What Was Not Said Your aging mother lives in another country. Then a tenant moves into her house – he's clean, polite, helpful. At first you are relieved, until you begin to suspect that man has sinister motives. That's the situation two brothers found themselves in, in Taiwan. Then something happened between the tenant and the mother that unsettled the brothers' lives even more. We examine how leaving things unsaid with our intimates can lead to misunderstandings and missed connections.
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What Was Not Said

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What Was Not Said


To most of the people who opened it up, it looked like a normal Christmas letter - the traditional yearly inventory of trips taken, weddings attended and blessed blessings counted.

CHARLOTTE: December 25, 2016.


CHARLOTTE: (Reading) We visited Pamplona, a small town in northern Spain, last October. There was nothing remarkable there, except for their annual...

SPIEGEL: So if you just read the words, as Charlotte (ph) had when her dad's letter first arrived, it was hard to find a note of darkness.

CHARLOTTE: We have both been in relatively good health and have been thus doing lots of running around.


SPIEGEL: A totally normal, average-Joe Christmas letter - except for the hidden message Charlotte saw buried between the lines on the page.

So what is not said in this letter?

CHARLOTTE: Well, there's nothing in the letter about me - now, is there? I'm the only child. I have two kids who are the only grandchildren, and there's no mention of me in the letter. And there hasn't been since probably about 2010.




ROSIN: 2010 - that was when Charlotte and her family suddenly dropped out of the annual Christmas letter. And in the beginning, Charlotte thought, maybe it was an oversight. But when she didn't show up the following year, and then again the year after that, she started to get a little paranoid and developed a theory.

CHARLOTTE: The 2010 date corresponds with a time when I changed careers. I - my dad is a scientist, and I had actually trained as a scientist. And then I worked in scientific editing. And then I subsequently left that career and decided to go back to school.

SPIEGEL: Instead of being a high-status editor of a science journal, Charlotte chose to become a physician assistant. She liked it so much better. She now works in an intensive care unit taking care of critically-ill patients, and she feels like she's making a difference. But when it came to her dad, she began to notice a new avoidance - like how he didn't come and visit as much as he did before or the sudden blank space in the Christmas letter.

CHARLOTTE: You know, the word assistant in the job title was really - it was kind of a deal breaker for him, I think.

ROSIN: And did he ever say directly to you, listen, Charlotte, I can't put you in the Christmas letter because...

CHARLOTTE: No, no, no, no, no.

ROSIN: So he never said, I'm disappointed in you?

CHARLOTTE: Oh no. No, he only kind of acted that way.


ROSIN: Of course, it's not just Charlotte and her dad. Every conversation and interaction we have with our friends, our boss, our partner, our family sits on top of an incredibly complex psychological matrix - some of which gets articulated, but most of which is never spoken.

NICK EPLEY: We make inferences about others' thoughts and their beliefs and their attitudes and their feelings and their intentions and their emotions - every one of us.

ROSIN: This is a professor at the University of Chicago named Nick Epley. I called him recently because he's done a series of very entertaining studies, which look at how good we are at discerning the intentions, thoughts and emotions of the people around us, including a study he did which amounts to the double-blind science version of "The Newlywed Game."

EPLEY: Yeah.

ROSIN: What Epley did was take people who were married, sometimes for decades, and ask them to guess their partner's responses to different questions. And what he found was that even their ability to guess the partner's response is only slightly better than chance. We have huge confidence in our ability to guess right - basically all of us do, especially with the people we're closest to. And this, Epley says, can lead to problems in our relationships.

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 need to ask these questions. We don't need to talk deeper. We don't ask the things that sometimes we even ask of strangers.

SPIEGEL: It's kind of tragic in a way. Because we assume that we know that people that we love most, we often miss important things about them. And that missing, it leads to larger missing, to misunderstandings and missed connections - a whole world of things that we don't want to happen that happen because we assume we don't need to check.


ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And today, we have a story which looks at the surprising and dramatic things that can happen in a family when things are left unsaid.

