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The pandemic inspired a cartoonist to explore their Wuhanese roots and queer identity

Laura Gao

In the early months of the pandemic, Wuhanese American illustrator and writer Laura Gao drew a life-changing comic.

Gao, who goes by the pronouns they/them and she/her, wrote and drew "The Wuhan I Know," a cartoon about the Chinese city behind the coronavirus headlines. They wanted people to know that Wuhan, where they were born, is home to a rich culture, a caring people and great breakfast noodles – not just the starting point for a global pandemic.

The comic went viral on Twitter and was covered by multiple news outlets, including NPR, sparking the interest of an agent and eventually landing them a book deal. Fast forward two years, and Gao is the author of a hilarious and heartfelt new book, Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American.

Gao expands the pandemic cartoon into a full-on exploration of their Wuhanese American identity – growing up in a mostly white town in Texas with Chinese immigrant parents, struggling to fit in at school and re-visiting Wuhan as a teen for the first time since leaving for America at age 4. In the process, Gao unpacks another important aspect of their identity – their queerness.

As serious as the themes are, Gao's delivery can be charming and laugh-out-loud funny. In one scene, Gao is in the bathroom, trying to shave off the thick black hair of their eyebrows to look more like the other girls at school. All of a sudden, little brother Jerry calls out. Gao messes up the shave, swings open the bathroom door and fumes: "WHAT THE FUDGE DO YOU WANT, JERRY?" Jerry, cute and innocent, replies: "Mom says we're going to the library!"

/ Laura Gao
Laura Gao

Gao, 25, talks to NPR about how the book helped them "come into" their Asianness, why their parents have not read the book and their favorite aspect of Wuhanese culture. (Full disclosure, I wrote a blurb in praise of Gao's book – I loved it!) This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You and your family immigrated from Wuhan to the States when you were 4. The next time you returned to Wuhan, you were 14, and then again a couple of times in your 20s. What have those trips been like?

Each time I visited, I realized that not only was I changing, but the city was, too.

When I first went back at 14, there were things I didn't understand anymore, like some words in Mandarin. My family said I was quieter, not the talkative little kid they remembered. People would point out that I dressed like an American. So immediately it just felt like I was being othered in this place that I used to call home.

/ Laura Gao
Laura Gao

When I went during college, I saw that a lot of the alleyways I used to go to for street food had been torn down and new storefronts had been built in their place. Old farmland where my dad's side of the family used to live had been bought out to make way for suburbs. And they were building a railway through the countryside.

I can't expect Wuhan to always be the same. I had to start to appreciate Wuhan for what it was now becoming. And Wuhan had to appreciate me for what I was becoming, too.

And what were you becoming?

I was becoming this bridge between multiple cultures and worlds. That was something I was insecure about growing up. I thought I had to be either one or the other – Wuhanese or American – in order to truly fit into one place.

Growing up in Coppell, Texas, where it was predominantly white, I didn't want to share things that my family would do that I thought were Asian. I didn't want my dates to come to my house and see the stinky tofu in the fridge or my grandparents doing tai chi.

On the flip side, when I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania and met Asians who came from places in the U.S. that were predominantly Asian, I felt like they were the "real" Asians. One Asian friend from California was talking about how big boba [bubble tea] culture was there. And I was like: Wow, I've never actually had boba! That made me feel like I wasn't Asian enough to be around them.

/ Laura Gao
Laura Gao

So what changed?

At Penn, I met other Asian kids and made friends with them. One of my best friends at Penn, for example, was a Korean girl who went to international school in Shanghai. They had such different backgrounds and journeys into understanding their own identities. No one deserves to be judged for where they're at because everyone has a differing experience.

It made me accept who I am, where I grew up and what I learned. I was coming into my Asianness.

And what does "coming into" your Asianness mean to you?

It's when I finally felt comfortable with who I was as an Asian American. It was when — if an Asian topic came up [in conversation] or I was around non-Asians or even Asians! – I didn't feel the need to explain myself.

In your book you also explore your queer identity.

As I was writing these stories of finding myself and being proud of myself, I realized it became impossible to decouple that Asianness from the queerness. So much of who I am today stems from me taking pride in who I love.

/ Laura Gao
Laura Gao

You came out to your parents before the book published.

I came out to my parents at the beginning of 2021 once I realized that the book was going to come out. Either they were going to find out from me — or from a Barnes & Noble. They didn't take it well, as I expected, and they're still trying to come around to it today. So they haven't read the book.

Has your family in China read the book?

It's not published in Mandarin, so they've not read it. I'm not sure if it will [ever be published in China] because of censorship laws that China has around LGBTQ content. China is a conservative society, and historically, gender roles have been traditional. The younger generation, however, is a lot more accepting. Some cities like Chengdu have a thriving underground LGBTQ scene.

I do hope that my family can one day read it so that they can have a better understanding of me.

What would you like people to know about Wuhanese people?

Wuhanese people care about you as if you're family. A few decades ago, Wuhan was mainly farmland. Even though it's a city now, people still act like it's a village of people helping each other out. During the pandemic lockdown in Wuhan, community volunteers bought groceries in bulk to share with my grandparents, who are in their 80s and don't know how to order food online. This is what I absolutely love about the people.

It's been over two years since the pandemic started. What do people say to you now when they find out you're from Wuhan?

There's usually an awkward silence. But sometimes they'll ask: Is your family OK? And I'll tell them, yeah, the city has stopped the lockdown, so they're good. So that's fairly sweet.

So tell me about these breakfast noodles.

They're called re gan mian in Mandarin — hot and dry noodles in sesame paste. There's just something about breakfast in the Wuhanese culture that people really love. In fact, the best Wuhanese street foods are breakfast foods.

/ Laura Gao
Laura Gao

My mom would make this for us in Texas. She couldn't often find the sesame paste at the local grocery stores. So she would have to make her own concoction with peanut butter and sesame oil to try to replicate it.

Growing up, we would have breakfast together as a family and eat it. Even Jerry. But he always had to have an American breakfast on the side – a bowl of cereal.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.

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