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695: Everyone's a Critic

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

So a couple of years ago, Michael wrote a book about Meryl Streep. And it did fine, good reviews, hit the bestseller list for a couple weeks. And Michael did something that I guess is a normal thing to do if you've worked on anything for a year and a half including a book.

Michael Schulman

I would occasionally check its ratings on Amazon. And by occasionally, I mean all the time. And I have to say, most of them were great. There were a lot of people who really liked the book. Right now it has almost 300 customer ratings on Amazon.

Ira Glass

Let's just look it up. Do you have internet there?

Michael Schulman

Yes. I have 295 customer ratings. 46% of them are five star ratings. 23% are four star ratings. So 2/3 of people who rated it loved it. So that's nice.

Ira Glass

But it was those other people, the 8% who gave him one star, the 9% who give him two stars. Those are the people he found himself getting stuck on.

Michael Schulman

I have to say, I'm not proud of any of this. I'm not proud of talking about this. I wish I was the kind of person who just floated in a cloud above my Amazon ratings, but I'm not. I mean, some of the things that people wrote on Amazon just kind of cut to the bone in this way.

If someone just says boring, a book critic isn't going to say boring. But if an average customer goes on Amazon and says, this book is boring, boring, boring, one star, I think it's worse than a smart book critic explaining why something did or didn't work. Boring, bland, hated it, no. There's one that just said no. And it just makes you feel terrible.

So I would check my Amazon score an unhealthy number of times. And sometimes before I went to bed, which is a really bad idea, because then you would just drift off to sleep arguing with these people in your head.

Ira Glass

But then Michael stumbled onto this strategy-- something he could do to deal with those feelings.

Michael Schulman

This has happened. I was just spending too much time thinking about who these people were. And at some point, I just clicked on one of their names.

Ira Glass

One of the people who hated your book.

Michael Schulman

Yeah. And that brought me to everything else they had reviewed on Amazon. And I realized that when you do that, you see what they liked. And once I saw what some of these people loved on Amazon, it completely neutralized them.

Ira Glass

So let's go through some of the ones that you saw.

Michael Schulman

OK. So Kathy gave me two stars. She says, disappointing. Too much detail about people other than Meryl Streep. And not enough about Meryl herself. What did Kathy like? A cupcake stand that comes in lavender with polka dots. Five stars. And she just writes, perfect.

Ira Glass

What's that say to you?

Michael Schulman

That she has enough cupcakes that she needs to arrange them on a cupcake stand in polka dots, and that makes her happy. My book cannot speak to that sort of-- let me try this again. Perfection to Kathy is this cupcake stand filled with cupcakes with polka dots. And my book did not give her that same feeling, and that's OK.

Ira Glass

A reader had given him one star and said about his book, a lot of words, but not interesting. Gave five stars to bright red yarn. The person who gave him the one-word review no gave five stars and a rave to a tin kazoo.

The person who said, boring, boring, boring, and also, the author is so consumed with his lofty vocabulary that the reader falls asleep, gave a rave review to a book predicting the end of the world by 2015. A woman named Wendy gave one star, telling potential readers to move on. And what did she love?

Michael Schulman

OK, so Wendy gave five stars to an Amazon.com e-gift card, which struck me as nuts. Why is anyone rating Amazon gift cards on Amazon? It's like saying, yes, this $20 bill is worth $20. Why rate this thing? This thing couldn't possibly be good or bad.

Ira Glass

Have you done the flip side of this? Have you looked up the people who loved your book to see what else they loved?

Michael Schulman

No, I don't want to know anything more about them. They're angels.

Ira Glass

Well, we have done that. Let me read some of them to you. This is a woman who gave you five out of five stars. Interesting, she says. This book was well-written and very interesting. Meryl's life has been full of interesting people and experiences, and I enjoyed learning more about her.

She also loved, five out of five stars, the Game of Gnomes Garden Gnome. Throne for the throne room. Cracks me up every time I look at it. It's in my bathroom where my throne is. And here's a picture of the gnome.

Michael Schulman

Ugh. Yeah. That's a gnome. Yeah. She puts this in her bathroom? It's in my bathroom where my throne-- she keeps this gnome in her bathroom.

And she gave it five out of five stars. And she also loved my book. I see what you're saying. It doesn't-- [LAUGHS] it's not great if you do it the other way around.

Ira Glass

OK, one more. This person, five out of five stars. He chronicles her relationships on-stage and off, giving us a clear, unique portrait of a professional. Also bought, not one, not two, but three Amazon gift cards.

Michael Schulman

Did she rate them?

Ira Glass

She rated them. Five out of five stars.

Michael Schulman

Don't tell me this. She's one of the Amazon gift card people? Just buy something. Buy something that you like. A cupcake stand, anything. Get a real thing and rate that. I'm sorry. Just why?

Ira Glass

The way Michael sees it, the fact that every single thing on Amazon, every gift card, every garden gnome, every light bulb, and USB cord, and mop is measured against every book, every classic film, against every bit of journalism and fiction, against the Bible, and the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita. All on the same five-point scale? It's perverse. Those things are different. And, of course, these kinds of reviews are everywhere.

