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Gish Jen tells stories of the U.S. and China in 'Thank You, Mr. Nixon'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been 50 years since President Richard Nixon opened U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China. And it's hard to convey what it was like to see a conservative Republican Cold War president shake the hand of Mao Zedong, leader of the world's largest communist power. Today, China is one of the U.S.'s largest trading partners, and many Americans from Chinese families have complicated thoughts. They know China as the land of Mao's mass murders, Red Guard brigades, detention camps, state censorship, surveillance and imprisoned dissidents. But it's also a country with family members, ancestors and centuries of accomplishment and culture.

Gish Jen has a new book of short stories that are linked by that relationship, beginning with the recollections of someone who was a young girl who met the U.S. president in a Hangzhou park. Her book of stories is "Thank You, Mr. Nixon." And Gish Jen, author of the highly acclaimed novel, "The Resisters," joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

GISH JEN: Oh, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: There is a famous photo, which - not that girl, but another one. And in her letter to President Nixon in the beyond, she's affronted that he didn't notice her coat. What did that mean?

JEN: (Laughter) Well, you know, the girl in my story, of course, is made up, right? But she does remember very well this visit. And what she remembers most of all is not actually Nixon himself so much as Pat Nixon and the red coat that she wore, which really made a huge impression on the Chinese because, you know, back then, China was a sea of gray and navy blue and black. And the Chinese - you know, famously great lovers of red - you know, when they saw that red coat, I mean, they were just overwhelmed with admiration. And - you know, and much flows from that moment.

SIMON: You say - I think the phrase you used is it let a big genie out of the bottle. Help us understand that.

JEN: Yes. I think it's the - you know, they had been taught to hate the West. But they saw that coat, and they loved that coat (laughter). And that ambivalence, of course, has continued to this day.

SIMON: A particular favorite sequence I have is when you have a group of American tourists, including from Chinese families, visit the Great Wall. This is before Yelp reviews, you know, might say, well, I don't think it's so great; or boy, it needs repair. People are impressed. At that point, they're also concerned about their guide, aren't they?

JEN: Yeah. Yeah. This is a typical Chinese thing, I will say, that the poor guide has been put in charge of these American tourists. This is very early in the tourism thing in China. And she actually does not speak very good English. And she's gotten this job because of her father. And so she herself is kind of in an awkward situation. And the protagonist's mother helps her out. And I will say that it's - you know, this whole story is very Chinese not in its details, but in this dynamic in the sense that the - you know, the Chinese mother, because she's Chinese-born - the protagonist's mother - because she's Chinese-born, she understands...

SIMON: We're talking a character, Grace - Grace Chen de Castro.

JEN: Right. Grace Chen's mother Opal, you know, understands the tour guide's situation, and she helps her out. And she does all the translating. And then later on, the tour guide turns around and does her a big favor. And as I was writing the story, I was just thinking, you know, how kind of typical this is, that, you know, Opal Chen, when she helps that tour guide, she just helps her out of compassion - right? - because she understands the situation and because she can help. And she's not trying to get anything out of the tour guide. But the tour guide does turn around and return the favor.

And I'm just so aware of how, from an American point of view, this seems very transactional. You know, like, I'll scratch your back, and you'll scratch mine. But actually, in the Chinese context, that's not what's going on at all. Actually, the first gift really was a gift, and the return gift really is a gift. For them, it's not transactional. And like I say, I'm just very aware of how these kinds of exchanges, these very Chinese exchanges are frequently misunderstood by the West.

SIMON: I have to ask, there is a distinguished NPR foreign correspondent I've known for many years who I won't name who was in China once. She did not cover China per se, but was in China on a reporting trip. And she - I'll never forget. She said once to stand on any street corner in Beijing is to realize China really doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks.

JEN: Of course. Well, they always - they thought of themselves as the Middle Kingdom, the middle meaning the middle of the world. And they were the middle of the world for many, many, many millennia. And also, it's a big country (laughter). So, you know, just from a demographic point of view, it's not surprising that they would think that they were the middle of the world, right? I mean, there they are, with their billion plus people, many more than - what? - 1.4 billion at this point. And of course they would think they were the middle. And how could we here in America (laughter) with our tiny numbers, how could we think that we were actually the middle? That's a mystery, right?

SIMON: Well, and also that anything we think about China's policies impresses them.

JEN: Do they care what we think?

SIMON: I mean, when the United States delivers another stinging denunciation of some kind of Chinese policy.

JEN: Well, I don't think that - they don't hear the stinging denunciation because, you know, their media is controlled. So don't worry. They're not even hearing it. And moreover, actually, they're very sensitive to American opinion, and so - for what it's worth. I mean, from my experience, they actually do look up to the West, and they want the West to think well of them.

SIMON: Help me understand a phrase you use towards the end of these stories - tea is never just tea.

JEN: You know, that line occurs in the context of someone who's being invited to tea by authorities, right? This is a young dissident. And, you know, if you're invited to tea by the authorities, you know you are on their radar, and they are sending a signal to you. They are sending a signal. That means that you are being watched, and they would like you to - whatever it is that you're doing that has prompted this tea, they would like you to cease and desist.

SIMON: Mmm hmm. I can't end this conversation without enlisting your learned opinion in a family conversation our family has. Hong Kong runs in and out of your stories. And, of course, now we know about detention of Uyghur Muslims. I ask this question right before the Olympic Games open. Is it possible in these times to just be a tourist in China? Is that the right thing to do?

JEN: I don't know if it's the right thing or the wrong thing. But it is true that I think that every tourist must be aware that, yeah, they're not just a tourist. So I don't think it's possible to be just a tourist. I don't think that you can say that it's right, and I don't think that you can say that it's wrong, but I think that you have to be aware that it is something.

SIMON: Gish Jen - her book of stories, "Thank You, Mr. Nixon" - thank you so much for being with us.

JEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.