her facility and take to Twitter to publicize my despair. But this personal plight as a daughter unexpectedly attracts the attention of Chinese nationalists who have long been displeased with my work as a writer reporting on China. In short order, my predicament is politicized and packaged into a viral sensation. “Has your mom died yet?” China15z0dj wants to know. “Your mom will be dead Haha. 1.4 billion people wish for you to join her in Hell. Haha!”
At some point, I stop scrolling. The messages I dread the most come not from Internet strangers but from people who know me—my aunt, my uncle, my mother’s childhood best friend. On WeChat, they link to various Chinese-language articles about me and ask, “Have you read this?” The next question would be almost funny if it weren’t so painfully earnest: “Do you know this Jiayang Fan?”
I do not presume to know this character, but countless social-media posts, video blogs, and comments describe her as a creature driven by self-loathing. I find a story about my mother and me in the Global Times, a state-controlled Chinese newspaper with twenty-eight million followers on Weibo. It has been picked up by the country’s most popular news aggregator and then energetically disseminated on various platforms. The more I read, the more fascinated I become by the creation of this alter ego. I am watching a portrait of myself being painted, minute by minute, anonymous hands contributing daubs and strokes, the more lurid the better. “Jiayang Fan, of Chongqing, China, followed her parents to the U.S. at the age of eight,” one article begins. “Even though her body flows with Chinese blood—the blood of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor—she has decided to metamorphose into an American citizen and denigrate her Chinese face as an indisputable burden!” Creatively, the same words are used as a voice-over accompanying a video post in which images of my mother’s face and mine, culled from social media, are rendered in traditional Chinese brush-painting style. A computerized female voice describes Jiayang Fan as a columnist at the New York Times—evidently, this piece of fact checking fell by the wayside—one who makes a living by smearing her homeland. Not only have I falsely accused China of being the geographic origin of the coronavirus pandemic; I also had the nerve to support the pro-democracy terrorists in Hong Kong.
Deliciously, once the U.S. finds itself in the grip of the pandemic, Jiayang Fan gets her comeuppance. It turns out that her mother is on a ventilator, and, when medical equipment runs short, it seems that she is to be summarily unplugged from the machine, as a result of American racism. “She might believe herself to be American,” the article notes. “But she never expected Americans would treat her like this.” Many articles and posts are illustrated with grainy cell-phone screenshots of a woman in her sixties in a hospital bed. Her face is bloated and shiny with tears; a thick suction tube protrudes from her throat. In the upper right corner of each image, in a smaller box, is a younger woman whose twisted, wailing face matches that of the older woman. We quickly understand that this is Jiayang Fan in a video chat with her mother. The articles invite us to behold the humiliation that befits a villain. There is some confusion about whether Fan’s mother has died—she has not—but the moral of the story is clear enough: despite Fan’s sycophantic “worship” of America, her adopted country does not reward the depraved traitor.
“Jiayang Fan” is reminiscent of the heroes and villains of the revolution that I used to write about as a first grader. My home town, Chongqing, was briefly a Nationalist capital at the end of the Civil War, in 1949; my first school outing, at the age of six, was to Zhazidong and Baigongguan, concentration camps where the Nationalists incarcerated, tortured, and executed hundreds of Communists. One prisoner in particular captured my imagination: Song Zhenzhong, a boy my own age known as Little Turnip Head, because his bony skull appeared outlandishly large atop his malnourished body. The son of high-ranking Communists, Little Turnip Head was less than a year old when he was captured with his parents, and grew up in prison, passing messages to his parents’ comrades in neighboring cells. On the eve of the Communist victory, as Nationalists prepared to flee, he was shot, and became sanctified as the revolution’s youngest martyr.
By second grade, I’d written several “reflections on the heroism of Little Turnip Head.” Imitating what I read in my school primers, I mastered the formula: in my essays, people were forever sacrificing themselves, rescuing injured classmates at great personal cost. All this moral valor was pretty much the opposite of what I observed in the Army compound where my mother and I lived, where daily life abounded in pedestrian deceptions. Didn’t my mother, whom I idolized, sell her egg coupons on the black market? And hadn’t she, as an Army doctor, given my teachers medications for minor ailments, in order to exempt me from corporal punishment? Still, the hagiographies and demonologies of official Party history formed the basis of my education.
“Jiayang Fan,” in her small way, bears all the hallmarks of a new villain. Her crime, turning her back on her motherland, is one I have been taught to revile since I was two, when my father left for America. It was 1986, and he had been selected to study biology at Harvard, as one in the first wave of visiting scholars in the U.S. In my mind, my father resembled America itself, an abstraction that gestured toward a gauzy ideal. That he was chosen to go there rendered him special, the way that America, the richest country on earth, was special. At the same time, America’s ruthless capitalism and unapologetic dominance also made the country sinister and soulless. And so, although our government had sent my father to the U.S., his presence there now made him suspect.