Michael Schulman

I mean, the way the world is now, there's just constant feedback about everything. When you take an Uber, you're asked to rate the Uber driver. We're just constantly leaving stars for things and leaving customer reviews. There's Yelp. Everyone is constantly assessing everything.

Ira Glass

That's true. Everything. Here, for example, is a review of the Great Wall of China. One star. Too crowded. Too much climbing. Missed the greatness of it. It was a lot of steep climbing time. The Parthenon. One star. It was just a big bunch of columns that lack artistic taste.

The Statue of Liberty. One star. Imagine a combination of prison and the worst airport security. If you want to feel embarrassed to be an American, then you can find it here. The Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. One star. Total disgrace. There are no places to rest and reflect in peace. Surely, a sight that witnessed one of the largest mass murders in history deserves some space for reflection. Falling apart and not well-maintained.

Welcome. WBEZ Chicago. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, in this world where now everyone is a critic, we visit places where reviews really should not be happening, and the story of somebody who very much does not want to leave a review, and someone else with the guts to say no to all the reviewers and haters of one of the most hated and worst reviewed films ever made. And you know what that is? No? Stay with us.

Act One: Their Eyes Weren’t Watching God

Ira Glass

Act 1, Their Eyes Weren't Watching God. So some things, it just feels wrong when they're reviewed. And I know I just read you a bunch like that, but want to hear one more? I know I do.

OK, this one is for the national park at Gettysburg, one of the pivotal battlegrounds in the Civil War. A woman from Miami gave it three stars and wrote, quote, I guess it's a little moving when you think about freedom and all that stuff, but really, it's a field.

So another thing it can feel strange to review or read reviews of? Churches. One of our contributors, BA Parker learned this recently.

Parker

I hadn't been to church-- any church-- in over a year, and I'd lost myself. I was miserable. My career was struggling. Relationships were strained. Little by little, I could see myself fading. And going to new church felt like a last resort. One of my roommates suggested a church that she'd been casually attending down the street-- First Corinthian Baptist Church.

[CAR HORN HONKS]

The first Sunday I went, I noticed a line half a block long, mostly of white people in cargo shorts waiting patiently behind a rope. An older black man with church flyers in his hand could see I was confused. He waved me toward the front door and greeted me, as if he were God's bouncer.

It's a big place-- an old movie theater-- about 2,000 seats, marble floors, ushers, chandeliers. I walked down the crowded aisles and ended up sitting next to an elderly woman dressed in her Sunday best with this broad-brimmed regal hat. She reminded me of my great aunt Louise. When I slid into the pew, she hugged me. I didn't realize how much I needed that hug until my eyes started to tear up.

Woman

So just try and find this opportunity to just release and to relax the different parts of your body.

Parker

The service began with guided meditation and ended with communion and the choir singing Frankie Beverly and Maze's Happy Feelings.

Choir

(SINGING) And these happy feelin's, feel that happy feelin's.

Parker

'70s R&B with the blood of Christ-- I thought, secular music? Lots of young black people? A pastor in jeans? I had found my home. There was only one problem. Above me, in the far back of the balcony, were tourists-- the white people in line from outside-- hundreds of them snapping selfies and gawking, hovering like a gaggle of anthropologists studying black Baptists in their natural habitat. Every expression of worship, every tear I shed, every hug I gave, every arm I outstretched to God, I felt like I was on display for them. I felt exposed.

Woman

Do you know [INAUDIBLE]?

Parker

There were baptisms. Some of the devout being baptized had overcome great odds. One, in particular, got the Holy Spirit and sobbed in the pool. Something unnamed and sacred had led them to that moment, and all I could think about were the white people upstairs taking pictures of someone's life-altering spiritual journey so they could share them over brunch. It was really messing with my worship.

White tourists visiting black churches is a thing, especially in Harlem-- showing up for free music. It wasn't my first time hearing about it, but I had never experienced it before. Sure, there were some white congregants sprinkled throughout downstairs, but they're members. For lack of a better phrase, they're invited to the cookout. The tourists in the balcony-- they just want a song.

I kept going to this church every Sunday, but I felt like I was unwillingly participating in their gospel concert. I struggled to focus on what mattered to me most, my own relationship with the big guy upstairs.

I was navigating all that when I learned about the reviews. Tourists critique the church online, writing reviews on websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Some were fine, saying they loved the experience and thanked the church for welcoming outsiders. Others were not so nice.

Quote, "The music was loud, repetitive, and vacuous. Church is to elevate us to God, not bring him to human level." Two stars. From France, "This is a scam. The children singing are circus animals." One star. From Italy, "Don't choose this place if you are expecting the gospel style of Sister Act." One star.

And this one is meant to be a compliment, but I bristled. From Spain, "I will definitely repeat this experience if I go back to New York. Do not be afraid to go to Harlem on your own. A lot of white people live there." Four stars. Our worship was being graded on a gentrified curve. I got angry.

I don't like the tourists, but I do love the church. It has the familiarity and the warmth that I grew up with, but none of the conservative, intolerant baggage, the kind that's hesitant to let women on deacon boards and has strict dress codes. My old church was more insular, more of an old-school black Baptist space.

