When I started reading Anchee Min's latest memoir, "The Cooked Seed," I presumed there would be many commonalities between her life journey in America and mine.
We both emigrated from Shanghai — Min came over to the United States as a student in 1984, and I arrived six years later. We both began our new life in the great city of Chicago. And unlike most new Chinese arrivals, who study science and technical subjects, Min and I opted for the humanities: She studied arts, and I majored in English literature and then journalism.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
As struggling students, we both worked multiple jobs — including wrapping mushu pork at Chinese restaurants — to pay our college tuition. And after becoming acclimated to America, we've both felt paradoxically more attached to China, which emerges as a focus in our writing.
However, about 50 pages into "The Cooked Seed," I realized that those are about the only similarities we share. Min's book is not the usual immigrant rags-to-riches story. The turbulent trajectories of her life in America, captivatingly portrayed in the book, render my own experience banal and trivial.
"The Cooked Seed" is a follow-up to Min's previous best-selling memoir, "Red Azalea," which chronicles the horrors of her daily existence during China's Cultural Revolution, when she and millions of high school graduates were sent to rural areas to receive what Mao Zedong called "re-education from peasants." Min landed in a military-style collective farm near the East China Sea. In 1976, talent scouts from the Shanghai Film Studio under the control of Madame Mao spotted Min on the farm because her looks matched that of "a proletariat beauty." From a pool of 20,000 candidates, Min was chosen to play the leading role in one of Madame's Mao's propaganda movies.
However, a few months into her new acting career, Mao died. His widow and a group of radicals were brought down in a coup. Min's association with Madame Mao made her a target of condemnation. She desperately wanted to leave China. With the help of her friend, actress Joan Chen ("The Last Emperor"), Min, at age 27, enrolled as an undergraduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
This revelatory new memoir begins with Min's arrival at O'Hare International Airport, where an immigration official pulls her into a "brown-colored room." There Min fails to comprehend his questions, and he threatens to deport her for lying about her English proficiency in her papers. With a promise to attend English language classes, she is allowed to enter Chicago, where her transition to the new land, fraught with hardship and tragedies, seems to be almost as horrifying as her old life in China. As she moves from one low-rent, unheated apartment to another, she falls victim to con artists and loses all her savings. An eccentric Chinese roommate kidnaps and rapes her (leading to her first pregnancy and a subsequent painful abortion).
In the face of this adversity, Min finds inspiration in Scarlett O'Hara, a quintessentially American female icon, as she reads Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" to improve her English.
I reread the passages in which Scarlett had to fight alone. She sacrificed. She did what was necessary to keep her mill running. She was the provider for her family and a woman of incredible resilience. She did not sit around and cry about her circumstances and misfortune, as a Chinese character in her shoes might have done. Scarlett did not compose poems or jump into a well to end her misery. Instead, she fought. She married men whom she did not truly love and who were below her in intelligence and appearance. When she needed to, she picked up a gun and shot the Yankee who broke into her house and threatened her life. She climbed onto the horse and rode from town to town to sell her products. At her lowest point, Scarlett did not pray for nothingness. She fought on by telling herself, "Tomorrow is another day!"
The above might as well describe Min's own life. While in Chicago, she marries a fellow Chinese artist who does not even bother to get her a wedding ring or bring flowers to their City Hall wedding. The marriage ends badly. Following her divorce, she moves her daughter to California, where she raises her alone and supports herself by buying and fixing a building in a working-class neighborhood. A hands-on landlord who does her own repair and renovation, Min fights relentlessly with unruly tenants and unreasonable regulators.
One day, after a group of white children verbally assault Min in a park, she finds her calling. "I knew what I want to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to introduce China and its people to Americans. My soon-to-be published books might serve as grout between bricks. I would help defrost the ice in the hearts of Americans."
"Red Azalea," her first book, written in her still somewhat halting English, became an international best-seller. Following her success, she published six novels in English, all of which are based on the stories of strong female characters, such as Madame Mao, Empress Dowager Cixi and Pearl Buck. This poignant personal memoir certainly continues in that vein.
Min also devotes significant sections of the books to her relationship with her daughter, Lauryann, who is now attending Stanford University. As far as parental practices are concerned, Min makes Amy Chua, America's "tiger mother," look like a pussycat. On her daughter's birthday, Min drives the young girl to Home Depot, where Lauryann learns that her birthday gift is "Home Depot's free lessons on how to use an electric saw" so she can help mom with home renovation projects.
When her daughter claims other parents don't have time to prepare their children for school the way she does, Min responds:
You think I have time? I make time! I will park on your back if you bring home a low grade without a good reason! I make you do homework in the car, in the stores, at the construction site, that's how you get A's.
As in her other books, Min maintains her usual candor, intensity and black humor. She talks unabashedly about her trips to a Chicago video store to rent her favorite porn, suavely entitled, "Sex Education" on the "loneliest nights during Thanksgiving and Christmas," and describes with relish the newly discovered pleasure she finds in masturbation. When the owner offers to sell her the tape, she even haggles over the price.
"Gone with the Wind" ends with Scarlett's love unfulfilled. But, thanks to a dating agency, Min finds happiness in her second husband, a Vietnam vet.
While this relationship seems to finally offer her happiness, it also inspires a series of Oprah-style sound bites that pepper the last chapter. Among them:
"Today, life means getting to know myself more, staying in touch with myself, making improvements upon myself, and, most of all, enjoying life."
When I met Min years ago at the Chicago Book Expo, we were standing near a bank of tables hosting authors who were there to sign books. She pointed at a long line in front of a booth for a writer of murder mystery next to her and lamented the fact that many Americans showed no interest in her books on China.
A lot has changed in those years. And between the growing interest in China and the frank nature of her book, "The Cooked Seed" is likely to touch a chord with many more readers, especially those in Chicago.
Anchee Min will appear at a Chicago Public Library event on May 21 and Printers Row Lit Fest, June 8-9. Wenguang Huang is the author of "The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir" and co-author of "A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel." He will also appear at Lit Fest.
"The Cooked Seed"
By Anchee Min, Bloomsbury, 362 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, CT Now