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Sun May 12, 2013

A 'Cooked Seed' Sprouts After All, In America

Anchee Min's best-selling memoir Red Azalea told the story of her youth in China during the Cultural Revolution. Her followup, The Cooked Seed, picks up nearly 20 years later as she arrives in America with $500 in her pocket, no English and a plan to study art in Chicago.

Min tells NPR's Rachel Martin that her life in China ended because of her relationship with Madame Mao, a former actress and the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.

"She handpicked me to train me to play in her campaign movie to take over China after Mao, and after she was arrested, I was considered her trash, and I was denounced, and was like a cooked seed — I would never have a chance to sprout," Min recalls. "The next eight years, I worked as a 'borrowed worker' from the labor camp, and then menial jobs, and I just saw no future. I was not allowed to go to school, and my salary would be $5 per month."

"And then one day I got a letter from my friend, the actress Joan Chen, and she was in America, and a lightbulb just went off. I wrote to ask her if I ever could have a possibility to come to America, and I thought I had nothing to lose by asking. And I didn't speak English, but I was willing to work hard."


Interview Highlights

On deciding to go to the Art Institute of Chicago

"Nobody would take me without having me demonstrate English language efficiency — it's called a TOEFL test — and I didn't speak English. So Joan Chen suggested, do you have any talent, like art. And I grew up painting Mao murals, so I just submitted some of my artworks. I mean, it's a really rough, in China it's considered no good, but the Art Institute thought I had potential. But still, I couldn't fill out the application form. For example, I didn't even know which one to circle, male or female, on the item of sex. So I took the application to a friend, and the friend filled out the form for me."

On her perception of American art school life

"To be able to do art, it was a luxury to me. My focus was to survive here, and seeing American students — one was particularly shocking to me ... this student was literally trying to commit suicide, he was hanging himself. I thought, in the labor camp, I knew what it was like praying to die, why this American student, young person who is blessed with freedom, and his pain was so unbearable that he had to end his life. And of course the department chair eventually got involved, and he survived. And also the burning of American flag, and also the portrayal of a mayor of Chicago, [Harold] Washington, they painted him with a bra, and I did not understand what [the] mayor did to deserve this. So it's a strange environment, very surreal."

On low points in her life here, including being raped by an acquaintance

"I just feel like, as low as I went, it's my own fault, even with the rape. And I feel like little things that Americans did to me, for me. For example, my friend ... American classmate who I called in the middle of the night, about one o'clock after I ran off, and she came and she says, 'Did you call 911? Do you want me to call 911 for you? I'm taking you to a police station. Don't act like it's your own fault. You're in America and you have your rights.' All these things, the little things, it just warmed my heart and it kept me going."

On becoming a writer

"At the beginning, I just wanted to get a job. I understood that without English I would never get far, so my dream was to become a receptionist, and so I started to learn English from watching Sesame Street. And in the meantime, at the school they were giving me English 101, beginning with Virginia Woolf, that was the first person I encountered. I counted that one page has 200 words, and each line has 13 words, out of 13, 10 words I had to look up in the dictionary. So I never took off my clothes at night to save time."

On raising her daughter

"I was dealing with an American child. The first thing she said to me that really shocked me was, 'Mom, I don't want my tomato to touch my potato.' The self was a very strange concept to me until I came to America, and my child was born with that entitlement, and that just thrilled me. But of course, that's a sunny, positive side. The negative side was that Lauryann was born in Chicago and she was the child of an immigrant, new immigrant. She had to help, and sometimes I feel that, you know, am I depriving her from the American childhood that she deserved. ...

"But now, I'm looking back in retrospect, it's worth it, cause she really learned the reality. Because of that background, learning to live at the bottom of society, she had a very different perspective than other American children, I guess."

On her close relationship with her daughter

"She was the person who taught me that she would not want any sugar coating on this memoir. She says, 'I deserve your honesty, and you have a platform. Your experience is going to give voice to millions of those who don't have a voice,' and I just thought that we have gone so far. My grandmother had bound feet. My mother, when I asked her about love, she gave me three words — 'shame on you' — because in my culture, you're not supposed to talk about it. Here ... my daughter can talk to me. I do see myself transforming. I broke down crying when I learned she was a girl — I didn't realize, I was so corrupted by my culture and society, my core value was corrupted. And now she's turned out, she's proved me wrong. And I'm just thrilled."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Anchee Min is an award-winning best-selling author. Her memoir, "Red Azalea," was an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. That book chronicled her life growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China. Her latest memoir, "The Cooked Seed," picks up where "Red Azalea" left off.

ANCHEE MIN: The date was August 31, 1984. It was China's midnight and America's morning. I was about to drop out of the sky and land in Chicago. What made me scared and nervous was that I did not speak English and I had no money. But I could not let myself be frightened. I was 27 years old and life has ended for me in China.

MARTIN: Anchee Min had to tell a series of lies to get herself on that airplane. She needed an American school to sponsor her. So she sent away for an application to the Art Institute of Chicago. When I spoke with Anchee Min this past week, she picked up the story from there.

MIN: I couldn't fill out the application form. For example, I did not even know which one to circle, male or female on the item of sex. So I took the application to a friend and the friend filled out the form for me. When there was English language skill, it said: poor, average, good, excellent. And this friend circled excellent.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean, from there you kind of fake your way through and faced all these incredibly difficult circumstances. The whole time, you're supposed to be taking classes. You're going to lectures about art. You are in an art school, after all. How did the experience of that school shape your impressions of this country?