If you saw a white person during service, it required a whole quizzical discussion in the car ride home. Were they lost? Were they someone's special friend? FCBC had none of that, and I found it liberating. So I kept going to the church. I was going to make the best of it, but it wasn't easy.

One recent Sunday at church, engrossed in a 15-minute rendition of "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power," I swayed to the song and meditatively mouthed the words with the choir over and over again. I was losing myself and feeling God's presence when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed it-- the glowing of phones in the dark, the older European man with the selfie stick, the backpack-laden tourists stepping out before the sermon, three or four at a time.

Woman

--every single week, we want to just say welcome, welcome, welcome. We hope that you feel the power of God. We hope that you feel that there is a shift happening in your life as well, and that you can begin to take that shift all across the globe to your own homes. And so FCBC, at this time, let us give our guests a warm welcome. Let's give them a hug and show them some love. Amen.

[APPLAUSE]

Parker

We hugged the visitors, as the church instructs us to do, during the welcome. And immediately afterwards, over 45 tourists upped and walked out before the sermon had even begun. And all I could think was, the audacity. So rude.

Mike Walrund

And you've got to get up every morning and let the enemy know that you can't have my joy today. It belongs to me. Look at your neighbor and tell them, neighbor, I [INAUDIBLE].

Parker

Listening to the sermon, I felt torn and distracted by the tourists. Why do they have to be there at all? Why do I care so much? I asked other congregants if having the tourists there ever made them feel uncomfortable, if they thought it was a bit odd, if they ever got self-conscious, or if it was only me. One thought the tourists were fabulous. Another said they didn't think about it. One woman said my not wanting them there was blasphemous.

So yeah, it seems like it was only me. It was confusing. Yes, I don't want the tourists there. But what kind of Christian am I to be hating on people during a church service? So I went to the head of the church-- my pastor, Pastor Mike Walrund-- to ask, why are these tourists here? Why are we letting this happen? And how am I supposed to deal with it and see past it?

Parker

Why do you want the tourists there?

Mike Walrund

I don't necessarily think about wanting tourists. We welcome everyone. So I don't necessarily say, well, I want these people here, and I want those people. Whoever comes, I celebrate. And then we're open. So I know there are churches that have said that they wouldn't allow tourists, or, when they do, make the tourists pay a bunch of money to come in. They'll take their money, right? But for us, I think everyone here is a tourist.

And like I tell you, I know the power of the word, and how the word can spread, and how people can take what they hear here, and it goes places. Your words will go to places that you will never go. And so that's how I always look at it. It is an opportunity to spread this word, and to get the message out that we're doing, and expand and broaden our reach. And sometimes, the people who expand and broaden our reach happen to be tourists.

Parker

Pastor Mike also said my sensitivity about the tourists, though he understands it, is generationally different than the older black congregants, who perceive the optics of having, essentially, a section for white people in a more ironic way than I do.

Mike Walrund

And they see a lot of tourists who are predominantly white in the balcony, because they know history enough to know that that's different, because, historically, it was flipped. Well, that was a practice in this country for years, where African-Americans had to sit in the balcony and could not worship with white people, because African-Americans were relegated to the balcony and could not engage with worship experience.

Parker

He knows the tourists are not what everyone wants. But what Pastor Mike wants me to know is that the tourists aren't just in the balcony, and they aren't just white. He says the balcony is for large groups of visitors, and they just happen to be European. He insists the largest number of tourists in the church aren't white. They're black. They blend in, sitting down on the main floor with all of us. So he puts it back to me. Is my problem with tourists or with white tourists? It's white tourists. He tells me, don't be prejudiced. It's wrong.

Mike Walrund

If we start looking at people who enter our spaces of worship, and because they're strangers treating them-- and because they're obviously strangers because of the racial dimension, then we undermine ourselves as followers of the teachings of Jesus and as people who call ourselves Christians.

Parker

And I know that. But I can't stop feeling exposed. It looks the way it looks-- white people staring down on us praising God. The optics are all wrong.

Parker

It's I guess because I feel a certain protectiveness because of the shared experience that we have as black people and I feel protectiveness of you.

Mike Walrund

We are intoxicated by perceptions, and image, and optics. And optics communicate no substance. So the question is not what it appears. The question is, do I care? That's the real question. And the answer is, no. I can't be consumed with people's perceptions of our space, because then I'll be trying to curtail what we do to respond to people's perceptions. No, that's not who we're called to be. I can't. So the optics of it mean nothing to me.

Parker

Pastor Mike knows what it looks like, making white people sit in a sectioned-off area. He knows it's provocative. But he's fine with it. It's not intended to be punishment. But that doesn't answer my question. How do I block them out when I worship?

Mike Walrund

When I worship, I engage God. I could care if it was one person or 2,000. I don't care who's present. It's about me. And that moment is a sacred space. I do it in the presence of others who are celebrating God, but that's a sacred moment for me. And my sacred moment cannot be intruded upon by anybody, tourists or not.

Parker

Pastor Mike's words helped a little. I'm aspiring to a new level of clarity in my worship-- more like his. But I'm still working on myself. I'm not there yet. I still don't want people there staring at us like we're all some source of entertainment for them. But going forward, I'm going to try to do what I can to get the tourists out of my mind and out of my way, starting with this review of FCBC from me, Parker from Baltimore.