SPIEGEL: It involves a very complicated love-triangle centering on a mother and trying to win her love. In this story, even huge, central things are left unsaid. So naturally, there are misunderstandings, which lead, in this case, to geo-political intrigue but also a mystery. Here's producer Yowei Shaw.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: The first thing that went unsaid in this love story was ironically, I love you. By all accounts, Frances Tsao was not someone who expressed affection like that freely. She was a thin woman who wore her hair in a tight bun and the kind of mom who played hard-to-get. I'm told she hardly smiled. And what about hugs? Well, according to her two sons...

PETER WANG: Not our family tradition.

CHING CHUNG WANG: She's like a military sergeant, you know. I think she took the training of children like training soldiers. And she always felt that the love of the mother is just natural. You don't have to show it to your children in order for them to feel it.


SHAW: Ching Chung and Peter Wang grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, in the 1940s and '50s. And they still get a haunted look in the eyes talking about their mom Frances. She was born near the turn of the 20th century in an upper-class Chinese family - feet partially bound, super educated, well-versed in poetry, violin, calligraphy. And like every good leading lady, she was full of contradictions which made her all the more endearing to her sons. Like, she was obsessed with health yet loved to smoke and drink. She took a daily shot of Chinese medicinal herbs soaked in whiskey. But the one thing that did remain consistent was playing it cool, almost icy with their children. Ching Chung, who goes by C.C, was in junior high when he found his mom kneeling in front of the cross at home and asked what she was doing. And she told him, I'm praying to confess my sins for not raising good sons.

C. WANG: I was devastated. I was totally devastated for days. You know, I couldn't recover from this shock.

SHAW: There are lots of reactions you could have to this moment as a kid - roll your eyes, slam the door, decide to pierce your bellybutton. But CC is a sensitive, sentimental soul. The few moments his mom ever softened stick in his head like a Lifetime movie flashback, bathed in gold light - how she'd wipe his face gently with a damp washcloth and spoil him rotten when he got sick, even bring him ice cream in bed.

C. WANG: Yeah, I ate the whole thing (laughter).

SHAW: All this to say, the hot-and-cold parenting strategy - total success.

CC turned 81 last year. And for a lot of those years, he's worked extra hard to get an A with his mom, to win her love and approval. They didn't sit down and have a chat about it. He just assumed that obeying her would be the ticket. When Frances said study hard in school...

C. WANG: I was always number one in the class.

SHAW: When she told them to move to the U.S., make the family proud, CC got his Ph.D. at Berkeley and went on to make a discovery to help treat a disease called river blindness. He got married, started a family, wrote regular letters to his mom and every month sent money home.

C. WANG: I did whatever she asked me to do. I think that was pretty much what a good son should be from her point of view.

SHAW: And for a long time, CC felt like he was doing pretty alright - especially in comparison to his younger brother Peter, who slacked off in grade school, chased girls and abandoned a safe science career to become a filmmaker.

P. WANG: I always tried to be different.

C. WANG: I took care of everything. I was really responsible for everything.

SHAW: So all good. CC was winning - or anyway, doing as well as a child of Frances Tsao could possibly do. And then one day, a new competitor for his mom's affection showed up in his life - a very peculiar character, who ultimately became the central thing CC and his mother did not talk about.

C. WANG: Yes, yes.


SHAW: To explain, we need to go back to the 1970s. Frances was all alone in her apartment in Taiwan. Her husband had just died. And her kids were in the U.S. as she wanted. So she had an extra room. Why not make some cash?

She put an ad in the paper looking for a tenant and settled on a tall, middle-aged man who spoke with a rustic country twang. His name was Mr. Zhu.

C. WANG: Well, Mr. Zhu was about my age, very flat face.

SHAW: CC met Mr. Zhu on one of his trips back home to check on his mom. And Frances had no complaints about the new tenant - a bit uneducated perhaps, but clean, polite, didn't drink, a bachelor with no family.

C. WANG: I thought it was very nice that they get along very well.

SHAW: No one knew much about him though - where he worked, where he came from.