MIN: To be able to do art, it was a luxury to me. I mean, my focus was to survive here. And seeing American students, one was particularly shocking to me. And this student was literally trying to commit suicide by - like he was hanging himself. I thought, in the labor camp, I knew what it was like praying to die. Why this American student, young person who is blessed with freedom and his pain was so unbearable that he had to end his life?

And also the burning of American flag, and also the portrayal of a mayor of Chicago, Washington, they painted him with a bra. And I did not understand what mayor did to deserve this. So it's a strange environment, very surreal.

MARTIN: We should say things got very bad. You were continuously anxious about your immigration status, very lonely, exploited job after job. At one point you were even raped by someone you knew. Any one of these experiences on their own would be enough to paralyze someone. But you were not and you kept going. How is that so?

MIN: It was the determination, I guess, to pay my family to survive. Here, I'm giving an opportunity to save myself and my family.

MARTIN: Can you tell me a little bit about how writing came into your life? How did this happen for you?

MIN: At the beginning I just wanted to get a job. I understood that without English I would never get far. So my dream was to become a receptionist and so I started to learn English from watching "Sesame Street." And in the meantime, at the school they were giving me English 101. And beginning with Virginia Woolf that was the first person I encountered. I counted that one page has like about 200 words, and each line has 13 words. Out of 13, 10 words I had to look up in the dictionary. So I never took off my clothes at night, to save time.

And then, as year went on, one incident that cleared my mind. I heard my calling, so to speak. It happened in Bridgeport, Chicago and that was after my daughter, Lauryann, was born. And she was a-year-old and I took her to the neighborhood park to swing. It was her first swing. And I was thinking so she's going to be able to talk, and she's going to say I love you mom, I love you dad, instead of I love you Chairman Mao, I love you Communist Party of China. And I feel so proud that I was able to provide her a safe place.

And it was in that peaceful neighborhood and park, as I was pushing Lauryann on the swing, I heard a very tender voice behind me say: Are you Chinese? And I turn around. There was a 10-year-old boy. And I smiled back and I say yes. And he, all of a sudden he says: You Chinese, (bleep) you. My mind is couldn't translate. I thought I heard wrong.

I said did you say the F-word. And he said, Yes, yes. You Chinese, (bleep) you. And I was speechless and I thought I just couldn't feel safe anymore. I took Lauryann off the swing and I hurried back home. It was on the walk I realized that these children they don't know Chinese. They don't know me. And I remember the same way I was taught as a child to hate Americans. So I decided at that moment that I - my writing would be my contribution to America.

MARTIN: You did eventually go on to marry. You are not in a happy marriage but it did produce your daughter. She ends up becoming a real focal point of the last third of the book. Can you talk a little bit about what you were learning about yourself through the experience of mothering her?

MIN: I was dealing with an American child. The first thing she said to me that really shocked me was, she said, Mom, I don't want my tomato to touch my potato.

(LAUGHTER)

MIN: The self was a very strange concept to me until I came to America, and my child was born with that entitlement and that just thrilled me. But of course, that's a sunny, positive side. There's negative side was that Lauryann was born in Chicago and she was the child of immigrant - new immigrant - she had to help. And sometimes I feel that, you know, am I depriving her from the American childhood that she deserved? For example, when I need somebody to hold on the drywall...

MARTIN: We should say you owned an apartment building. And a lot of the work you have to do was manual labor to maintain that building.

MIN: Yes, I invested the advance from "Red Azalea," my first book, because I couldn't get other jobs. So Lauryann was working with me. She had no summer, no vacation, no Fourth of July, and sometimes I had to deny her food or water. Because, for example, the ceiling tube was open when we are caulking and if we don't finish it would go wasted. And then we got to come back to bother them the next day.

So between bother other people and deny my child, I choose to deny my child. And I feel so terrible and so torn when she was so tired. And I come and tuck her in and then when she was sleeping I returned 2 o'clock in the morning. I found her paint stain in her hair, scratches on her face. As a mother, it was - I was very much in conflict.

But now, I looking back in retrospect, it's worth it, 'cause she really learned the reality. Because of that background, learning to live at the bottom of society, she had a very different perspective than other American children, I guess.

MARTIN: You write in the book that you didn't want a little girl, that you were disappointed when you found out the gender of your child. And today, you sound just like any other very proud mother. Are you close today with Lauryann?

MIN: Very close and she was the person who told me that she would not want any sugar coating on this memoir. And I just thought that we have gone so far. My grandmother had bound feet. My mother, when I asked her about love, she gave me three words: Shame on you, because in my culture you're not supposed to talk about it. Here, I could talk to my - my daughter can talk to me. I do see myself transforming.

I broke down crying when I learned that she was a girl. I didn't realize I was so corrupted, you know, by my culture and society. And now she prove me wrong. I'm just thrilled.

MARTIN: You talk about how you were motivated to write to try to get people to understand Chinese culture. But what do you want American readers to recognize perhaps about our own culture through your story?

MIN: I would be comforted when people walk away that would not take America for granted. And you might be in a very difficult situation you imagine. But if you take a different look at America, from a look of a immigrant - from my eyes - you might see your life differently.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Cooked Seed." It is a memoir and it is written by Anchee Min. She joined us from studios in Berkeley, California.

Anchee Min, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

MIN: Ms. Martin, I think you so much. I'm honored.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.