"Went to FCBC one Sunday, and then kept coming back. Helped me when I really needed it. And if you're a tourist reading this and wonder what the black congregants think of you taking photos during baptisms and baby christenings, I, for one, don't love it. Please stop. Help make a great church better." Five stars.

Ira Glass

B.A. Parker in New York. If you google the First Corinthian Baptist Church, it'll take you to their website-- FCBC NYC-- where there are videos of sermons, and guest speakers, and all sorts of other stuff. I think we are not going to give you their address.

Coming up, a story about somebody who is studiously trying not to give a review. I think it's not too much to say that his very freedom depends on that. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Mr. Chen Goes to Wuhan

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Everyone's a Critic-- tales from a world where everything gets rated and reviewed. We've arrived at Act Two of our show, Act Two, Mr. Chen Goes to Wuhan. So this next story is about somebody who's studiously trying not to be a critic because of where he lives and what he's doing.

His name is Chen Cho Qiushi, and he lives in China. And he's been going around that country to the most controversial places-- places that are the most sensitive, as far as the Chinese government is concerned, including the city at the center of the coronavirus epidemic. Chen shows up, looks around, gathers information, and posts videos online with the truth of what he's found, which is risky, because China, of course, is an authoritarian country with a tight grip on information and total control over the media.

The government's version of reality is what's reported in newspapers, on TV, and online. Inside China, it's hard to get foreign news sources, which is why, when Chen does all this, he tries very hard not to be a critic, not to venture an opinion. Reporter Jiayang Fan has been watching his videos with fascination for a while now.

Jiayang Fan

I've been writing about China for years. I'm from there, and I've never seen anyone like Chen. This guy wasn't a professional reporter or political activist, as far as I know. He was just a guy from the mainland who read about the Hong Kong protests in the state papers and wondered, is that the whole story? What's really happening? And went to see for himself.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

In this video, shot on the waterfront in Hong Kong, he's saying, "I want to see, with my naked eye, what's happening on the ground. I want to bear witness to the stories of the people on the ground." Chen's a talented talker, a 30-something guy with very expressive eyebrows. He's running all over the city in a yellow press vest he bought after he saw online that reporters wore them at protests.

He's a lawyer who is into public speaking. A couple years back, he was in a reality TV speech competition, kind of like The Voice for nerds. That was his first brush with being a public person. His videos sort of feel like an extension of that speech competition. Instead of talking and explaining things on a stage, he's doing it out in the world.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

In Hong Kong, Chen's coverage is painstakingly neutral. He goes to a pro-democracy protest, and also to a pro-Beijing rally. At both, he tries to estimate the crowd size and the age of the participants. He spends one video explaining subtle differences between factions of the movement. At no point does he hint at his own political stance. In fact, he emphasizes that he will not take a side.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

He's saying, "I will try my best to put my prejudice aside and stay neutral about what I see." This neutrality thing is important, because, across China, most people support, or at least go along with, the party. They're skeptical of people who defy the government. Those people are seen as troublemakers and dissidents. They're regarded with suspicion, and their ideas are easily dismissed.

Chen didn't want to be dismissed. But what's more, he didn't act like a dissident. He quotes a state newspaper as inspiration for his trip and declares his loyalty to China. Watching him, he seemed genuinely curious about the things he was witnessing and completely sincere.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

His videos from Hong Kong reached hundreds of thousands of people on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. As soon as I saw them, I wanted to talk to him, though I wasn't sure how hard he would be to reach because his last video hinted that he might be in trouble.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

It's shot from the airport. In it, he says the Chinese Bar Association, the Public Security Bureau, and the Ministry of Justice have all called him telling him to come back and stop this nonsense. At one point, he holds up his law license, saying he knows he may very well lose it after these three days in Hong Kong. Once he got home, all of his social media accounts were deleted, and his videos were purged from the Chinese internet. But he wasn't hard to reach.

When I got his number, he picked up right away. He was little flustered. He explained he was in the middle of a family situation. His mom found out about his reporting adventure from a cousin's classmate, freaked out, and traveled hundreds of miles to his doorstep, and moved in with him. He was funny about it.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

We've been living together for over 20 days, and it's been kind of awkward. She follows me wherever I go. Just now, when I came down to take your call, she ran after me to the elevator. That's why I was kind of bummed when I answered.

Jiayang Fan

Chen's mother was there to save him from himself, he explained, less he decided to go off once again and try something reckless. His mom kept watch on him 24/7. During the day, she did not let him out of her sight. At night, they shared his twin-sized bed.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Yeah, I'm uncomfortable, but there's no way around it. It's the only way she feels safe.

Jiayang Fan

This all sounded very familiar to me. I have a mother like this, too. Chen's 34, just a year younger than me. We both grew up as only children in '80s China. Our mothers have both expressed to us that if anything were to happen to us, they would lose the very will to live.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

The hardest thing to deal with is the effects on my family and loved ones.