C. WANG: He didn't say much. Come and go, nobody knew what he was doing.

SHAW: But as time wore on, CC began to notice some weird things about Mr. Zhu, things that didn't sit right. Like, this middle-aged guy was doing all these things for his mom even though he wasn't getting paid - cooking and cleaning, running errands for the house. He was even hanging out with her, going to the mahjong games that CC found tedious and boring.

C. WANG: He seemed to be very acquainted with all my mother's friends and relatives.

SHAW: But never brought his own friends over.

C. WANG: I was a little bit surprised by how much he blended in.

SHAW: To CC, it was almost like Mr. Zhu was trying to belong in his family. But why didn't he have his own family? Why would he want to spend all his time with a serious, old woman, who - remember - was not the easiest person to get along with - except suddenly she was.

Did she seem really relaxed around him?

C. WANG: Yes.

SHAW: Like, how so?

C. WANG: She would say anything that she has come to mind. And she has no guard at all.

SHAW: It was weird. Mr. Zhu wasn't just inserting himself into Frances's daily life. He also seemed to be really interested in any details about the family. Like, every time CC left the apartment, Zhu would ask him where he was going. And he knew about stuff CC had told his mom in private.

C. WANG: All of the things that we talked about in the letters or the telephone calls, he knew everything about us.

SHAW: And as the years went by, a strange thought began to crawl into CC's mind. That this innocuous, middle-aged busybody just might be a spy.

C. WANG: I have a distinctive feeling that he was looking into my mother's communications.


SHAW: Now, this might sound like a conspiracy theory, but actually, 1970's Taiwan, it wasn't as crazy as it sounds. Today Taiwan is a democracy, but back then it was an authoritarian regime under martial law.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But on Formosa, renamed Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek has escaped and set up a Republic of China government in opposition to the Communists.

SHAW: There had been a long and bloody civil war in China in which the ruling party of China lost to the Communists and fled to Taiwan, where they set up a surveillance apparatus that looked a lot like the East German Stasi. There were many government agencies tasked with conducting surveillance to root out Communist traitors and stop dissent. And the government also cultivated a wide network of informants planted in all corners of society - schools, work places, youth organizations, even universities in the U.S. If you know any Taiwanese people over the age of 60, try asking. See what they say. And, really, bad things could happen to you if the government found dirt on you. An estimated 140,000 people were arrested or imprisoned, of which several thousand were executed for their real or perceived opposition to the government during martial law. CC remembers in the '50s the government even accused some of his father's friends of being Communist spies, and they disappeared.

Your father's friends got executed?

C. WANG: Yeah.


SHAW: So there was this general atmosphere of spying. But the real reason CC suspected Mr. Zhu might be a spy had to do with his wayward younger brother, Peter.

P. WANG: I always - I always try to be different.

SHAW: Years before, Peter, like CC, had also moved to the U.S. for grad school. And while both brothers hated the authoritarian regime in Taiwan, Peter was a rebel and less cautious than CC. So in 1971, when getting his Ph.D. at UPenn, Peter was offered a trip to China, communist China, a place Taiwanese citizens were forbidden to go to by their authoritarian government. He obviously accepted. His plan, if you could call it that, was to see this forbidden world without drawing any attention. But it did not work out that way. On the last day of the trip, after finishing a rich Peking duck dinner, his handler informed him that he was in the biggest Taiwanese newspaper with the headline calling him a Communist bandit, cultural spy.

P. WANG: I didn't speak because my jaw had been dropping off for about half an hour. I said, my God, what's going on?


SHAW: Even though Peter says he was not actually a spy, this meant it wasn't safe for him to go back to Taiwan and that there was now a cloud of suspicion over his mom, Frances, who still lived there.

P. WANG: Of course, there was a danger to my parents.

SHAW: But shockingly, there were no immediate repercussions. The authorities stopped by to ask Frances some questions, but she wasn't carried away into a cold interrogation room. Maybe it would be all right.