If I had some intimation that my mother was working to secure our passage to the West, it was hard to reconcile with her public protestations to the contrary. Although she griped about the red tape hampering our departure, she remained unflinchingly devoted to the Communist Party, whose patriotic hymns she hummed daily while she rinsed the dishes. In 1992, as we prepared to leave, adults sometimes asked me if we were going to America. Were they truly curious, or did they already know the answer? Innocent questions were just as likely to be perilous trip wires. Before answering, I watched my mother’s eyes for instruction and waited for her gaze to guide me. When I solemnly shook my head, I felt myself not to be lying, exactly, but deflecting bodily harm.
Maybe such reflexive doublethink shows me to be as devious as my online persecutors alleged. But their fixation on my disloyalty to China does not encompass the existential complexity of my betrayal. For what is an immigrant but a mind mired in contradictions and doublings, stranded in unresolved splits of the self? Sometimes I have wondered if these people knew something about Jiayang Fan that had always eluded me. For them, there is not an ounce of doubt, whereas uncertainty is the country where I most belong.
On July 4th—a date that had no meaning to me except that it was exactly a month short of my eighth birthday—my mother and I landed at J.F.K. Airport, our six suitcases bulging with rolls of hand-sewn bedding, bags of Sichuanese chili peppers, a cast-iron wok, and her stethoscope. My mother now found herself, at the age of forty, living in a tiny studio apartment in New Haven, Connecticut—my father was at Yale by then—with a husband who, she soon discovered, was carrying on an affair. Within a year and a half, he had left us, and she was faced with eviction; she had less than two hundred dollars to her name, and spoke little English.
Now the two of us became the embodiment of the Chinese phrase xiang yi wei ming—mutual reliance for life. My mother knew that in a vastly unequal and under-resourced world she would have to secure whatever small advantages she could. Born to Party cadres who, as soldiers, had been wounded on the battlefield in the quest to realize Mao’s vision of Communist China, my mother had been spared the worst of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. A brutal, unsentimental pragmatism shaped her deepest instincts. Her decision to become a physician sprang not from a passion for medicine but from the realization that this was her only path to a college education. My parents met in graduate school and, after I was born, a product of China’s one-child policy, entrenched sexism dictated that she should shift her focus from her career to fending for me, her only child.
Shortly before we were to be evicted, a man with a handlebar mustache came to disconnect our phone. A kindly socialist in his fifties named Jim, he took pity on us and invited us to stay with his family, in West Haven. Desperation burnished in my mother a raw, enterprising grit. In broken English, she told Jim that her one wish was to give her daughter a good education. He revealed what seemed to my mother like a valuable piece of insider info: the best public schools were in the wealthiest Zip Codes. After months of trudging to the local library, where Jim told her that newspapers could be read for free, she answered an ad to be a live-in housekeeper in a Connecticut town that she pronounced “Green Witch.” My mother did not believe herself to be doing something bold or daring. She had simply devised a Chinese work-around to a quintessentially American problem.
In the mid-nineties, Greenwich was one of the wealthiest places in the country, and as blindingly white as the blizzards I was encountering for the first time in New England. A good education had previously been a nebulous concept in my mother’s mind, but, with the help of the local library and her employers, it now acquired the concreteness of a blueprint. Public school in a fancy neighborhood could pave the way for a scholarship at a private school, then boarding school, and a prestigious liberal-arts college—a conveyor belt of opportunities carrying me toward the East Coast élite and away from her.
During my first year at Greenwich Academy, I was the only Asian student in my grade. Early on, a classmate whose mother was friends with my mother’s employer plopped down next to me on the school bus and asked a question whose answer she already knew perfectly well: “So your mother is a maid?” Not long afterward, another classmate, an elfin-faced blonde, asked me how I had escaped being killed in China. “You know,” she said, “because they murder all girl babies over there.” In a current-events class, I was struck by the teacher’s deployment of pronouns: us and them, the Americans and the Chinese. When I tried to answer a question about China, I was flummoxed by the grammar required; as the only Chinese-born person in the room, was I meant to say “they” or “we”?
In the first house where my mother worked, we lived in a maid’s room and shared the bed. Everything resembled brightly wrapped gifts for children: sea-blue toile and salmon seersucker, gingham checks and cabana stripes. Nothing matched, and everything was monogrammed. I had no friends, so I watched a lot of TV. One Saturday night, I was astonished to discover a half hour of news from CCTV, the state channel of the People’s Republic of China. Those thirty minutes, every week, bookended by soaring Party tunes and montages of the Chinese flag unfurling against hammer and sickle, took on an inexpressible sanctity. For a year, my mother and I spent our Saturday nights sitting on our bed under our chintz coverlet, watching the Party broadcast. The day it mysteriously vanished from the air, replaced by programming in English, I wept as if some part of me had been scraped out.
