From 'The Cooked Seed,' Writer Anchee Min Sows A Path In America
May 15, 2013 1:20 p.m.
Anchee Min, her new memoir is called "The Cooked Seed."
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In the memoir, Red Azalea, writer Anchee Min told the story of her early life in China under chairman Mao. Her fortunes became surprisingly tied to madame Mao, and eventually led to her immigration to America. That's where the first book ended. Now after several successful novels, Anchee Min is sought with her second, and that picks up her story from her arrival in America. It is often a harrowing tale that leads to the life-changing discovery that she was meant to write. My guest, author Anchee Min, her new book is called the cooked seed. Welcome back to the program.
MIN: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you are the cooked seed in the title of your memoir. Can you explain what that term means?
MIN: It means the seed was cooked, and therefore can never sprout.
CAVANAUGH: And how did your life take on that term, cooked seed?
MIN: I thought I had nothing to lose, and I was either -- end my life in China, or try to come to America.
CAVANAUGH: The first chapter in your new book takes us back to your early life in China. What are some of your memories as a young child during the cultural revolution?
MIN: It was hunger. And also my mother had Tuberculosis. And she would always wear black clothes all the time. She said say I don't have to worry to change my clothes for funeral if I don't wake up tomorrow morning.
CAVANAUGH: So that terrible grim situation you were pulled out of in a way because you were selected by madame Mao to play her in an opera. But then the Mao regime went away, and you were left a cooked seed.
MIN: Yes. I was pulled out of the cotton field to be China's next face of proletariat China in madame Mao's next film. I learned it was to prepare herself to become China's next president after Mao. But September9th, are 1976, Mao died. And October8th, madame Mao was arrested. And two months later, I was denounced as her political trash. And for the next eight years, I was put to reform, and I had no future because everything in those years was related to her. So I would not -- I would not be trusted. I was to be given this job as a belt on the communism machine for the rest of my life, not allowed to go to school, I would be paid $5 for a month as the job was a set clerk, for the rest of my life.
CAVANAUGH: And yet you got -- you jumped at the opportunity to go to art school in Chicago. How did that come about?
MIN: It was -- at the studio,
Met a young friend, and she would later become actress Joan Chen who won an Oscar. So we remain friendship -- she was a teenager, in a rebellious state, and the party boss told her do not be friends with Anchee Min. And she secretly kept the relationship. And after she arrived in America, she wrote me, and I discovered that in her sentences, she says I'm not living a life as a princess like I did in China. Here I have to work to pay my own tuition. So she says every Chinese student came to America did that. And the light went off in my head. And I ask her -- I knew it was too much, but I thought I would just push myself to ask her, is there a way I could become a student? I don't speak English, but I'm willing to work hard. I'm from a labor camp.
CAVANAUGH: What is it like to move to a country knowing practically no one and not being able to speak the language? I think you write about that in your book.
MIN: It's terrifying. But in the meantime, I was full of hope. I guess I was like a newborn cow who is not afraid of tiger. I had nothing but the courage. Because I was going to end my life in China anyway.
CAVANAUGH: Could you read that section of your book? About arriving here in the United States?
MIN: Yes. Off the plane, I went in search of the ladies' room. All the signs in English confused me. I followed a woman into room with a sign showing a lady in a skirt. I was glad that it was the right place. There was no waiting line. I looked around to make sure that I was where I thought I was. I entered a stall and closed the door. I had never seen such a spacious and clean toilet room. A roll of paper came into view. It was pure white and soft to touch. I wondered how much it would cost. I would not use it if I had to pay. I sat down and pulled the paper a few inches. I looked around and listened. No alarm went off. I was not sure if I was allowed to use the paper. I took out a foot more, and then another foot. I put the paper under my nose and smelled a lovely, faint scent. Perhaps it was free, I decided. Carefully, I wiped my behind with that paper. It didn't scratch my buttocks. What an amazing feeling! I grew up with toilet paper that felt like sandpaper. In fact, it was what I had packed in my suitcase, toilet paper made of raw straw.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that reading. There are so many instances like that in your book, so much cultural discovery from the time you arrived here and learning English and encountering a bathroom in an airport. But you also talk about some terribly harrowing experiences that you went through and that were colored by your own view of the world. You share the story of being raped at at hands of your roommate in the U.S. And you say at first you blamed yourself. Why?