P. WANG: My mom just played ignorant and said, I don't know. We never talk to each other.

SHAW: And then one afternoon, on a visit a few years later, Mr. Zhu started boasting to CC about how he'd worked for the Taiwan government as a young man during the Civil War. He said he'd assassinated Communist agents on mainland China with a thin wire rope, dozens of them.

Did he actually show you how to do it?

C. WANG: Well, he didn't have the rope, but he said something like, somebody walking in front of you, you just go like this.

SHAW: CC holds up his fists and raises them over an invisible head.

C. WANG: And pull it back and then turn it around. And then you just carry him all the way, doesn't matter how much the guy was struggling, and just keep running for a while.

SHAW: And there you go.

C. WANG: Then he will be dead.


C. WANG: I start to become very alert. I didn't talk to him, very worried he was in the secret police. He has the job to get to know everybody who are close to my mother, get some Communists out among them.


ROSIN: What CC does about the man with the rope, after the break. INVISIBILIA will be back in a moment.


SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. When we left off, CC Wang is starting to suspect that Mr. Zhu, the middle-aged tenant living with his elderly mom in Taiwan, might actually be a hardcore murdering spy sent by the government to snoop on the family. Yowei picks up the story.

SHAW: After Mr. Zhu showed CC the best way to murder a man with a rope, CC felt trapped. If Mr. Zhu was indeed a spy sent by the government, he couldn't exactly report him to the government. And spies were everywhere, so he told almost no one, except his brother Peter. They decided the best way to keep their mom safe was for CC to keep a close eye on Mr. Zhu every time he visited - you know, counterspy.


SHAW: Here was the game plan - do not engage in any more political activities, do not reveal sensitive information in letters or phone calls to mom, pretend to be a pro-government patriot in front of Mr. Zhu at all times and, of course, do not tell Mom - just another thing to add to the list of things left unsaid with their mother for her safety.

C. WANG: Oh, yeah.


SHAW: So on his next trip to Taiwan, CC was on red alert. And when he walked into his mom's second-floor apartment, he was not at all prepared for what he found.

How much more time was he spending with your mom? And what would they do together?

C. WANG: Hours because when he went out with my mom to her friend's house, it would be a good half of the day until midnight.

SHAW: The scene was less scary spy movie and more odd couple rom-com. The two of them even had a whole routine worked out. In the morning, Frances would read the paper, practice calligraphy at the table while Mr. Zhu was in the kitchen cooking breakfast. And he knew what she liked.

C. WANG: Something very spicy, very salty and not very fatty.

SHAW: Then in the afternoon, after Mr. Zhu fixed lunch, he'd head out with Frances to her Mahjong game and insist she put on a coat.

C. WANG: He always tried to extend a hand.


SHAW: And before you get too many ideas about a Mrs. Robinson situation, CC says it wasn't like that. Zhu was almost half her age, and Frances would set him up on dates like she would with a son.

C. WANG: My mom had a good friend whose daughter was still not married and getting pretty up there.

SHAW: The date was a bust, but what was going on with this guy? Here was someone who said he'd murdered dozens of people who was somehow able to connect with CC's mom, say things directly to her in a way he never could.

C. WANG: He would often correct my mom.

SHAW: Really? What do you mean?

C. WANG: Yes. He would say that my mom's memory may not be correct.

SHAW: Would you ever dare correct your mom?

C. WANG: No. It's very easy to antagonize her. I learned not to talk very much at all.

SHAW: But as much as CC assumed he couldn't talk openly with his mom, Frances dished with Mr. Zhu about all kinds of things - about her aristocratic family back in China, her grudges against the neighbor, even the secret she was ashamed for anyone to know about.

C. WANG: That she's No. 2 wife, the concubine.

SHAW: According to CC and Peter, their dad lied to Frances when they got married, telling her he divorced his first wife for her but apparently hadn't. It was the biggest humiliation of her life, and CC couldn't believe that his mom had told Mr. Zhu about it and that Mr. Zhu had the nerve to tell CC your father was a liar and a bad person.

C. WANG: I thought that was very weird. I thought that for an outsider to make a comment on my parents' relationship was very odd, and I wouldn't continue the conversation.