The needs of Greenwich households were mercurial, and every few years my mother would have to scan the want ads again. The stress of not being able to find another position close to my school suspended her in a state of near-permanent anxiety. In the mid-nineties, she developed facial rashes, which mapped their way across the planes of her cheeks and blistered on her upper lip. The briskness with which they ravaged her face tormented my mother. It was as if her body were rebelling against the downward trajectory of her life—from a respected physician bestowing small favors on her daughter’s teachers to a housekeeper who dressed her daughter in hand-me-downs from her employers’ children. Soon she was plagued by pains that migrated through her body. When, after working all day, she collapsed on the sofa in our room, she would probe her abdomen—kidneys, liver, bowel—trying to find a cancer that she’d become convinced was there. “The lump is inoperable, an immediate death sentence,” she would say.
My mother’s worries scared me, but she could share them with no one else. Years of having only a useless child for company hardened her despair and loneliness into a rage that could gust into violent, seething storms. Once, out of sheer horror that I might lose my mother, I suggested that she see a doctor. I knew our situation well enough by then—we didn’t have health insurance—to be apprehensive about my boldness. She’d likely berate me for not understanding that a visit to an Official American Institution was too expensive, too complicated, too intimidating. My mother had been sewing a button that had fallen off a tartan skirt, part of my school uniform, and my question caused her eyes to flit up and settle accusingly on me. “Do you think a doctor would get her own body wrong?” she challenged. That it was an illness erupting from the crushing weight of powerlessness and shame was not a diagnosis she could afford to obtain or bear to imagine.
My mother never did develop the cancer she dreaded would kill her, but, in the fall of 2011, at the age of fifty-nine, she received a far harsher sentence: she would be buried alive by a disease she had never heard of. As A.L.S. gradually paralyzed her, while leaving her intellect intact, our years were filled with I.C.U. visits, emergency surgeries, stays in nursing homes, and wrenching conversations with strangers about the logistics of death. Then, in 2014, after my mother could no longer breathe without a ventilator, she was moved to the Henry J. Carter Specialty Hospital, in Harlem, which, I was told, was the only long-term acute-care facility in Manhattan that could take her.
Early on, it was clear that my mother needed more help than Carter could provide. To avoid bedsores, she had to be turned every two hours. The mucus that gathered in her airway had to be suctioned every half hour. Because she was on a ventilator and had had a tracheotomy, she could no longer produce sound, and we had to devise a new way of “speaking.” I would hold up an alphabet chart and trail through the letters with my finger until a blink from my mother told me to stop, and letter by letter a message would emerge. My mother’s English remains rudimentary. Even when she could speak, she often resorted to placeholders like “this,” “thing,” “here,” and “stuff.” Now her sentences wove heedlessly between Chinese and Chinglish, urgent with demands I could neither decode nor meet. I lived on a La-Z-Boy next to her hospital bed, which I positioned so that our faces were visible to each other if either of us happened to open our eyes in the middle of the night. Not that my mother could sleep much. Her body resisted the rhythm of the ventilator, and, several times a day, a rapid-response team had to manually pump air into her choked lungs. Every second that she couldn’t see me left her petrified. I stopped showering.
After a few months, it became apparent to both of us that I needed to go back to work—but how could I abandon her to strangers? I looked for an apartment near the hospital and trained a shifting roster of heath-care aides, Fujianese immigrants and the hardiest, most unself-pitying women I know. Like my mother, they had survived in America by working lowly jobs to support their families, and went about their chores with the quiet stamina of those who never take a penny for granted. Alternating their duties week by week, they tended to her twenty-four hours a day, never even missing Chinese New Year.
A former athlete, my mother had loved physical activities; not long before her diagnosis, she developed a fondness for paddleboarding. Could there have been a worse devastation for her than progressive imprisonment in her body? As she lost the ability to move even a finger, her temper occasionally slashed those around her as would a sharp object in the hands of an unruly child. I was not immune to its cuts in my daily visits, but it was often the aides who bore the brunt.
My mother currently has two aides, Zhou and Ying, and needs them to survive in the way that she needs the ventilator for her next breath. But she agonizes about the exorbitant cost of full-time help, which Medicare and Medicaid do not cover. You should be investing in an apartment, in Queens, she insists. I tell her to quit fretting and do not say anything to her whenever the numbers fail to add up. The process of making it all work financially is trying and mortifying. When discussing the details with anyone––a friend, a stranger, an insurance rep––I’m afraid of “losing face.” The phrase comes from Chinese, but the English inadequately conveys the importance of mianzi—self-respect, social standing—which Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, described as the “guiding principle of the Chinese mind.”
My mother has always knelt at the altar of mianzi, an aspiration of which A.L.S. makes a spectacular mockery. You may think it’s embarrassing to slur your speech and limp, but wait until you are being spoon-fed and pushed around in a wheelchair—all of which will seem trivial once you can no longer wash or wipe yourself. The progress of the disease is a forced march toward the vanishing point of mianzi. When my mother was first given her diagnosis, she became obsessed with the idea of why—why her, why now, and, above all, why an illness that would subject her to the kind of public humiliation she feared more than death itself. When she could still operate her first-generation iPad, my mother gave me a contact list of everyone she was still in touch with in China, and told me that, except for her siblings, no one must know of her affliction. Such self-imposed isolation seemed like madness to me, but she preferred to cut friends out of her life rather than admit to the indignity of her compromised state. Her body’s insurrection, my mother believes, is her punishment for her prideful strivings in America.
