While watching a movie about communism, I realized that I had been lied to as a child in China | China

I was born in northeast China in a province that was particularly heavy on partisan propaganda. I learned to walk in formation before I learned to write, and maybe even count. Every morning at school started with a flag ceremony and mandatory greetings to Mao Zedong. The textbooks were illustrated with watercolors by Lenin and Stalin, drawing them to look much prettier than they actually were. Propaganda also made its home. I think, even today, my father only knows socialist songs.

The life I just described may sound extreme, but it was actually a relatively free period in the 1990s, after our worst state terror and before Xi Jinping’s most recent crackdown. We never had democracy, but the 1990s were as close to it as ever, and life was generally enjoyable. The university my mother taught us arranged a one-room apartment in the city center, within walking distance of the local Mao statue. Compared to today’s Chinese academics, we could not be considered rich, but we could always buy fish, bananas and peanuts, even Sprite and other Western-style gifts for my teachers, in the hope that they would do well at school. . I was not considered a patriot enough to become a class president. However, my school allowed me a young pioneer uniform when it was my turn to raise the flag.

It was in the middle of this life that my father decided to move to the US for his doctorate. My mother followed within a year. I was sent to live with my grandparents and I enrolled in the best school in the neighborhood – that is, in the most political one. I clashed with the teachers almost immediately. These half-baked relics from the Cultural Revolution could not understand that times had changed enough for my parents to leave by legal means. To them, my parents could only be apostates, and therefore I must be an enemy of the people, six years old. The other children were not allowed to talk to me, while I was not allowed to eat any of the school meals. Instead, I was expected to serve them. I have little recollection of the anger and hatred I must have felt, but know that at some point I overturned an entire table with hot soup and burned one of the teachers. In retrospect, perhaps all of this could have been avoided if my grandparents had remembered bribing teachers with Sprite.

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I reunited with my parents later that year in a new country where girls wanted to become Disney princesses instead of young pioneers. My Asian peers supplemented my English lessons with princess cartoons, and my parents, expecting me to do the same, borrowed piles from them each week. At first I watched them through the communist eyes. In Cinderella, the condition of the proletarians against bourgeois greed was quite obvious, but I could not understand why they allowed her to live in a palace in the end. It would have made more sense if he had joined the Red Army after the release of Prince Charming. And in Sleeping Beauty, I really felt sorry for Aurora’s frustration after learning about her royal roots. She must have been in pain when she discovered that she was an enemy of the people against her will.

What really changed me was the 1997 film Anastasia. Before the first song started and the first talking animal appeared, I saw some familiar faces, straight from my previous life in China: young rebels invading a palace, with the same decisive expressions, the same gray or green coats, ushanka, fists. These were people I recognized very well, only my Chinese textbooks dragged them as liberators and the American film pulled them as a mob.

Aynur Rahmanova the year after her arrival in the USA.
Aynur Rahmanova the year after her arrival in the USA.

Up to that point I had not enjoyed the possibility of communist revolutionaries competing in any story. I did not know that it was even possible to look at them with such fear and hatred. When this world was realized, it was fully formed, around me, it was as if the sky had turned green and at the same time it was revealed that it was green all this time.

The most valuable gift of my years in America has been critical thinking – the ability to see that the way something is presented is not necessarily the way things are. Even there he was not always encouraged, and sometimes punished, but at least it was possible to get through the school system and come out with a free mind, which, once won, becomes the only freedom that nothing can take away.

Over the years I discovered that my first city in China, far from the homogeneous and nationalist position I remember, is ethnically different and it was much more before the founding of today’s People’s Republic. In addition, it was once a Japanese colony. And in fact, I’m not even Chinese, but Mongolian with some Turkish blood – now this is a reversal that Princess Aurora may have appreciated. People of my ethnicities had fought against the communists and, after the occupation of the area by Mao, they were greatly assimilated. As there were so many non-Chinese influences to oust the communists, the repression there was particularly severe.

Although my parents did not discuss it much or openly, I eventually compiled excerpts from stories about our family’s involvement in the Mao revolution. Our relatives covered the range – some were direct perpetrators, some victims, others passers-by who, now on two continents, surround themselves with the traps of ordinary life in a desperate attempt to forget. But as they are paralyzed by the weight of memories, they can not process them and move on. American passports and Western goods could not turn them into life in a democracy.

Eight years ago I left the United States for another home country, to remember exactly what I may have survived. I chose Estonia, where people have the courage to see the bloodbaths of the past with clear and unshakable eyes and then willingly shoulder the responsibilities of a democratic life.

And I threw myself headlong into this European life, with its endless academic freedom, a presidential palace within walking distance, the opportunity to join the army without damaging his conscience, classmates claiming parliament, Stalin’s death in cinemas, almost all teacher just an email away, cakes and wooden houses and ceilings in the same pastel colors, hot water available all day and shops full of Annick Goutal and Wolford and Fjällräven and so many brands that we have to boycott most of them.

Unlike a free mind, this beautiful reality can be removed and I feel constantly haunted by a past and a hypothetical future that must never be created. This is another world in which authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are trying to extend their power some 30 years after the supposed end of history. I have renounced the propaganda of my childhood, but I have spent all the years of my freedom with it, in my research during the day and in my nightmares afterwards.

I still find myself buzzing with socialist ballads from the 1950s. Some have rather beautiful melodies and are so ingrained in me that it is more a matter of muscle memory than anything else. And I have accepted the possibility that I will never make peace with the past.

In the end, I guess there was always a side of me that hated tyrants in all its forms and rarely received instruction in face value. The raw material for a free mind was always there, and when Anastasia’s opening scene, my first Socrates-gadfly, appeared, I was ready to challenge everything I knew, except the innate desire to be free.

Aynur Rahmanova is a PhD student at Tallinn University in Estonia

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