'Stateless American' languishes in China Marjorie Fuller lives confined by strangers and a rootless past

September 24, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Special correspondent Jane Adams contributed to this article from San Francisco.

HARBIN, China -- The United States says Marjorie Fuller is not an American. China says she not Chinese.

So the 72-year-old woman has spent more than half her life in a Chinese labor camp and now is in a nursing home. She will probably die here, surrounded by Chinese whose language she barely speaks or understands and with one vestige of the past: a fur coat her late mother bought in Shanghai a half-century ago, back when they were both part of an exotic expatriate adventure that came to a crashing end after the Communists took over the country.

Miss Fuller was born in the 1920s to a playboy American newsman and his Polish-born wife. She talks like an American. She says she feels like an American. She even had a U. S. passport once. But she shouldn't have had one, according U. S. immigration rules, and that's why she lost her freedom.

As "stateless Americans," she and her mother did not fit into the pigeonholes carefully crafted for Chinese society after the Communists took over the country in 1949. So they were sent to a labor camp for hard work making brushes from pig bristles, but no indoctrination. The Chinese didn't seem to know what else to do with them.

Now 72, Miss Fuller is almost crushed by her fate. Partly paralyzed by a stroke, she lives in a nursing home where no one else speaks English. Her broken Chinese and constant depression have led the Chinese staff to conclude that she has lost her mind.

It is a miracle that she hasn't.

Consider her life since 1958: 23 years in the Chinese gulag, where she and her mother worked from dawn to dusk; another 14 years in the retirement home that she hasn't been allowed to leave; and the loss of her mother three years ago at the age of 93, leaving her the only Westerner held in the home -- probably the only Westerner in this situation in China.

"I always said that America is God's country, but I never went there," she says. "I've now spent most of my life in confinement and I've never left China."

Her regular room in the nursing home is bearable. Compared with Chinese retirement homes, it is spacious -- three to a small room -- bright and clean. Although Harbin is a bleak backwater, the home is in the suburbs, the building shaded by old trees.

But most often now, she is in a foul-smelling clinic because of what the nursing staff describe as blood clotting on her brain. She lies on a rubber bed, unable to pull her pants up over her thighs, her hair straggly, her body unwashed for days at a time.

"It's too late for me," she says. "I just want to die."

U.S. has a thick file

The U.S. government has a thick file on Miss Fuller. Its conclusion, reached after long investigation, is that in 1924, at the age of 1, she was issued a U.S. passport in error and -- even though her father was a U.S. citizen and her mother had a U.S. passport -- was ineligible for U.S. citizenship under the immigration laws of the 1920s. The law at the time of birth determines eligibility for citizenship, according to a U.S. official based in Beijing.

"It's a sad story, but there's nothing we can do about it," the official said. "We can only follow the law, and Washington has determined that she is not a U.S. citizen."

Westerners have visited Miss Fuller, sometimes promising to help, but nothing comes of it. Most of them seem more interested in asking her about what life was like in old Shanghai or what life was like later in the Chinese gulag.

Born in Shanghai

She was born in Shanghai to Alfred Graham Fuller, a U.S. citizen born to an American father and to a Chinese mother who was a naturalized U.S. citizen. Mr. Fuller's wife came from a Polish family.

A year after her birth, Marjorie Fuller was issued a U.S. passport. Later, when the passport expired, she was entered on her father's passport.

But Mr. Fuller soon left his wife for a younger Russian woman whose family had fled to Shanghai after the Bolshevik revolution. He lied and told the U.S. consulate in Shanghai that his first wife had died, thereby getting his second wife a U.S. passport. Eventually, he moved to the United States and settled in San Francisco with his second wife and three children.

The Fuller children in San Francisco have few illusions about their father's days in Shanghai.

"He was pretty much a playboy," his daughter, Emily Fuller Sgro, said in an interview in San Francisco.

The existence of an earlier wife and a half sister abandoned in China was no secret, either.

Mr. Fuller kept a family scrapbook that his children in San Francisco recall had a photograph of Marjorie as a 3-year-old with a Dutch cut hairstyle, straight bangs across her forehead.

A father's 'predicament'

"It was no secret,' said William Fuller, now 65, who would be Marjorie's half brother. "I'm sure my father had a lot of love for his daughter. He was in a predicament and there was not much he could do in the circumstances."

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