There’s a Chinese saying that my mother liked to use about ruined reputations: “You could never regain your purity even if you jumped into the Yellow River.” Not long ago, I found a journal she kept soon after we arrived in America, just when her life was beginning to unravel. Her words make clear that going back to China would mean intolerable disgrace, in a society that, in instances of domestic collapse, invariably faulted the woman; yet to stay in this alien country, subsisting on menial work, was to peer over a cliff into the unknown. In excruciating indecision, my mother wondered “if it would not be easier to die.” Letting go would be a release, “but what will happen to Yang Yang?” she asked, using her pet name for me. “There might not be a way out for me, but there are still opportunities yet for Yang Yang.”
My mother first learned about COVID-19 from watching Chinese TV news. In her pressure-regulated bed, she spends twenty hours a day toggling between CCTV broadcasts and mawkish drama series. When I told her about how the early spread of the virus had been covered up in China, she was skeptical. News from me is suspect because I am a member of the Western media. (To her, my job has value only because a few people have told her that they’ve heard of the magazine I write for and because some important people, people much more important than she, have deemed my writing fit for publication.) Whenever I inform her that I am travelling to report on China, as I did last year when I went to cover the Hong Kong protests, she laboriously blinks out the message “donot gainst china.” This is what my mother has been urging since I became a writer. This is what my mother has blinked out with growing intensity since Donald Trump started talking about “the Chinese virus.”
One night in early March, when the pandemic still felt like a distant tragedy happening to others, I read that thirteen residents at a nursing home in Washington State had been killed by the virus, and that seventy of its hundred and eighty employees had developed symptoms. I lay in bed waiting for morning, and at seven o’clock called the nurses’ station on my mother’s floor. My tone was solicitous, as I explained that I was Yali Cong’s daughter and asked if the nurses could make sure to wear masks and wash their hands before tending to her. The woman on the line replied that she couldn’t tell the other nurses what to do—“and neither can you.” As she replaced the receiver, she made a remark to someone nearby that thudded in my ear: “She’s telling us what to do but she’s the one who’s Chinese.”
Throwing my coat on over my pajamas, I rushed to the hospital, which is a five-and-a-half-minute walk from my apartment. At the entrance, there were uniformed guards and a notice that said “Effective immediately, all visitation for patients and residents is temporarily suspended.” Something about my face caused one security guard to apologize. “It’s state policy,” he said. “It can’t be helped.”
I called Ying and Zhou. It was a Friday, the day they were supposed to rotate their shifts. It takes Zhou two hours to get to Carter from her home, in Queens, which she shares with her son’s family and in-laws. I wanted to make sure she hadn’t already left. Knowing that losing a week’s income would worry her, I feebly muttered something about how the pandemic had caught us all off guard. Then I called Ying and begged her to stay with my mother in the hospital for another week. After I assured her, groundlessly, that the facility would likely reopen in a week, she agreed to stay.
With the hospital closed to visitors, the only way I could communicate with my mother was through FaceTime. She is often in severe pain, and, without me there to badger the hospital staff about minute changes in her insulin dosage or the timing of her pain medication, she cried more and slept less. This meant less sleep for Ying, too. For years, I have had to mediate between my mother and the aides, between the aides and the hospital nurses, between my mother and the nurses. But a phone screen could not possibly accommodate all the subtleties needed to allay my mother’s fears.
I was useful, really, for only one thing: calling the nurses’ desk to explain conflicts as they arose among multiple aggrieved parties. But I didn’t actually know any of the names of the relevant parties. Although my mom always remembers which nurse has how many children or who works deftly enough to press air bubbles out of her gastric tube, neither she nor Ying, who speaks no English, can remember anyone’s name. Instead, they use nicknames, usually based on the nurses’ appearance. But, at the height of the pandemic, new nurses arrived on the ward, none of whom I’d ever seen. Once, in the middle of the night, I received a call from Ying debriefing me on the misconduct of an “old doughnut.”
“An old doughnut?” I asked, my voice still enveloped in sleep.
“Yes, she gave your mom the wrong medication.”
“An old doughnut gave my mom the wrong medication?” I sat up.
“It’s definitely Old Doughnut, not Mo’ Money,” she said. I rubbed my eyes. “They are the only two on duty. Your mother thinks one of them gave her the wrong medication in her sleep.”
I called the nurses’ desk. No one answered. I called Ying back, got the name of the medication in question, and assured my mother that a stool softener was not likely to cause lasting damage. By then, my mother had spelled out a string of nicknames including Meng Lu (the Chinese shorthand for Marilyn Monroe) and Princles (my mother’s attempt at “freckles”), and regaled me with their every misdeed and blunder. It was after 5 A.M. when I hung up.