Jiayang Fan

That's what pulled Chen back from his trip to Hong Kong-- not because he was worried for himself, but because of the risk of complicating other people's lives. China was safe, he told me. But he'd been let go from his law firm, and he had been interrogated repeatedly. On the day he arrived back from Hong Kong, he'd been grilled for eight hours straight. He had to run through every detail of where he was each day.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Then they took me through reeducation on the policies of the Communist Party, how the government has a certain perspective about Hong Kong. They said, because I was a lawyer, I should support the Communist Party and its decisions, and I shouldn't go against them, shouldn't go to certain places, and so on, and so on.

Jiayang Fan

Then they tried another tactic.

Interpreter

Then they took on a very parental tone. They said, we're doing this because we care about you.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

You're a young guy with a bright future ahead of you. You've won so many speech and debate prizes when you were young. You've appeared in so many TV shows. You've posted such great content and videos to social media. We think you're really talented. We're lucky to have such a great local lawyer.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

But then you went to Hong Kong and jeopardized all of that.

Jiayang Fan

And finally, they drove it home.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Are you married? Look at you. You're over 30, and you haven't married yet. Your parents must be so anxious. People need to prioritize families. You need to start a family and have kids. That's the only way to have a normal life. So don't let your parents worry. You need to hurry up and get that straightened out.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

So for a full day, from 9:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening, it would just be that. They were using different tactics like that, trying to tell me why going to Hong Kong was wrong.

Jiayang Fan

But Chen wasn't that troubled by the questioning. He had been scrupulously neutral when he was in Hong Kong, and he believed that would protect him, and things would not get worse than this.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

So I think it's because I worked so hard to be neutral and to not support or lean towards one side or the other that I was able to stay safe.

Jiayang Fan

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

I asked him the question that had been on my mind all this time. Why did he do it?

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

It's just a passion. Sometimes people say, oh, that was so brave of you. You've risked so much in the pursuit of truth. I hate that. This has nothing to do with bravery. It's just a hobby. You have guys out there who like watches. You have guys who like to fix up their cars, people who like to hike or to ski. This is my hobby. My hobby is engaging with and pursuing the news. It's just something I'm interested in.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

I can almost see him shrugging on the other side of the line. Chen sees himself as a curious guy collecting facts. He's not out to issue any kind of review. He's not trying to provoke or antagonize. The way he talks about his videos, it's like they're an intellectual exercise more than anything else. I'm surprised by how blasé he is about the project, given the cost to his regular life. I wonder if there's more to it, if his composure is a kind of armor-- the one thing he can control.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

A few months later, in late January, I do a double take when I see a video that Chen posts from the train station in Wuhan. It's the city at the center of the coronavirus epidemic. Apparently, he had grabbed his selfie stick and hopped on the last train in as the government put the city on lockdown.

It's startling that he's there, because access to the city has been severely restricted and heavily enforced. There are very few news sources on the ground at this time. No one dares to go outside, and many shops are closed. Chen is his usual energetic, high-spirited self, sneaking in jokes along with the information. He's bewildered by all the elderly people he saw on his trip who still weren't wearing face masks. Are they insane? He asks.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

As their kids, we should force them to put on masks with the same energy they exude when pushing us to get married, he says. I watched the video on YouTube where Chen now has a channel and almost half a million followers. It's a website that's banned in China. You can only access it if you hop the firewall, which many people do. Some of them take his videos and spread them on Chinese social media.

Over the next few days, Chen goes on a tear through the city. He reports from the market, where a number of early cases surfaced, from a grocery store, from a funeral parlor, from the construction site for a hospital that's being built almost overnight.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

Outside a hospital one night, after hearing that the virus might be transmittable through the eyes, he films a video wearing a comically ill-fitting pair of swim goggles.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

There's a video shot from the front seat of a car, where he's chatting with the four people piled in with him, asking if they have enough food stocked up at home.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

The guy in the front has six months stored. He'd been preparing a long time for a food shortage, though he thought it would be from a trade war with America, not a virus.

Passenger

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

Chen goofs around with the driver, practicing his Wuhan dialect.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

But he also spends time doing long interviews with locals, drawing out intimate details of people's lives and their honest appraisals of the ongoing crisis. One night, Chen hosts a livestream interview with a middle aged man who goes by the pseudonym Ah Ming. Ah Ming's father had recently died.

He tells Chen that his father had gone to the hospital for a routine physical in early January. He was in his 70s and healthy. He couldn't have known then that the hospital was also seeing patients infected with the mysterious pneumonia. Soon after, his father developed a fever that wouldn't go away.

Ah Ming details the frantic search for treatment in the final weeks of his father's life, how, because there wasn't adequate equipment at the hospital, he had to spend a whole night pressing his father's leaky oxygen mask in place. He talks about the time a sudden lockdown at the hospital separated panicked family members, from their loved ones for 48 hours. It's difficult to listen to Ah Ming describe his father's last day.

Ah Ming

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I saw, with my own eyes, as his heart rate dropped from 120 to 0. I held his hand and saw this happen. It was painful. He was in a deep coma already. When they took off his oxygen mask, his mouth was still open. He suffocated to death.