SHAW: CC could not get away from it. The spark between Mr. Zhu and his mom, it was everywhere, even late at night when the national anthem would blare on the TV set in the living room and Frances would stand straight up at attention with her right hand in salute, and Mr. Zhu would watch with tears in his eyes.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

C. WANG: That was, you know, very funny to us, but we wouldn't say anything, you know?

SHAW: (Laughter) Did Mr. Zhu join her?

C. WANG: No. He just very deeply moved.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAW: As CC watched the two of them do their thing, a bizarre new possibility seeped into his consciousness. Before, he was just worried about the tenant being a spy, but now he was also worried about being replaced.

Do you feel like in a sense he, like, stepped into the role of son because you and Peter were far away?

C. WANG: Yes. Yes, it is.


SHAW: 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...

C. WANG: It was part relief, part jealous, partly guilty. It's difficult to spell out.

SHAW: Which is why CC finally snapped. A few years after Mr. Zhu moved in with Frances, CC was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no more. I should be the one taking care of my mom, not some random guy with possibly sinister ulterior motives. CC convinced his mom to live with him in suburban New Jersey, and it was the moment he'd been waiting for - a take two for their relationship.

Were you excited about it? Like...

C. WANG: Yes.

SHAW: ...You had this chance to, like, finally connect and...

C. WANG: Yes. Yes.

SHAW: Can you talk a little bit about what your hopes were for living with your...

C. WANG: I was hoping that she would stay here forever and ever.

SHAW: But Frances didn't like the cold weather. She couldn't drive. Language was a problem. CC was always busy with work. And besides, he thought they didn't have much to talk about. Or at least nothing he was interested in.

C. WANG: She wouldn't talk much at all. Only time when she was interested in talking is how to exercise.

SHAW: After holding out for a year, Frances told CC it wasn't working out. She wanted to move back to Taiwan, and he couldn't stop her. She didn't have anywhere to live, though. She'd already sold her apartment. And so who do you think she wrote to bail her out? Her old tenant, Mr. Zhu, who agreed to take an old woman he wasn't related to into his own house. Here's Peter.

P. WANG: Oh, CC was not happy - was not very happy with that. He took it very personally, I think. In a way, we felt - we felt like losers (laughter).


SHAW: Frances was thrilled. But for CC, it was like getting punched twice in the gut. His mom had rejected him. And his mom had rejected him for a possible spy.


SPIEGEL: So who was this Mr. Zhu that CC's mom had left him for? And what were his true intentions? When INVISIBILIA comes back, Yowei investigates.


SPIEGEL: Welcome back. This is INVISIBILIA. When we left off, CC Wang had finally convinced his mom to move to America. And then Frances, his mom, decided to go back to Taiwan and move in with Mr. Zhu, a man CC suspected of being a spy. Yowei continues.

SHAW: Who was Mr. Zhu? And what was his whole thing with Frances really about? Frances died of lung cancer in 1985. And a little while ago, CC heard through the grapevine that Mr. Zhu had passed away. There aren't many clues left - no pictures of him. CC says he was a bachelor, had no family in Taiwan. And he can't remember Zhu's old address. He doesn't even know if Mr. Zhu was his real name. But here's what he does know. CC says Zhu once told him that one of Peter's old basketball buddies at UPenn was reporting on him, and he knew the name of the guy. And he once told CC he was going to opposition party rallies, recording video of demonstrators for the government. And then there was the afternoon Mr. Zhu was out of the house and the phone rang and CC picked up.

C. WANG: The caller said, is this station number 57? I said, no. I say, you got the wrong number. So later, when Mr. Zhu came back, I told him. I said, there was something really funny. Somebody called, asked if this is station 57. And then Mr. Zhu said, no, it's not funny. This is station 57. It's my number.


SHAW: But to find out the truth about Mr. Zhu and Frances, I needed more information.


SHAW: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Can you speak Chinese?

SHAW: (Speaking Chinese).