Pre-pandemic, my visits could relieve tensions between Ying and my mother. Now they were locked in a room together, armed with nothing but glares. On video chat, I emphasized our enormous gratitude to Ying for staying, and admonished my mother to be mindful of her exhaustion. Privately, I pleaded with Ying for forbearance. But, not long afterward, Ying sent me a note, in her tenuous, slanted hand, relaying a message blinked out by my mother, which included the line “she like three-year-old.” Because Ying doesn’t speak English, she had no idea that she had painstakingly transcribed a list of her own flaws.
This was a step too far. On video chat that evening, I warned my mother that, for her own sake, she had to behave. And then, in English, I said, “Remember what it was like when you were working?” I made sure I didn’t say the word “housekeeper.” “Remember how it came down to respect?” Alluding to our past in front of a family “outsider” made me go rigid, but it had to be said. In our Connecticut days, “respect” was a word my mother fastened on, as if uttering this piece of English vocabulary in private could solve our public predicament. After a day of scrubbing, cleaning, washing, and folding, she was full of recrimination toward everyone who had demeaned her. At first, it was the adults of a household she served, then the children, who she insisted had copied their parents’ haughty expressions of contempt. Then, one day, my mother rebuked me for being “just like them.” “You think you are like them because of your English and your fancy school,” she said. “But you are nothing—nothing but a housekeeper’s daughter.”
In the months after my mother received her A.L.S. diagnosis, I would sometimes conduct an experiment. In bed, after a deep breath, I would will my body to be completely still. The sensation was like pausing in the middle of a dark forest and hearing the ambient noise of birds and leaves for the first time. This is what it feels like to be my mother, I would think, to be imprisoned in your body. When the lockdown was announced in New York, I thought about this experiment occurring on the scale of an entire city, as all infrastructure and commerce ground to a halt. My mother was now incarcerated in a body that was confined in a sealed facility, which was trapped inside a locked-down city.
As the world outside her hospital grew more cataclysmically unbearable, it became very important to me to curate her perception of it. On the day that a hospital where she’d once been treated lost thirteen patients to COVID-19, I jabbered on about the new zucchini recipes I’d discovered online. What good would it do to tell her that if she were to be infected she would almost certainly die and that I would not be allowed at her bedside? Most days, my mother said only two things. One: “donot gainst china.” And two: “u still have job?” The pandemic did nothing to lessen her reverence for hierarchy. For her, deference was a precondition of living, and never more so than when precarity loomed.
One evening, reading on my phone that more stringent lockdown orders could soon be in place, I realized that I was out of rice and late in mailing my rent check. I grabbed the trash and headed out to the street. Then my phone rang. It was Ying, telling me that she was no longer permitted to cross the hall to the kitchen. As I stood on the sidewalk, I heard a man say, “Fucking Chinese.” Only after he’d gone did I realize I was holding the garbage-can lid like a shield. That night, I tweeted about the incident. It was an act of exposure that my mother would have frowned upon. “Where’s your bruise?” she would say, if I complained about being mocked at school: if an incident does not physically harm you, it shouldn’t register. But why had I felt pinned to that tableau in which the man’s words seemed more real than my body? To assert that it had happened was the only way I could wrest the moment away from the stranger.
A few days after family members were shut out of Carter, I called the Patient Relations Department to ask if the virus had entered the facility and what measures could be taken to protect patients. When no one answered, I contacted the C.E.O. at the time, David Weinstein. There wasn’t much he could tell me, but he gave me his cell number, and, a couple of days later, we took a walk in a park next to the hospital. Weinstein, who is in his sixties, said that he had been in the nursing-home business for three decades and that his mother lived in one. Terrible timing, he told me from behind two layers of masks. The health-care system was broken, and both our mothers were caught up in it.
When I tweeted about my mother’s predicament, various friends in the health-care industry weighed in. Some said that I should consider removing her from the facility. Part of being a regular at hospitals is always to have a Plan B, so I started to think about what this would involve. I got the numbers of respiratory specialists, respiratory-equipment companies, hospital-equipment companies. The dearth of ventilators alarmed me. Even if I managed to procure one, I would need to be trained to use it. I would have to find health aides and respiratory aides, who would be almost impossible to recruit at a time like this. And, on the off chance that I did accomplish all this, where would I put her? My apartment barely accommodated my meagre furnishings.
Plan A, meanwhile, was to make sure that Carter would do its absolute best for my mother. I’d offered to arrange a food delivery for the staff, around four hundred people, in order to save them trips to the market. Now I called Weinstein, who listed some food staples that would be useful. I contacted grocery stores, but most had set quotas on items like milk and bread. Others wouldn’t deliver. I finally found a wholesaler who could provide what we needed, and launched a bare-bones online funding drive to support the hospital. When the shipment arrived—a hundred and fifty-six loaves of bread, twelve hundred eggs, fifty quarts of milk, a hundred pounds of peanut butter, six hundred and twenty-five apples, a hundred and sixty pounds of bananas—Weinstein sent me pictures, and some of the nurses thanked me.