Jiayang Fan

Ah Ming says he doesn't understand why the government didn't start alerting people back in December to wear masks. He wonders why the state media didn't cover the outbreak more thoroughly. If measures had been taken earlier, he says, my father wouldn't have died.

A few days into Chen's trip, his own parents send him a video. They're sitting on a couch, looking like they're trying very hard not to mess up the complicated process of FaceTiming their son.

Father

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

We heard you went to Wuhan, he says. Apparently, Chen has, yet again, failed to inform his parents he was going on a reporting trip.

Father

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

His dad gruffly chides him, then tells him to do a good job and not to make trouble while he's there. His mom peers into the frame.

Mother

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

We support you, she says. But be safe, OK?

Mother

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

Chen continues making videos for the next few days, and they're pretty grim. He posts one from inside a hospital, covertly filmed while pretending to call someone. The patients and their family members are bundled up in heavy winter coats and blankets. Almost everyone is attached to IV tubes and oxygen bottles.

As his camera darts unsteadily through the room, there's a suffocating claustrophobia. In another video, Chen comes across an elderly patient in his wheelchair-- gray, limp, unmoving. A relative leans on the chair, holding his body up. As he films, Chen realizes the patient is dead.

Woman

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

The woman explains, through her face mask, that the ambulance arrived too late to save him. Now she was trying to figure out what to do with the body.

Woman

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

There's a clip of a medical worker in a hospital parking lot. She's squatting by a car, crying into her phone. A colleague tells her it's not that serious, and she stands up, shaking with anger. I've been coughing for six days, she screams. Don't you dare tell me it's not serious.

Medical Worker

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

For nearly a week, Chen has been posting videos from a city teetering on the edge of a breakdown. For nearly a week, he has watched from the sideline-- observing, listening, studiously reserving judgment. But then, on January 30, when he appears on screen, he isn't reporting. Instead--

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

He's alone, hunched on a bed, wearing a tank top with what looks like a bedsheet wrapped around his shoulders. His face is pale, and his hair is uncombed.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

It's a 27-minute video, much longer than his regular ones. He plays several recap clips, talks about what he's seen. But he isn't his usual charismatic self. Something's off. When he's talking about the shortage of virus test kits, he seethes with contempt.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

Did you hear that? There aren't enough test kits, he says. He counts off all of the dysfunctions he's witnessed in the past week, from the lack of transport to the shortage of supplies, the piles of unsorted donations, the overworked construction workers. The sheer volume of dysfunctions-- dysfunctions that gesture at larger failures of the government-- overwhelms Chen as he speaks. A jittery energy courses through him. He keeps trying to reset, will himself back into a state of collected calm. But it's not working.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

OK, let's keep going.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Sorry, my thoughts are really disorganized, because I'm starting to feel afraid. I'm genuinely starting to feel afraid.

Jiayang Fan

The Ministry of Justice is after him-- calling him, he tells us. The police, too. They've been questioning his parents. Suddenly, the video takes a turn. The terror in his eyes hardens into something like rage.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I am scared.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

In front of me is the virus. Behind me is the power of China's law enforcement.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

But I will persevere. As long as I am still alive, I'm going to keep reporting. I'm going to tell people what I see and what I hear.

Jiayang Fan

The last minute of the video feels like it's happening in slow motion. Chen's face, which is small and delicate, grows red, swollen, and crazed. They are excruciating seconds when his eyes fill up as he speaks through clenched teeth.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I'll just say it harshly.

Chen Qiushi

[BLEEP] [SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

[BLEEP] you. I'm not even afraid of dying.

Chen Qiushi

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Do you think I'm afraid of you, Chinese Communist Party?

Jiayang Fan

As the video ends, I realize I've stopped breathing. Chen's gone way past the line that he fought so hard not to cross. For as long as I had known him, being a respectable journalist, the kind he aspired to be, meant gathering facts without taking a side. But here in Wuhan, the facts must have added up to a reality so horrifying that a judgment was demanded.

The next day, Chen posts a video apologizing for losing his cool. He goes back to reporter mode, standing outside the apartment of a family whose mother had died that morning to see how long it takes for the funeral home car to come. He's there for an hour. It never comes. He keeps reporting. A week later, a video shows up on Chen's timeline. It's not him. It's his mother.

Mother

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

She looks tired, and strands of her permed hair have fallen out of a loose ponytail. Her message is short. Chen has gone missing.

Mother

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

Help me. Please help me find Chen, she says. Please help.

Mother

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jiayang Fan

Thank you.

Chen's been silent ever since then. He had given his social media passwords to friends in case he disappeared. One friend says that the police told his parents he'd been put in a medical quarantine. But people in quarantine are usually allowed to keep their phones and to stay in touch with people outside.

No one's heard from Chen. It's been 22 days. Chen, who tried so strenuously to avoid becoming a political dissident, is now being treated like one. Of everything that's happened to him, I suspect what would pain Chen the most is the sight of his mother looking exhausted and afraid on video, pleading for his return.

Ira Glass

Jiayang Fan. She's a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Act Three: Must Love Cats

Ira Glass

Act Three, Must Love Cats. In a way, it was comforting that, in these dark and divisive times, there was one thing that fractured America could agree on this past year-- the movie Cats, based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. And what everybody agreed was that it was trash.