MIN: Because in China, everything that's wrong that's done to a woman, it's woman's fault. For thousands of years, women would hold responsibility. So that was first I thought, if I didn't do anything wrong -- in Chinese sayings, one ball will not make a noise. It takes two balls to click. So the sense of self and the value of myself, I was not used to that idea. So I understand that such a shameful thing happened, I should stay silent. It just automatically kicked in. I think it have to do with my grandmother, had bound feet. And my mother in China. It's just the way which I needs women were raised to be.
CAVANAUGH: And your daughter, your daughter started expressing her own important and her sense of self very early on. And you write about that in the book. Laurie Ann had very definite likes and dislikes.
MIN: Yeah! First day she came back from kindergarten, she says, mom, I don't want my potato to touch my tomato.
[ LAUGHTER ]
MIN: And then she refused to walk in the rain with umbrella. And she said the weatherman said it's a bad day. Rainy day is a bad day. And I prayed for rainy day when I was in China in the labor camp! We don't get a break until it rains.
CAVANAUGH: Did you learn a more American sense of self from your daughter?
MIN: Yes, yes. This book, she was the person who pushed me. She said, mom, if you ever wanted to leave anything to me, you leave your story to me. But I don't want a sugar-coat and airbrushed version.
CAVANAUGH: She wanted the warts and all version, she wanted the hard stuff as well as the good stuff.
MIN: Yeah, she knew that I -- it would be difficult for me to reveal. If I can pass that self-filter, and it would be burden me that what I'd reveal would reflect negatively on my family, especially back in China. My dad is living in Beijing. So my daughter know that I would hesitate. So she kept saying to me, mom, you have a platform. And you're giving voice to the millions who don't have a voice. And it makes sense because I came without English, without education. And the job, only job they worked -- I worked five jobs at once. The only one I cared was a little ant job, I lived at the bottom of American society. So as a writer, it really was a blessing. I get to see the strength of America as a country, its immigrant population. In the meantime, I witness the parasites and the people who milked the system. And I really have a great trouble with the entitlement.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you something. China has changed a great deal. It is now an economic powerhouse. It's become a new China. What do you think of the new China?
MIN: I am not surprised. People have gone through what I've gone through, knows what we -- what we don't want! We don't really know what we wanted. But we're politically mature, so to speak. So ten years in shanghai, there was a banner that says let's make 18 million toilets in shanghai. That's -- and that's basically the situation China was taking care of. And I think the party knew, if it doesn't follow people's wish, the people will flip the ship.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, you in the old China, a cooked seed. Do you think you or someone like you would be able to find a place to thrive in this new China?
MIN: No. Not at my level. Me and my daughter will never -- I would, I would have been dead in China if I remained there because it was so average. In China, you have to be one out of 2,000 students just to be able to go to college. And we're just never good at enough. With my daughter, since she was 2nd grade, she scored below national average with her IQ. And today, she's at Stanford. It's the American -- I think the beauty of America, the strength was that the teachers, we have gone through public schools all the way, every American public school teacher nurtured her, brought her the full potential out of her. And this is an opportunity she would never, ever get back in China. No way.
CAVANAUGH: You mention that your grandmother had bound feet. And your mother struggled, and of course you came from the Maoist regime. And here you are an independent woman, a writing celebrity in 21st century America. Does it feel like another world back in your childhood that you perhaps lived two lifetimes?
MIN: Yes, yes. I often feel like I don't deserve it. And it bothers me. I'm giving so much. And the only thing I could think of was to pay back. And sometimes I would just tell my daughter, I say that would be my will, you help mommy pay back America. And that's my wish. And what I do is I see that China is coming up as a partner and rival at the same time. And I see that Americans can afford to ignore China. And my daughter's education in America, she was born in Chicago, and all the way, I saw the education, knowledge in China is so limited. And I feel the best way to China, where China is going is to learn way China is coming from. And that's what my book is about.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.
MIN: Thank you.