It felt good to help, and it was sanity-preserving for me to have a task to focus on, but I was aware of what I was doing: ingratiating myself with the institution, in the hope that my mother, if it came to it, might receive some sort of preferential treatment. I thought of my mother’s gifts of medicine to my teachers in Chongqing, and the embarrassing results when she tried to wheedle my American teachers into giving me more homework. (I was sent home with an admonishing letter.) America was an entirely different system, with its own levers and gears, and I was better placed to operate them than she had been.
I was about thirteen when I hatched a plan to save us. I would divide myself into a Chinese self and an American one: at home, I was the dutiful, Confucian daughter; at school, a dedicated student of clenched politesse and Wasp pieties. I sincerely thought that I could slip in and out of these different versions of myself; they were like costumes, and, if sewn and crafted with sufficient skill, they would help us keep going, my mother and me. There was only one problem: I didn’t know that a person capable of engineering multiple identities was not necessarily a person who could control the borders between them. In my diary from that time, a present from my mother’s employer, which had a Degas ballerina on the cover, I gave voice to emotions powered by all the impostors who took up residence inside me. My deepest emotions—a crush on a boy I met at the library, the hatred for the spoiled children my mother served, my irritation with my mother, my secret ambition one day to write the great American novel centered on the itinerant lives of a Chinese mother and daughter—were buried in fictional characters that grew out of an inability to reconcile myself to myself.
In early April, David Weinstein and I were planning a second round of groceries when I saw a missed call from Carter. When I managed to reach Patient Relations, the next morning, a woman cordially informed me that some Carter patients had contracted COVID.
“How many?” I asked.
“Do we know how it was contracted?”
“Are the patients on my mother’s floor?”
I was told that I could not be privy to this information, but that, in the event that my mother tested positive, I would be informed.
“Well, has she been tested?”
“Will she be?”
Rather than answer my question, the woman said that all companions of patients would have to leave by 4 P.M. that day. I explained my mother’s condition and her dependence on her aides; I asked if an exception could be made. No, not possible. “Even if she is not safe without a companion?” I asked. That would be for the doctor to decide. I tried one more tack: could I withdraw her from the hospital? She hesitated. Technically, yes, she said, but, given how much equipment my mother needed, it was unlikely that I’d be able to get her out of Carter in less than two weeks.
So much for Plan B. And I had another realization: losing the aide might be no less disastrous for my mother than contracting the virus. She has survived nearly a decade since her diagnosis—the average is three to five years—and the care that the aides provide, turning and suctioning her, is almost certainly integral to this longevity.
The next hours were spent on the phone, calling everyone I could think of. It was going on 4 P.M. when I found myself talking with a nurse who had occasionally been the object of my mother’s stern, blinked-out criticism.
“Jiayang, listen to me,” she said. I expected her to chastise me for my incessant pestering. Instead, the line went quiet for a second. “I’ve got you,” she said. “I know better than anyone how much your mother needs her aide.” The nurses were already overwhelmed on the floor, and tougher weeks were anticipated. “We want her to stay, too.”
For what seemed like the first time that day, I drew a breath. I called a concerned friend to tell him that things would be O.K., but another call beeped in. It was the nurse again and there was hesitation in her voice. The medical director had overridden her. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I tried phoning Weinstein, without success, but even as I did so I felt that there was something calculating in the attempt to reach him, as if I were calling in the debt of bread, milk, and peanut butter. What was I hoping for but some last-minute stay of execution?
Five minutes before Ying was due to be kicked out, I was on FaceTime with her, desperately trying to reassure my mother, whose face was creased and gray. It was then that I took the screenshots that later spread across Chinese social media. The shame of this moment, I felt, needed to be remembered.
In the far corner of the frame, Ying was wiping her eyes. Then I heard the security guards.
“There’s a translator here,” Ying said, in Chinese. “She’s saying I have to go.”
“This isn’t humane!” I shouted, in English. I threatened legal action, bartered, begged, but the people who could hear were beyond the reach of persuasion. I heard Ying cry out to my mother, “Ayi! ”—Auntie!—and stayed on the line with her as she was escorted out. By the time she emerged at the front door, crying helplessly, I was there to meet her. She was still wearing her slippers.
I don’t remember how many times that night I called the nurses’ station on my mother’s corridor. At one point, a kind nursing aide, unable to bear the sight of my mother crying for an eighth straight hour, used her cell phone to facilitate a brief FaceTime conversation between us. I also got some advice from the head nurse: try to get in touch with Mitchell Katz, the president of New York City Health and Hospitals. Seeing that he had an active Twitter account, I tweeted at him, appending one of the screenshots that I had taken of my mother’s distress. I knew that I was exploiting our private trauma and making a performance out of the kind of emotion that my mother and I have spent our lives hiding. But saving face would not rescue my mother.
That night, I received a text from an unknown number. It was not Mitchell Katz but Yuh-Line Niou, a New York state assemblywoman whose district includes Manhattan’s Chinatown. She had seen the photos on Twitter and wanted to know what she could do to help. Then I heard from Brian Benjamin, a state senator whose district includes Harlem, and from a prominent Twitter personality who knew Mitchell Katz and offered to text him for me. Early the next morning, I got a call from Patient Relations. The woman’s voice was newly tentative, and she asked if I would be available for a Zoom conference. Weinstein, the medical director, and the head of P.R. informed me that my mother’s aide would be allowed back after all. There was no real explanation, but my impromptu Twitter campaign had borne fruit. And, I had to admit, so did my association with this magazine. Was this how power worked?
