I Lived Under A Dictatorship. I Know What’s At Stake For This Country

As a Chinese immigrant, I want to make sure I use my right to free speech

Colorful mural by BiLan, shows BiLan in the center with anti-Trump protestors in foreground.
Mural by BiLan Liao.

Ever since she became a U.S. citizen, BiLan Liao, a painter and retired art professor who immigrated to the U.S. from China in 1999, has taken elections very seriously. She began voting shortly after she became a citizen in 2004.

After spending several years in the midwest and Kentucky, she and her husband moved just northeast of Atlanta to Gwinnett County, Georgia, one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. It is there where she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. When Donald Trump won, Liao was terrified. She worried about the kinds of policies he would enact during his term and felt she had to do something. In January, Liao hopped on a bus to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., to protest his win and at that moment decided to center activism in her life.

BiLan in front of a “Vote Here” sign. She is wearing a black face mask.
Photo courtesy of Ken Scroggs.

Today, Liao is chairwoman of the Georgia chapter of Chinese Americans for Biden and a member of the Georgia AAPI Biden Harris Leadership Council. She is the author of a book of paintings titled Diary of a Dragon’s Daughter: Painting as a Window into Chinese History, which tells the story of five generations of women in her family. Early this year, she painted “America Divided,” which depicts how the Trump administration is destroying democracy in the U.S.

Liao has been working around the clock to speak out about injustice and turn out the vote in the Democratic Chinese American community. She has attended Black Lives Matter protests and sign-waving rallies, helped voters get registered, and designed campaign signs in her native language, Mandarin. She cast her vote in the presidential election on the first day of early voting, October 12, after standing in a long line. For Liao, waiting to vote was worth every minute.

The story that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

It is always exciting for me to vote in the United States. In China, we don’t have elections by the people. I believe in freedom of speech and democracy, though in China, I lived under a dictator. It was there where my family lost everything. In 1957, during the Hundred Flowers Movement, Chinese people were encouraged to criticize the government. A lot of people were finally speaking the truth. Then the government started cracking down. The critics were put in prisons and camps to punish them for speaking out. My father was one of them. For seven years, he was in and out of prison for his anti-government speech.

But I knew then and I know now that even one person can make a difference. If everyone is afraid and does not speak up, dictators will prevail. My father always told me to stand up and to not be afraid, so I did.

I came to the United States to have the freedoms my father never had. I know Trump is not good for Chinese people or for democracy. Leaders like Trump divide people. He is just like any other authoritarian or dictator. This is why I think it’s important to vote.

“I finally cast my vote three hours and 15 minutes after arriving. I would have waited longer if I had to.”

On the first day of early voting here in Georgia, I got up at 5:30 a.m. I wanted to go to the polling station very early even though it didn’t open until 7 a.m. My husband had voted by mail, but he came with me anyway. I arrived at Shorty Howell Park in Gwinnett County before 7 a.m. There were so many cars in the parking lot. We were shocked and surprised to see that there were already approximately 300 people ahead of us. I finally cast my vote three hours and 15 minutes after arriving. I would have waited longer if I had to. That’s how important this election is to me.

I wanted to vote in person (as opposed to by mail) to make sure my vote is counted. But also I need to vote in person because I organize Chinese voters in the community. I explain what the process is like to those who speak and understand limited English. These are people who are usually afraid to vote. I tell them to make sure to bring their driver’s licenses. I describe what the machines and ballot look like and who to vote for. Some of them write down the candidates’ names. So I try to give them details about how to complete the process so that they will be confident in their decision-making.

I recently helped a Chinese woman to vote for the first time. She had become a citizen in 2005 but had never voted because she doesn’t know English well. I guided her through the process. Another Chinese voter received her registration card in the mail, and she didn’t understand what it was. I explained to her that she could now vote. She voted the first week of early voting.

I participate in 30 groups on WeChat, a social media platform that is popular with Chinese people. Every day, I post about Joe Biden’s policies to counter the disinformation others spread about him. I also give out information about how to register to vote. The Trump groups usually kick me out. But I want to educate and get people involved in a way we couldn’t in China. I want to make sure I use my right to free speech.

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21. anjalienjeti.com.

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