I tried calling Taiwan's intelligence agencies, tried government archives, tried submitting formal records requests. I even flew to Taiwan, looked for old neighbors who might have known Mr. Zhu.


SHAW: Ni hao.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No, no, no.

SHAW: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'm sorry. Sorry.

SHAW: (Foreign language spoken).


SHAW: Shoot.

Point is, nobody has information about the guy. Taiwan is still in the very early stages of releasing documents from martial law, and no one in the government would agree to an interview. But one of my last days in Taiwan, Peter happened to find an old letter with the address of Mr. Zhu's apartment. Bingo.




LIU: Hi, can we - can we ask some questions? Is anyone home?

SHAW: My fixer, Kwangyin Liu, and I are standing outside a faded beige apartment building when a middle-aged woman with skeptical eyes opens the door.

DIANA SU: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAW: Meet Diana Su, the very nice woman who lives here with her two sons and her husband - the nephew of Mr. Zhu.

SU: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAW: Mr. Zhu is a real person. And Zhu was his real name, though we're not saying his full name here to avoid potentially putting others at risk. He grew up in a rich family near Shanghai, was born out of wedlock, and he was a bachelor with no kids, like CC thought. But it turns out he did have family in Taiwan. And here's the weird thing - Mr. Zhu's family doesn't know him either because he ignored them.

SU: (Through interpreter) Yeah, it's strange. He seemed to be a very lonely person. We were not very close, so even when I got married to his nephew in 1986, he did not attend the wedding.


SHAW: I spoke with other relatives, and everyone said Mr. Zhu didn't talk about himself, didn't come around much. He died alone in his apartment. And they didn't find out until the neighbors began to smell something rotten after three days and someone called with the news. Nobody knows anything about him being a spy. And when I tell them the story about Frances, they seem genuinely baffled, say he wasn't the type to cook for other people, take care of others. It's like they've never seen that side of him and maybe wanted to.


SU: (Through interpreter) We live pretty close by - about 10 minutes away. But there was not a lot of interaction between us. Even when we are playing mahjong, he has never visited us. He has never visited his older brother.


SHAW: This picture of Mr. Zhu as an absentee family member is so different from the loudmouth busybody I heard about from CC - the man who accompanied Frances to mahjong every night, cooked and cleaned for her, hung hard with all her relatives. So what gives? Maybe Mr. Zhu had chosen Frances because he was trying to fill his own family-shaped hole. He left his mom behind in China during the war and for some reason never got close to his half-siblings in Taiwan. Maybe Frances was the mother he could be close to, just as he was the son she could actually let in. For CC, the proof is in the vegetables. By the end, when Frances got really sick, Mr. Zhu would make sure to cut the tough stems off veggies, feed her only the leaves she liked. And when she grew too frail to walk up the stairs by herself...

C. WANG: He would carry her up and down, up and down.

SHAW: And when she tried to get up at night to walk around, Mr. Zhu would scold her to get back in bed like the doctor said, grinning and bearing it when she'd snap. Mind your own business. Don't sneak up on me like that.

C. WANG: I guess at a certain point, you start to lose the distinction between the official duty and his own personal interest and feeling.

SHAW: It seems like he was better at, like, being a member of your family than doing his job as a spy.

C. WANG: Yeah, right. He is a terrible spy (laughter).

SHAW: Again, I didn't find any direct evidence that Mr. Zhu was a spy, but CC's still convinced, especially since during these later years, CC says Zhu finally opened up about his job and his backstory. CC says Zhu had fled to Taiwan as a teenager after doing special ops against the communists during the war and never went back.

C. WANG: He told me - he said, I never had a chance to show my love to my mother. I'm showing it to your mother. He was very sorry that he left home as a teenager and he was never able to go back home.

SHAW: Oh, he was never - even after things relaxed between...

C. WANG: No, he killed too many communists, and he was unable to do it.


SHAW: Mr. Zhu tended to Frances until she died in the hospital in 1985, and he was the one to see her last breath. He beat CC there, too. They were finishing up dinner when the nurse barged in all pale with the news.