Variety called it, quote, "A half-digested hairball of a movie." Collider said it, quote, "always feels like it's two seconds away from turning into a furry orgy in a dumpster." But one of the producers on our program, Lina Misitzis, found one of the very few people who felt differently than every living reviewer everywhere. Somebody who loved the film, which, actually, kind of became a problem in her house. Here's Lina.

Lina Misitzis

One of the many problems with Cats-- it doesn't really have a plot. But to EJ Dixon, it all makes perfect sense.

Ej Dickson

A bunch of cats, known as Jellicle cats, are auditioning to be the cat selected in sort of this cultic ritual to ascend to the Heaviside layer and be reborn. And so the show is just cats auditioning one after the other to be the one selected. They audition to die is basically what they do.

Lina Misitzis

Everything about the film that alienated people-- the weird CGI, the clumsy writing, the bizarre choreography, Jason Derulo-- none of it alienates EJ, which, honestly, doesn't surprise me. I've known EJ for years. She's a reporter at Rolling Stone. She's always struck me as dogged, someone who perpetually bears witness to the things other people don't really want to take seriously.

Ej Dickson

Things that are widely misunderstood or understood differently-- I always want to know, what's the other story here? With Cats, it was very obvious, from the second that I saw it, this is going to be-- everybody's going to call this the worst movie ever made. But it's also just-- it's very earnest-- this sort of very simple, earnest story about the importance of inclusion.

Lina Misitzis

Right. The cats learn a lesson about inclusion. Left that out.

Lina Misitzis

Do you think you're being a contrarian?

Ej Dickson

No. I'm telling you. It's the same reason why I like musicals in general, because it's a way for me to sort of access the parts of myself that aren't sort of coded in cynicism and aren't automatically skeptical of everything and questioning everything. It's one of the ways that I can sort of experience the most earnest parts of myself, I guess.

Lina Misitzis

And when she saw Cats, that's how she responded to it-- earnestly. She couldn't get it out of her head.

Ej Dickson

The day after I saw Cats, my husband was taking a shower, and I went in, and I was like, I just need to talk to you about this.

Lina Misitzis

Sorry. While he's in the shower, you go into the bathroom and start talking about Cats?

Ej Dickson

Yes. I was just talking at him about Cats. I was just like, and then this is what the CGI looked like, and here's what Old Deuteronomy did. And oh, my God. They had Ian McKellen lapping up milk. And at the end, Judi Dench breaks the fourth wall, and she says, a cat is not a dog. And I just need to tell you this, because I don't know how to make sense of it.

Lina Misitzis

How often were you talking about it?

Ej Dickson

Constantly, constantly.

Lina Misitzis

How often was she talking about it?

Alex

Every day-- a lot of the time.

Lina Misitzis

This is EJ's husband, Alex. He looks like Greg Kinnear in the movies were Greg Kinnear is the good guy. Also, he looks really tired. But he's kind.

Alex

Maybe after the first day or two. It became clear that this was a new obsession and it was here to stay.

Lina Misitzis

And how did that make you feel?

Alex

Sorry for myself.

Lina Misitzis

What are the kinds of things that she talks to you about when she talks about this movie?

Alex

Things about the producers that I can't even remember, how much money Andrew Lloyd Webber made, and how much more wealthy he is than Paul McCartney, which kind of astounded me.

Lina Misitzis

Is this the kind of thing where you immediately knew you didn't care about any of this?

Alex

Yeah, yeah.

Lina Misitzis

But was there a period of time where you were humoring her?

Alex

Oh, for sure. I would definitely try to change the topic, play any other music that I could think of.

Lina Misitzis

Play other music because EJ started playing the film soundtrack for the only other member of the family, their son Solomon, a three-year-old. And Solomon--

Ej Dickson

Loved it. Loved it immediately.

Lina Misitzis

And how often do you guys listen to it?

Ej Dickson

Almost every day. Alex basically went from living a life blissfully free of Cats to living in an all-Cats household all the time.

Alex

He'll just come up to me and say, dada, I want Jellicle cats, or, I want Rumpleteazer, or something like that. And now I have to know what that means.

Lina Misitzis

Alex could not understand his wife's love of this movie, which everyone else on the planet seemed to love to hate. Days went by, then weeks.

Ej Dickson

He definitely was like, I can't hear about this anymore. And he has since said, multiple times, that it's ruined his life.

Lina Misitzis

If Alex didn't want to talk about Cats anymore, EJ wanted to be a good partner. So she went somewhere else. She announced the new plan in a tweet. Quote, "My husband couldn't listen to me talking about it anymore, so I'm doing a podcast about the movie musical Cats. It's called PodCats."

Ej Dickson

Are you blind when you're born?

Dan

Can you see in the dark?

Ej Dickson

Would you--

Lina Misitzis

She co-hosts it with her friend Dan.

Dan

Can you say of your bite that it's worse than your bark? If you were and you are, you're the target audience for PodCats. We're Dan--

Ej Dickson

And I'm EJ.

Alex

It's pretty-- yeah, it's kind of deeply embarrassing that people are going to listen to the podcast and be like, who is this woman?

