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I was born in northeastern China, in a province particularly battered by partisan propaganda. I learned to walk in formation before I could write, and maybe even count. Every morning at school began with a flag ceremony and obligatory salutes to Mao Zedong. School textbooks were illustrated with watercolors of Lenin and Stalin, drawn to look much prettier than they actually were. Propaganda also made its way. I think that even today my father only knows socialist songs.

The life I have just described may seem extreme, but in fact it was a relatively free period in the 1990s, after the worst of our state terror and before Xi Jinping’s recent crackdowns. We never had a democracy, but the 90s were as close to it as ever and life was generally good. The university where my mother taught had booked us a one-room apartment in the city center, a few steps from the local statue of Mao. Compared to today’s Chinese scholars, we might not have been considered wealthy, but we were still able to buy fish, bananas, and peanuts, and even Sprite and other western-branded gifts for my teachers in the hope that they would treat me well in school. . I was not considered patriotic enough to be class president; however, the school granted 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 United States for his doctoral studies. My mother followed in a year. I was sent to live with my grandparents and enrolled in the best school in the neighborhood, that is to say the most political. I clashed with the teachers almost immediately. These semi-literate relics of the Cultural Revolution couldn’t understand that times had changed enough for my parents to leave through legal means. For them, my parents could only be defectors, and therefore I had to be an enemy of the people, at all six years old. The other children were forbidden to talk to me, while I was forbidden to eat school meals. Instead, I was expected to serve them. I remember very little of the anger and hatred I must have felt, but know that at one point I spilled an entire table of hot soup and burned one of the teachers. Looking back, maybe all of this could have been avoided if my grandparents had remembered to bribe teachers with Sprite.

I joined my parents later that year in a new country where girls wanted to be Disney princesses instead of young trailblazers. My Asian peers supplemented their English lessons with princess cartoons, and my parents, expecting me to do the same, borrowed heaps of them every week. I first observed them through communist eyes; in Cinderella, the plight of proletarians against bourgeois greed was pretty obvious, but I couldn’t understand why she was allowed to live in a palace at the end. It would have made more sense if she had joined the Red Army after Prince Charming freed her. And in Sleeping Beauty, I really sympathized with Aurora’s disappointment after discovering her royal roots. It must have hurt to find out that she was an enemy of the people with no will on her part.

What really changed me was the 1997 movie Anastasia. Before the first song started and the first talking animal appeared, I saw familiar faces, straight out of my old life in China: young revolutionaries storming a palace, with the same determined expressions, the same gray or green overcoats, ushankas, fists. They were people I recognized very well, only my Chinese textbooks drew them as liberators, and the American film drew them as a crowd.

While Watching a Movie About Communism, I Realized I Was Lied to When I Was a Child in China |  China
Aynur Rahmanova within a year of arriving in the United States.

Until then, I hadn’t considered the possibility that communist revolutionaries could be antagonists in any story. I didn’t even know it was possible to look at them with so much fear and hatred. When this world materialized, fully formed around me, it was as if the sky had turned green, and at the same time revealed itself to have been green all along.

The most precious gift of my American years was critical thinking – the ability to see that the way something is presented is not necessarily the way things are. Even there, it was not always encouraged, and sometimes punishable, but at least it was possible to go through the school system and come out of it with a free spirit, which, once won, becomes the only freedom that nothing can remove.

Over the years, I have discovered that my first hometown in China, far from the homogeneous, nationalistic place I remember, is ethnically diverse, and was much more so before the establishment of the current People’s Republic. ; moreover, it was once a Japanese colony. And actually, I’m not even Chinese, but Mongolian with a bit of Turkish blood – that’s a twist Princess Aurora might have liked. People from my ethnic groups had fought against the communists, and after Mao took control of the area, they had been strongly assimilated. Since there were so many non-Chinese influences for the Communists to purge, the repression there was particularly brutal.

Although my parents didn’t discuss it much or openly, I eventually put together fragments of stories about our family’s involvement in Mao’s revolution. Our loved ones ran the gamut – some were direct perpetrators, others victims, others bystanders who, now on two continents, surround themselves with the trappings of ordinary life in a desperate attempt to forget. But paralyzed as they are by the weight of memories, they are unable to cross them and move on. American passports and Western possessions have not been able to swing them into life in a democracy.

Eight years ago, I left the United States for another country of my mother-in-law, in order to remember what exactly I was able to survive. I chose Estonia, where people have the courage to look at the bloodbaths of the past with clear eyes and without flinching, and afterwards willingly assume the responsibilities of democratic life.

And I threw myself headfirst into this European life, with its endless academic freedom, a presidential palace a stone’s throw away, the possibility of enlisting in the army without soiling my conscience, classmates running for parliament, The Death of Stalin in the cinema, almost all a teacher within reach of mail, cakes and wooden houses and supreme courts in the same pastel colors, hot water available all day and shops full of their Annick Goutal and Wolford and Fjällräven and so many brands that we have to boycott most of them.

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

I still find myself humming socialist ballads from the 1950s. Some of them have pretty nice melodies, and they’re so ingrained in me that it’s more a matter of muscle memory than anything else. And I accepted the possibility of never making peace with the past.

Ultimately, I guess there’s always been a part of me that hated bullies in any form and rarely took instruction at face value. The raw material for a free spirit was still there, and when the opening scene of Anastasia arrived, my first Socrates-Gadfly, I was ready to question everything I had known except of the innate desire to be free.

Aynur Rahmanova is a PhD student at the University of Tallinn, Estonia

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