C. WANG: Hurry, hurry, hurry, your mother is expiring. So I stood up, tried to run, and Mr. Zhu was faster. He run ahead of me. I had to stay to pay for the bill. So when I got there, my mother already passed on. And I was - I was mentally broken down.


SHAW: CC doesn't think Mr. Zhu ever told his mom that he was a spy, and he doesn't think his mom ever found out.

C. WANG: 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: If you think about it, it's kind of beautiful - an instance of leaving something unsaid out of compassion. But maybe CC was protecting himself from a more painful truth, that Frances knew that Mr. Zhu was a spy and still loved him like a son.

C. WANG: I must say, one word from Mr. Zhu really hurt me the most. He said, you know, your mom told me that the happiest 10 years she ever had in her life was with me.

SHAW: What did you say back?

C. WANG: Nothing. I felt really bad. I felt really, really, really bad. And I also felt guilty as being a son. You know, I really felt bad and - oh, well. I think there was some truth in that.


SHAW: How would you do it differently if you wanted to, like, get closer to her?

C. WANG: I don't know how to do it differently. I really don't.


SHAW: If you ask me what I make of all this, on one level, it's simple. Even CC admits that those years he was living in the U.S. Mr. Zhu was there for his mom and he wasn't. And, of course, he's grateful. Like, he even carved Mr. Zhu's name on Frances' tombstone. But here's the thing I can't get over - 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. He thought he already knew, and even though this is a bizarre story about a spy replacing a son, that stuckness (ph) in CC's voice, it feels so familiar to me. I've had that ache, wanting to get closer to people I love and banging my head against a blank email screen, not knowing what to do or say, how to crack the code. Really, so much goes unsaid in our relationships, and even if there are good reasons why, the things we don't say to each other lurk behind a foggy window. And we just have to guess at the shape of them, which means we can make mistakes, pass up opportunities, every one of us.

C. WANG: (Coughing) I must beg your pardon.

SHAW: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

I talked to CC last summer a week before he had surgery. There ended up being complications, and he died a few weeks later. Looking back on that time with him, I think he died feeling like he'd failed with his mom. He cried five separate times during our interview talking about her. But maybe there's another way to look at it. Maybe CC just misunderstood his relationship with his mom in the same way his daughter misunderstood her relationship with him.

CHARLOTTE: I'm the only child. I'm the only child. I own the grandchildren, OK? You would think he would at least mention us in his yearly Christmas letter - no mention at all.

ROSIN: And did he he ever say directly to you, listen, Charlotte, I can't put you in the Christmas letter because...

CHARLOTTE: Oh, no, no, no, no.

SHAW: This, of course, is CC'S daughter, Charlotte Wang, the same woman we talked to at the top of the show. Now that her father's died, she's not obsessing over the Christmas letter anymore, but she's still working through issues, like whether he was deeply disappointed in her for not being a scientist.

C. WANG: OK. Now I try to not touch her career, but she always feels that I'm disappointed in her career and even I said nothing, tried not to show it or feel it. I think she always feel that way. That makes me feel no way out, you know.

SHAW: What do you mean no way out?

C. WANG: You know, I'm not saying anything, doing anything or express anything. Still, she's suspecting that very disappointed. That's a big knot that I cannot solve.


C. WANG: I loved her from day one. I never ceased love her. You know, I respect her and I hope that on my dying bed I hope that my relationship with her is better.


SHAW: It does feel like a parallel situation. CC, like Frances, was also not one to say I love you, except for one major difference.

CHARLOTTE: I'm not saying my grandmother didn't love my father. I'm sure she did. But how well did my father get that message? I don't know, you know. And, of course, you know, my father loved me and vice versa, and I got that message very clearly.

SHAW: And after our interview, right before he died, CC did do something to make sure there could be no misinterpretation.

CHARLOTTE: OK. So here's the email he sent me. (Reading) Dear Tro Jen...