Lina Misitzis

When you say podcast, do you mean This American Life?

Alex

Both. Primarily PodCats-- PodCats the podcast.

Dan

We're also going to answer all of your burning questions about cats, including but not limited to--

Ej Dickson

What's a Jellicle cat? What's a Jellicle cats-- cats-- cats-- cats-- cats-- cats-- cats-- cats-- cats-- cats--

Lina Misitzis

Is it true that you told EJ that Cats is ruining your life?

Alex

I've probably said that. We get so little time to ourselves now. We have a three-year-old, and we both work crazy hours. This is the way that you choose to spend your free time, by going to see Cats and making a podcast about it? How can you make that your free time?

Lina Misitzis

So Alex doesn't want to talk to his wife about this thing that she loves, which I get, except for one thing. He's passing all of this judgment, but he's never actually seen the movie. So I set it up for all three of us to go see Cats at the one theater within 234 miles that's still playing it.

Ej Dickson

Are you excited?

Alex

Let's do this.

Lina Misitzis

We get to the theater just after 9:00 and take three seats in the back-- EJ and Alex next to each other. I'm next to Alex. I figure the theater would be empty. It wasn't. All three of us take turns remarking on the surprisingly good turnout, which, including us, totals nine.

Alex

There are definitely more people than I thought there would be.

Ej Dickson

Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

In front of us are four teenagers slouched in their seats. They're laughing throughout the previews, which makes me think they're probably stoned. EJ notices them, too.

Ej Dickson

These people are not here for the right reason.

Lina Misitzis

The film opens with a burlap sack tossed in an alleyway, which, obviously, is full of alley cats. Dozens of them circle the disposed sack, hissing, also doing pirouettes. And just to be clear, by cats, I mean human adults with fur digitally attached to their skin. One of them rips open the still-moving bag, allowing whatever is inside of it to break free. And what it is inside of this bag-- also a cat.

[MEOW]

Woman

Oh, no. Look what the cat dragged in.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Man

Stop, and you're talking around your bowl on an empty stomach.

Lina Misitzis

Look, I'm not going to pretend Cats isn't a train wreck. Alex covers his mouth with his hand, like he's hiding his abject horror. But then, about 15 minutes into the movie, when Rebel Wilson starts singing and dancing with a parade of cockroaches, I realized something. EJ and Alex are on a really good date. For most of the movie, they hold hands. Alex kisses EJ's palm three times, which coincides with the number of times she calls something the best part of the movie.

Ej Dickson

This is the best part. [INAUDIBLE]. This is the best part.

Lina Misitzis

I think what makes this a good date has nothing to do with what they're doing, but, instead, with the fact that they're doing it together. When Judi Dench's Old Deuteronomy shows up, who, by the way, is, for some reason, wearing a fur coat atop her literal coat of fur, Alex hums along with the rest of the cats, who are there to welcome her, because, of course, he knows the music. It's been playing in his house nonstop for months.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ej Dickson

[INAUDIBLE]

Alex

[HUMMING]

Lina Misitzis

The movie ends just before midnight. EJ says they need to get home, back to their son and sitter. We split a cab, and I ask Alex how he liked this movie that, to quote him, has ruined his life?

Alex

I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, actually.

Lina Misitzis

And why?

Alex

I liked-- what's his name, EJ? The railway cat.

Ej Dickson

Skimbleshanks.

Alex

Skimbleshanks. Skimbleshanks killed it.

Lina Misitzis

So something you told me before we went in is that part of you really does think that EJ's kind of just being a contrarian in liking this movie. And I'm wondering if you still feel that way?

Ej Dickson

I knew you would say that.

Lina Misitzis

Do you still feel that way?

Alex

No, I don't. I don't feel that way. And I think I kind of have an understanding. I can see how, despite it being a horrible movie, you can genuinely appreciate it. It just kind of feels good. It's kind of joyous. I don't know. And I'm kind of-- yeah, I'm eager to unpack this with you more, EJ.

Ej Dickson

I think you're only going to feel that way for a limited period of time.

Alex

That's probably true.

Lina Misitzis

When movies end, the lights are still dim, the credits roll, there's this moment. It's just before people start getting up, where everyone's quiet. It's like waking up from a dream. And then, suddenly, you check back into the reality of your own life. I figure, that's the moment I'm catching Alex in. The lights haven't totally gone back up yet. This is not how he really feels.

But then, a week later, I get a text from EJ. She says that, last night, while she and her son were listening to Cats, Alex belted along with the same song I had caught him humming to at the movies. I think he's turned, she says.

Ira Glass

Lina Misitzis is one of the producers of our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced this week by Lina Misitzis. The people who put together today's show includes Elna Baker, Emanuele Berry, Dana Chivvis, Noor Gill, Damian Grave, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

A special thanks today to Emily Liu, Yian Zhou, Robert Du, John Lesley Morton, and Heaven Berhane. Our website-- thisamericanlife.org-- where you can listen to our archive of nearly 700 shows for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia. Whenever he comes to New York City, there's only one deli that he wants to go to for corned beef.

Ej Dickson

Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats.

Ira Glass

I'll have what he's having. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.