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


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."

Shaken by Mr. Fuller's abandonment in the 1930s, the first Mrs. Fuller sued for divorce. Eventually, she and her daughter obtained passports from the Chinese Kuomintang government that ruled in the 1930s and 1940s.

Held by old Shanghai's fading glow, Miss Fuller and her mother never thought to leave the port after World War II ended and China's civil war raged on. It was still a time of gaiety and frivolity among White Russians, European aristocrats and gallant U.S. Marines who had long dominated the city's social swirl.

And end to the gaiety

Even after Mao Tse-tung's Communists thundered out of the hinterland to defeat the corrupt Kuomintang government, the woman and her daughter stayed on, naively believing life would go on unchanged.

'We never thought that Mao Tse-tung was a disciple of Lenin and Stalin. We never believed he was really a Communist,' Miss Fuller said.

In the late 1950s, Mao embarked on a series of radical and disastrous steps to collectivize the economy and regiment society. The problem with the Fullers and others like them in Shanghai was that they didn't fit in to any category.

If they had had foreign passports, they could have simply been expelled from China, as were many foreigners when Mao launched his purification program. Had they been Chinese, they would have been made to fit into society. But they were labeled "stateless Americans" by the authorities and arrested, and their Kuomintang passports torn up. They were put in a work camp near Shanghai.

'Swallowed by the dragon'

Even in captivity, Miss Fuller and her mother did not fit in. They weren't forced to study Mao's ideology, unlike Chinese prisoners. Although most possessions were confiscated, they were allowed to keep personal effects, such as her mother's fur coat.

And until she lost them -- or they were stolen by the nursing home staff -- Miss Fuller still had her mother's platinum wedding ring and father's silver christening spoon.

"We were swallowed up by the dragon," Miss Fuller says.

After the death of Mao and the cautious reopening of China, Miss Fuller and other imprisoned foreigners were transferred to Harbin in 1981 where they lived in a retirement home for stateless foreigners, among them White Russians and a few Koreans and Japanese.

With the changing times, the Fullers also thought they might be able to leave. They applied for a passport in 1981.

But the U.S. bureaucracy did them in.

Mr. Fuller had never been to the United States before Marjorie was born. He was a legitimate U.S. citizen, but born of U.S. citizens abroad. Under immigration rules at that time, her father would have to have lived in the United States for her to be eligible for citizenship.

No sanctuary in U.S.

The fact that her mother was married to a U.S. citizen and had a passport was equally irrelevant under the old laws. She became a citizen only through her husband and likewise had never been to the United States. In addition, the old laws only allowed citizenship to be transferred through the father.

The only way she could regain her U.S. citizenship would be for Congress to pass a private bill issuing her a passport. Even then, however, it would be unclear how she would survive in the United States, a country she has never visited.

Her father's children in San Francisco are old themselves. Once or twice there were attempts to help their father's first wife and their half sister. William Fuller tried to arrange to send his half sister money, but nothing ever quite worked out.

Now they are all old strangers.

"We're all elderly now," says William Fuller. "There's really no future for us.

"No matter where you live, if you're ill and a certain age there's not much that can be done," he said. "I don't see any point in getting her out. I don't see where this environment would be any better."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad