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Chinese American Artist Draws 'The Wuhan I Know'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The city of Wuhan in China captured the world's attention when it became the first city shut down by the coronavirus. For many Americans, this was the first time they had ever heard of the city - but not so for comic artist Laura Gao because she was born in Wuhan and later emigrated to Texas as a child.

Since the outbreak began, Gao has been troubled by the disgust and pity directed at her hometown, so she decided to start a new project. It's a comic called "The Wuhan I Know." And in it, Gao shares the history of the city as well as her own personal story. Laura Gao joins me now from San Francisco.

Welcome.

LAURA GAO: Hello.

CHANG: You know, I want to go back to before the pandemic - way back, when you were just growing up in Texas. I'm curious. What was it like when you first told people there that you were born in Wuhan?

GAO: Yeah. I think when I first told people, it was a lot of silence and confused faces (laughter). I would say most people had never heard of it. And I kind of wrote this in my comic - that it was more foreign than Mars because people...

(LAUGHTER)

GAO: People had only really heard of Beijing or Shanghai. So they just merely assumed that I had been to one of those, or they asked if it was near any one of them. People just, you know, thought of it as, like, this strange concept. It's not like when people are, like, oh, I'm from France. And immediately, everyone is like, oh, that's so cool. You know, I love French food, love the language. And you're met with this...

CHANG: Yeah.

GAO: ...Warm response. Instead, it's just more silence and just, like, people don't care as much for it and don't try to press any further.

CHANG: Well, what has it been like the past few months, watching Wuhan go from kind of obscurity to a place that a lot of people are constantly talking about?

GAO: It's been crazy to not only hear so many people finally know about my hometown, but it's also disheartening to know that all they know is the bad parts of it and the fear and panic that people have around this as, like, the origin of the virus.

CHANG: Well, at some point during all of this, you decided to start this project. I'm curious. Was there a particular moment during all of this that made you want to create this comic?

GAO: My family and I here in the U.S. were actually planning to go fly over to Wuhan for a small trip to see my grandparents. My...

CHANG: Wow.

GAO: Yeah. Our trip was originally going to be in late January to see my grandmother because she was turning 80...

CHANG: Oh.

GAO: And that's a huge deal in Chinese culture.

CHANG: Yeah.

GAO: Yeah. And I remember at the time, I was just really upset. You know, I have a very strong relationship with my grandmother. And I was upset I wouldn't be able to see her. And it had been a while since we'd gone back. But, you know, now, looking back, obviously, it was the correct decision. And so I think that was my main inspiration - was that, like, if I had gone and everything was OK and there wasn't a virus, I would be experiencing the beauty of my family, of the people, the food, the culture...

CHANG: Right.

GAO: ...And the city. And that was just such a weird juxtaposition for me. And so I decided, hey - like, let me share about the beauty that I looked forward to seeing during that trip of my city and my people with everyone else here and see if that can change the narrative for a lot of people.

CHANG: It's so funny listening to you talk about how people first asked you, where's Wuhan? Is it close to Shanghai or Beijing...

GAO: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...As if those were the only two large cities in China. Wuhan is a city of more than 11 million people. It's extremely modern. It's, you know, bigger than New York City, London or Tokyo. And yet, there's so much about the city that Americans don't know about. So tell me some of your favorite things about Wuhan.

GAO: Whenever I go to Wuhan, my favorite part was just waking up in the morning, running outside to the street, where it would be completely lined left and right with all these food stalls of so many different kinds of food.

CHANG: Oh, there's stuff there that I've never tried, like the fast-food duck neck.

GAO: Yes. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GAO: Yeah, that's such a phenomenon. It's pretty wild. Yeah, I talk about the fast-food duck neck, the re gan mian (ph), which is hot and dry noodles, as well as dou pi (ph). And I wanted to be able to shine light on a lot of these amazing foods that, you know, I've really loved and kept close to my heart.

CHANG: Has your grandmother seen your comic?

GAO: Yeah. She - I sent her a couple screenshots of it. And I told her a bit about what - you know, what I wrote about and what it was like. I think for her, she just thought it was really, really touching and sweet - the responses that we've been getting on the comic. And immediately, she was, like, hey, like, thankfully, we're getting better. And I see the rest the world is also suffering, and I want to, like, you know, send my love to them as well.

CHANG: Laura Gao is a product manager for Twitter by day and a comic artist by night.

Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

GAO: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "PRETEND TO FORGET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.