Once Ying called me from the hospital, confirming that she was there with my mother, I fell into a stonelike sleep. When I finally woke, I could not tell if it was night or day and was seized by an anxiety so tight that I felt as if I were being held underwater. I began frantically groping around my bed, and, as fragments of a dream returned, I realized that I was looking for my mother. In the dream, she is on a stretcher, being loaded into an ambulance—a scene I’ve witnessed many times—but the bed they put her on is too narrow and she tumbles off. As she falls, her body, so frail that it requires multiple tubes to supply its vital organs, becomes more fragile still, until it turns to porcelain. She shatters into a thousand shards on the ground. It’s fine, it’s fine, I assure myself: I can still pick her up. As long as I gather all the pieces, I can puzzle her back together. I do not anticipate that the pieces will grow smaller and lighter until they float aloft in the wind, until I am chasing a sheet of sand. I am running now and, inexplicably, carrying my diary. In the end, I am able to catch only a single grain of the sand on the tip of my finger. Mom! I keep shouting at my finger, terror-stricken that I will lose this last speck of her. The only place I can think of storing it is between the pages of my diary.
The day after Ying returned to the hospital, I got a message on Twitter from someone I didn’t know: “Dear Jiayang, I believe you have been targeted on Chinese social media (see pictures). Please take those threats seriously. Keep safe and take care!!!” I’d been on Twitter long enough to be familiar with the platform’s tendency to magnify opposition and heighten vitriol. It wasn’t uncommon for attacks to be personal and vicious, but I usually paid them little attention.
This was on a different scale. Replies were arriving faster, devoid of context: “I never know what happiness is until I see your sobbing bitch face”; “Authoritarianism rescues the injured and saves life: democracy takes the life of your bitch mother.” “Brownnosers will brownnose until they have nothing,” an attractive young woman whose bio read “Born in China” wrote. Many people used the abbreviation “NMSL,” which perplexed me until I Googled it. It stands for ni ma si le, a common insult in Chinese and one with particular relevance to me: “Your mother is dead.” A startling number of people wished that I had a fatal case of the coronavirus.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had read that a virus is neither dead nor alive, and replicates only in the shelter of a host organism. I began to think of “Jiayang Fan” as viral not in a social-media sense but in a biological one; the calamitous state of the world and certain random mutations in the story had made it unexpectedly contagious. My original posts had served their purpose; now they were serving the purposes of others. I had unwittingly bred a potent piece of propaganda.
Corners of the Chinese Internet buzzed with theories about my motivation. I was slandering China in exchange for American citizenship. No, I was after fame and fortune. When a nationalist publication wrote a public letter offering to donate a brand-new ventilator to save my mother’s life—“to combat evil with kindness”—it was presumed that an ingrate like me would try to find fault with the machine. I was besieged on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Many people on Twitter seemed to have come from Chinese platforms; sometimes, when a new crop of assailants descended, they would be hailed as “soldiers” come to do battle with the enemy, Jiayang Fan.
None of this felt quite real. I received notifications of attempts, originating in China, to hack my Apple password, but I did not fear for my personal safety. My mother’s voice echoed in me: “Where’s your bruise?” But, soon, seemingly everyone I’d ever encountered in China messaged me articles with a screenshot of my mother. My aunt forwarded me a message that a friend had shown her. “What Jiayang Fan has inflicted upon her mother is worse than any disease,” the author lamented. “How could a daughter so wretchedly trample her mom’s good reputation?” My aunt said that many acquaintances had written her notes like this and that they made “her heart hurt.” My actions, even if they took place on the other side of the world, had ramifications, she wanted me to know: “They affect my daughter and your uncle, too.” The family name was at stake.
In a chat thread she sent me, someone with the screen name Bering Strait, who had known my maternal grandfather, recalled that he had been a loyal follower of Mao in the Red Army. “It is a good thing he is dead not to be party to this humiliation,” Bering Strait observed. Gradually, an intimate history of my mother’s life came into view; reading through such discussions was like wandering into rooms of a past that my mother had locked away long ago. Someone else knew that my mother, as a child, had been informally promised to a neighbor’s son, as was sometimes the custom. Her enthusiasm for learning English in college, to the point of “forgetting to eat and sleep,” was recounted, and cast in a newly suspect light: had she been plotting her escape to America all those years ago? For all her diligence and beauty—she “was known as the goddess among the male comrades”—she was evidently an incompetent mother. “A child’s wrongdoing is a parent’s failing”—a deeply Confucian adage—was a sentiment evoked time and again to explain my mother’s fate. Many were worried that this airing of our “family ugliness” might taint their own reputations. Anyone who had even a passing affiliation with the institutions of my mother’s youth—her Army battalion, college class, hospital ward—bemoaned the possibility that their mianzi could be compromised.
