RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, the show Invisibilia is exploring how the words you don't say can shape a relationship. And, a warning, this story does have descriptions of violence that might not be suitable for all listeners. Here's NPR's Yowei Shaw.
YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: It was the kind of problem you see in a movie. Ching Chung Wang, who goes by CC, was visiting his mom when, out of the blue, the guy renting a room from CC's mom started boasting about how he was an assassin. This was in Taiwan in the 1970s, and the man told CC he'd worked for the government years earlier killing Communist agents on mainland China with a thin wire rope.
Did he actually show you how to do it?
CC: Somebody walking in front of you, you just go like this.
SHAW: CC holds up his fists, raises them over an invisible head.
CC: Pull it back, and then turn it around then you just carry him all the way, doesn't matter how much the guy was struggling. I start to worry he was in the secret police.
SHAW: But how do you tell your mom you think she's got a murderer living under her roof? Maybe you don't.
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SHAW: To explain, let's go back to the beginning. For as long as he could remember, CC had been trying to please his mom, Frances Tsao. She was the kind of mom who played hard to get. Take the time CC was in junior high and came home to find his mom kneeling. She told him, I'm praying to confess my sins for not raising good sons.
CC: I was devastated for days. You know, I couldn't recover from this shock.
SHAW: But CC went on to check all the boxes he thought his mom wanted him to check. He moved to the U.S., became a prestigious scientist and every month sent money home.
CC: What a good son I should be, from her point of view.
SHAW: After CC's dad died in 1975, his mom, Frances, put an ad in the paper looking for someone to rent the extra room in the apartment. And she settled on a tall, middle-aged bachelor. His name was Mr. Zhu. He was polite, helped CC's mom with cooking and cleaning.
CC: It was very nice that they get along very well.
SHAW: But gradually CC started to notice...
CC: He seemed to be very acquainted with all my mother's friends and their relatives.
SHAW: And Mr. Zhu knew all sorts of things that CC had told his mom in letters and phone calls.
CC: I have a distinctive feeling that he was looking into my mother's communications.
SHAW: And as the years passed, a strange thought began to crawl into CC's mind that this innocuous, middle-aged busybody might actually be a spy.
CC: Yes. Yes.
SHAW: Taiwan in the 1970s was crawling with spies and government informants. To make matters worse, CC's younger brother had gotten in trouble with the government a few years earlier. So CC worried the government might have a reason to send a spy to watch the family. If that was true, CC couldn't exactly report Mr. Zhu to the government. So he decided to keep a close eye on Mr. Zhu. But on his next trip to Taiwan, the scene was less scary spy movie and more odd-couple rom com.
How much more time was he spending with your mom, and what would they do together?
SHAW: In the morning, Frances would read the paper, practiced calligraphy at the table, while Mr. Zhu was in the kitchen cooking her special breakfast.
CC: Something very spicy, very salty and not very fatty.
SHAW: Then in the afternoon, Mr. Zhu would head out with Frances to her mahjong game and insist she put on a coat. Mr. Zhu even took care of Frances when she eventually got cancer.
Was it a relief because, look, it's like, you're far away and, like, great that there can be someone to be that person for your mom, or...
CC: It was part relief, part jealous, partly guilty.
SHAW: I called Taiwan's intelligence agencies, submitted records requests, even talked to Mr. Zhu's relatives. I could only find one record from the Military Intelligence Bureau that lists his name as part of a special group of patriots who fled China in the '50s after years of battling the Communists there. But CC's still convinced them Mr. Zhu was a spy, which makes it all the more painful for him that an outsider with dubious intentions became a surrogate son, won the intimacy with his mom that CC never got.
CC: He said, your mom told me that the happiest 10 years she ever had in her life was with me.
SHAW: What did you say?
CC: Nothing. I felt really bad. I felt really, really, really bad.
SHAW: How would you do it differently if you wanted to, like, get closer to her?
CC: I don't know how to do it differently. I really don't.
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SHAW: On one level, it's simple. Zhu was there for his mom all those years CC was in the U.S., and of course he's grateful. But CC spent his whole life following the rules his mom laid out for him, including moving to the U.S. and making a life there. She never told him to move back, never told him what she needed, and it never occurred to him to check in.
NICK EPLEY: We make inferences about other's thoughts and their beliefs.
SHAW: That's Nick Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago who's done a series of studies on our ability to discern the intentions and emotions of the people around us. In one study, Epley took married couples and asked them to make guesses about their partner's responses to different questions. He found that even though our ability to guess these responses is only slightly better than chance, we have huge confidence in our ability to guess right, especially with the people we're closest to.
EPLEY: I think the barrier to deeper understanding in a lot of our relationships is that we sort of believe that we understand this person already, and so we don't ask the things that sometimes we even ask of strangers.
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SHAW: I talked to CC last summer right before he had surgery, and there ended up being complications and he died a few weeks later. I think he died feeling like he'd failed with his mom. But there's one thing CC left unsaid that to me doesn't feel like a missed opportunity. It feels like a loving sacrifice of a son. Amazingly, CC never told his mom he thought Mr. Zhu was a spy.
CC: I didn't want to tell her because I didn't want her feeling a little bit strange about her relationship with Mr. Zhu.
SHAW: You protected their relationship.
CC: Yes. Yes, I did.
SHAW: Yowei Shaw, NPR News.
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MARTIN: Invisibilia's fourth season is out now on many NPR member stations and wherever you listen to podcasts.
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