The Life of a Writer Derailed by China-US Relationship

Teresa Chao (Photo by Huimin Hsu via World Journal)

“When I met President Carter, I told him I was Teresa Chao and thanked him. He said: ‘I remember you. That was my job, what I should do. I wish you the best’,” Teresa Chao, aka Teresa Buczacki, told the World Journal.

Chao, who used the Chinese Yunhui Chao back then, later became a renowned writer in the Chinese language known as Han Xiu. Around the three years before and after the U.S. and China resumed their diplomatic relationship in 1979, she was the first among the more than 300 U.S. citizens who were stuck in China to come back to the U.S.

Holding a U.S. passport issued in 1948, Yunhui Chao managed to twice sneak into the then-forbidden U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing in 1977. A month later, Jerome C. Ogden, then first secretary of the office, handed her a renewed passport. But it would still be a year and many twists and turns later until she was able to come back “home” to the U.S.

On Jan. 29, 1979, right after the relationship was resumed, China’s President Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. for the first time. Chao, who had been back to the U.S. for a year and was working for the Department of State, attended a welcome event hosted by President Carter for Deng, the first time she had opportunity to say “thank you” to President Carter in person. She was accompanied by her supervisor, Dr. Swift, Dean of the School of Language Studies of the Department and David Dean, who later became the inaugural Chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and Dean’s wife.

“I had no interest in meeting Deng Xiaoping,” said Chao. But her colleagues at the Department of State told her: “The Department was on the front line to get you back to the U.S., but it wouldn’t have succeeded without President Carter’s support. You should go there to thank him yourself.”

Wang Bingnan, the Chief Representative of China at the Sino-US Ambassadorial Talks, affirmed several times that “there was no American citizen stuck in China between 1949 when the communist party took over and 1979 when the diplomatic relationship was resumed.” [The talks were held in Geneva and later in Warsaw, and functioned as a communication channel between the U.S. and the communist China before the two resumed diplomatic relations.]

Chao said that in 1977, both China and the U.S. were eager to warm up their relationship. But the U.S. insisted it would “talk about human rights first before talking about a diplomatic relationship,” and it demanded that China “release all the American citizens stuck in your country.” And that was why she was able to escape the Iron Curtain.

(Photo by Huimin Hsu via World Journal)

Chao stayed in China between Sept. 19, 1948 when she arrived in Beijing and early 1978 when she came back to the U.S. About her homecoming, she said: “China offered zero help. And I had to sneak into the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing twice, armed with my birth certificate and my close to 30 years old American passport.”

Chao said American diplomats at the office promised her then: “The American government will deploy all the means to rescue you. Even if you die before we succeed, we’ll get your body back to the U.S.” She said 40 years later, those words are still engraved in her mind, as freshly as if she’d heard them yesterday.

Chao’s father, an American soldier, met her Chinese mother in Chongqing, China, part of the Pacific combat zone during the WWII. Chao was born in Manhattan in 1946. Soon after her birth, her father was dispatched to New Zealand. In 1948, her mother handed her to an American couple who would bring her to Shanghai to see her maternal grandmother whom she had never met yet.

On October 1, 1949, the Communist Party established its regime, and the relationship between the U.S. and China was severed for 30 years thereafter, and Chao had to grow up in red China.

Her Caucasian face and her “ties to the U.S.” brought her endless suffering during Mao Zedong’s anti-rightist campaign, followed by her nine-year long exile to Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution when she was skinny and neared death several times.

“When I came back to the U.S., I had no family, no friends, and I didn’t even speak English,” said Chao. “So I had to go to the Department of State to seek help.” She was hired by the Department to be a Chinese language teacher. She spent her day time teaching Chinese to the diplomats who were to be deployed to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. At night she taught Chinese contemporary literature at John Hopkins University, and helped on fact checking for National Geographic’s photo book “Journey into China.”

In 1982, Chao married Jeff Buczacki, a student of hers at the School of Language Studies of Department of State. In the two years after her marriage, she stayed in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and Beijing, where her husband was stationed. She changed her Chinese name into Han Xiu to make it easier to send her written work from Beijing to the publishers in Taiwan. In her writing, Chao documented the sufferings and joy she experienced and the impact the historical events of the Sino-U.S. relationship had on her life.

“I published 45 books in 40 years. Should I thank Deng Xiaoping more or less?” said Chao sarcastically. Back in 1979, in the White House Rose Garden where the welcome event was held, she didn’t say a word to Deng. “They (China) destroyed a whole decade in my life. If I hadn’t been back in the U.S., I would have died in China long time ago. This is unforgivable,” vented Chao with a visible anger that clearly hasn’t subsided in 40 years.

Now China is rising rapidly on the international stage and would like to consider itself a great power competing with the U.S. But in the eyes of Chao, the country hasn’t changed in the past four decades.

“The rising of a great power? Which great power will behave like this?” she said. “The totalitarianism of the nation hasn’t changed a bit. They detained the kind-hearted intellectual Liu Xiaobo until his death. That shows.”

See some of the interview in a video at World Journal.

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