For all my aunt’s frustration with me, she was insistent that my mother should never know the way that she was being discussed. “It would eviscerate her,” she told me. That I knew was true. My mother had lost touch with many people who knew her in China, precisely because she hadn’t wanted to mar this last preserve of dignity. This wellspring of nostalgic pride, which had privately nourished her in the years of deprivation in the U.S., was something I had desecrated, an even more unpardonable offense than my political betrayal. As a former classmate wrote, “No matter her inadequacies as a parent, it must be said that Jiayang Fan is the far greater criminal for killing her own mother.”
What my persecutors do not know is that my mother once accused me of killing her. I was fifteen, and home from boarding school. Her outburst was, of all things, in response to my request to see a dermatologist. The area around my belly button had been itching uncontrollably—I later found out that an allergy was to blame—and my only relief was to scratch until the small weeping blisters turned my flesh into a wet raw mess. My mother told me that it was a matter of hygiene, but the more I soaped and scrubbed the worse it got. The idea of a doctor was out of the question, because, according to my mother, it was not a life-or-death matter. But I was less afraid of death than of the mockery of my classmates, some of whom had found the blood seeping through my shirt grotesque, and, for once, I refused to be talked down. My mother stopped in the middle of folding laundry and appraised me with an icy calm.
“I just want to see a doctor,” I said, my eyes becoming wet.
“Stop the act. Dirty—this is what people call you, a dirty Chinese pig.”
Confusion momentarily superseded indignation: no one had ever called me that. It would be years before I wondered if someone—an employer? the children of an employer?—had called her that. I looked at her face, so warped with rage that I could not see my mother in it.
“Stop looking at me like that, traitor,” she said.
“Traitor.” The word pierced me. “Yes, a traitor,” she repeated, her voice swelling with conviction. She told me that my betrayal had long been evident and that I should stop feigning innocence. It was then that she brandished my diary, which she believed contained the evidence of my crime. My mother told me that I was a “sick person,” the kind who makes up lies to humiliate those who had given her everything. She had killed herself for me, she said, and I was plotting to betray and abandon her.
It’s reductive to compare a mother with a motherland, but I have since wondered if the intensity of her rage resembled the emotions of my anonymous online detractors. The fact that many couched their accusations in the language of familial estrangement—“your American daddy doesn’t want to rescue garbage like you”—lent an unmistakable intimacy to my ostensibly political betrayal. The anger seemed to arise from an aggrieved awareness of its futility: a primal wound in search of a mother’s touch. The flip side of surging triumphalism and expansive aspiration is the enduring, ineluctable ache of loss. This much my mother and I knew better than anyone else.
I do not believe that the corrosive toll of these emotions was ever evident to my mother as she rode through them, dogged and alone. Survival had forced her to conceal more and more of herself, so that eventually the most important truths were the ones she kept from herself. The hours of stunned silence, just after she received her final diagnosis in a hospital in New York, felt not dissimilar to our arrival in the city two decades earlier, when all we could do was grope in astonishment around our new reality. As her doctor, an impassive man with an Irish accent, gave her the news, my mother fixed her attention firmly on her toes. It wasn’t until we were on the 6 train, heading downtown, that she spoke. The plan had been to have dinner in Chinatown, but now she asked, Could we go see the World Trade Center? It was the first time either of us had ever alluded to 9/11. We were U.S. citizens now, but, when the towers fell, we’d been resident aliens. “Are the broken buildings still there?” my mother now asked. I said that I thought not, though I didn’t know for sure. It was somewhere on that subway ride, among a tangle of strangers, that my mother instructed me not to share the news of her illness. I have always remembered the request as explicit, but it now occurs to me that she didn’t need to ask. I could always read her thoughts as they passed between us in furtive glances.
When the image of my mother’s face whizzed around Chinese social media, the reactions it aroused bore out her cynicism: the world was every bit as cruel and indifferent as she had always suspected. But I hung on to the irrational notion that, unless my mother’s eyes encountered the abuse, it could not be real—that at least in the hospital room where she would likely live out the rest of her life there existed a world in which she had a measure of control.
But late one morning in April Ying sent me a link to a story on WeChat with a short audio message: “Your mother wants to know, is this you? I’m reading your mother the article right now.”
I felt that familiar prickling in my nerve endings, the constant urge to manage the situation. But I didn’t call Ying back, and beg her not to read the article. Instead, after a day of doing nothing, I went for a walk. Outside, there was a wan, speckled moon and a cool clarity in the night air. I stood in a playground near abandoned swings and gazed up to the fourth floor of my mother’s hospital, and the darkened box of her window. I don’t like to imagine the emotions that coursed through my mother as she lay there defenseless, listening to what had been written about us. I don’t like to think about her reappraising the daughter whom she both knew and did not know. When Ying texted again, I knew it would be a message from my mother. 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.
My mother’s message was brief and pointed. It contained a Chinese idiom, “A clean body needs no washing”—that is, if you are not guilty of anything, you have nothing to atone for. In English, she then added, “I am survive.”