SHAW: That's the Chinese nickname CC had for Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE: (Reading) Yowei came here with all the equipment and interviewed me for seven hours today. It is funny that I did not feel tired after that. I think I need to be occupied in order not to be tired. She told me that you remember all the interesting incidents from the past. I was happily surprised. I love you, Tro Jen.

SHAW: Have you ever gotten an email like that before?

CHARLOTTE: No. I mean, maybe - maybe, you know, when I - maybe when I finally finished graduate school, maybe he sent me a similar email. But for him to send an email telling me that he loved me, I think that's the only one.

SHAW: It wasn't necessary, but it still felt nice to hear him it. say.


ROSIN: Producer Yowei Shaw.


SPIEGEL: Hanna, is there anything that you want to say to me that you have not yet said to me about my gloriousness, how cool I am?

ROSIN: (Laughter).

SPIEGEL: Come on. Send a little love.


SPIEGEL: OK, moving on.


ROOTWORDS: (Rapping) Here it is. I could see you got some things on your mind, some issues that you haven't left behind. Listen to me, just say it. Yo, I can see it's on the tip of your tongue. Why don't you just come out with it? I know you got the...

ROSIN: That's it for today. Stick around for a sneak peek of next week's episode.

Next week on INVISIBILIA, if you look to Tara's (ph) past, her terrible childhood, the crimes she committed, there's no way you would predict where she went next.

TARA: Somebody said there is a guy named Shon Hopwood who, you know, robbed five banks and is a lawyer. And I was like, wow, really?

ROSIN: Do you think Tara will revert to her old patterns or not?

TARA: I really did feel like my life was going to be good now.

SPIEGEL: It was clear sailing.

TARA: Yeah. That's what I thought.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA tags along with a group of scientists on their quest to predict the path of a human life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: But is this true?

ROSIN: That's next time.


ROOTWORDS: (Rapping) Here it is.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. INVISIBILIA is produced by Meghan Keane, Yohei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. Lulu Miller is a contributing editor.

ROSIN: We had help from Alex Cheng, Rebecca Ramirez, J. Cys, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Naomi Sharpe, Greta Pittinger, Wanyu Zhang, Nancy Shute and Meredith Rizzo. Nishant Dahiya, Neva Grant, Michael May, Brent Baughman, Rob Byers, Bruce Auster, Ramtin Arabluei and Chris Benderev helped with the editing. Our technical director is Andy Heuther, and our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

SPIEGEL: A huge thank you to CC and the entire Wang family - Peter, Charlotte, Alice and Shu Jing Ma.

ROSIN: And thank you to Kwangyin Liu for all her help with reporting and interpreting in Taiwan, Weihsiu Chang, Fanny Liu, Yuhan Xu, Chang-Ling Huang, Lynn Lu and the office of MaChin Shiao (ph), Kathy Shaw and the whole gang of five, Naiteh Wu, David and Erik Lin, Huping Ling, Sheena Greitens for her research on Taiwan’s surveillance apparatus under martial law and so many, many other people we talked to for this story and who helped us try to track down information about Mr. Zhu and Taiwanese spies in general.

SPIEGEL: Special thanks to Rootwords for lettings use this song, "Just Say It," to close out the show, Halloween, Alaska for their song "Gone With The Wind," the band Peals for their song "Trillium" from their album "Honey" from Rough Trade Publishing and to Blue Dot Sessions and Ramtin Arabluei for other music in this episode. For more information about this music and to see original artwork by Sara Wong for this episode, visit www.npr.org/invisibilia. And now for our moment of non-Zen.

ROSIN: The truth is I never left you. It's like when you do theater outside of theater, it looks ridiculous.


ROOTWORDS: (Rapping) Lights, camera, action.



ROOTWORDS: (Rapping) Lights, camera, action.

SPIEGEL: And if you're still listening, thank you for listening because we have a favor to ask, which is we really actually want to know what you think about the show. So if you're listening in Apple Podcasts, please, please, please take a moment to leave us a review. It truly helps us because it helps other people find our show. Or if you're listening in a place that is not Apple Podcasts, tell a friend about us. Word of mouth is still our best tool for attracting new people. Thank you so much.

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