‘The Cooked Seed’: Anchee Min’s Journey From China to America- by Katie Baker
The Daily Beast: What made you decide to tell the second part of your story now? The first part, about your childhood in Mao’s China, you told in Red Azalea. What made you decide to talk about coming to America in The Cooked Seed?
Anchee Min: I think it had to do with my daughter. She was born in Chicago and grew up in America ... raising her was a learning experience. She grew up here and when she was applying to colleges a few years ago, she said, 'You know, Mom, you have a platform.' Lauryann reminded me that I had a platform, and that I represented a population of immigrants who are voiceless. Back in China, I wrote Red Azalea because so many of the people that I knew in labor camps, they just vanished. And I had this survivor's guilt and I came here and wrote Red Azalea—it was voice they didn’t have, and I voiced it for them. And it never occurred to me that I could represent a population here that was also voiceless. But it makes sense. Because I came here without English, with no education, so therefore I could only work on low-end jobs and live in the bottom of the American society. Which turned out to be a blessing for me as a writer—it made the foundation for The Cooked Seed.
That was such a powerful part of the story, where you write about how you had just come to America and you were struggling to stay alive. So many immigrants do have to struggle so very much just to stay afloat. You write about the loneliness, and the constant fear of deportation. Are you ever in touch with those students from your early days in Chicago?
I'm aware of what they are up to. You see, I’m in a difficult situation right now because of the [literary] celebrity thing. Many of them are still ... they are doing well. They gained a higher education, even though they didn't know the language—but they strived on. They went into nursing, or if it wasn’t the medical profession, into restaurants and the like. They are still living a good American life, but they are still working hard. And I am on, like, the high end ... [so] I’m afraid that people might feel uncomfortable, if they do hear about you. It’s different now.
Are you still in touch with the actress Joan Chen? That was such an interesting part of your story, the fact that you were in a labor camp in China together as kids.
We spent time together two days ago. She was producing a piece for the San Francisco Film Festival. She had her first screening, and she invited me.
Do you ever talk about those early days in China?
No. It’s very strange, the silence. When Chinese get together—what’s buried stays buried. We don’t even discuss our embarrassing early days struggling in Chicago. This is also the hardest challenge of writing The Cooked Seed. I believe many of my fellow immigrants, we have to stare at our own humanity right in the eye—sometimes you can’t bear it. It’s beyond uncomfortable, because it means having to reveal, in my own case, my darkest thoughts—embarrassing, humiliating human moments. You read about my video-store thing [renting an X-rated film out of loneliness]. How all these years throughout my youth, I craved for affection, but my relationship was with this sex video tape ... I feel like I would have never shared that with my daughter or anybody I knew.
That was really brave to write about it.
So I thought I was American enough [to be aware that] the true value of my writing lies in my honesty. It wouldn’t be my best contribution to America, however hard it is—there would be no meaning in writing it—unless I could commit myself to 100 percent honesty. And I struggled to conquer my own demons, and I deleted some of the paragraphs, right after I wrote them. I had to fish them back from the recycling bin.
Was it difficult to relive some of these episodes you write about? You talk about some very difficult things: rape, an attempted murder, abortion, a loveless marriage—was it hard for you to revisit those points in your life?
Yes ... you see, the great thing about America, with [its tell-all memoirs and] Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil ... all these memoirs [like] Frank McCourt's—I realized, it wasn't my fault if I was raped. But the hardest thing was, how do I dissect my own life and perform an autopsy on my failures? To point out my failures. My daughter is going to see them, my family is going to see them. And my daughter accepts me; my father says, 'I don’t read English, my gut feeling is I trust you'. But my family members, my siblings, are having tremendous trouble with it: 'Why do you have to [reveal things] that big, at that level? Reveal the scope of it?' I understand, they want to protect me; they thought I was putting myself in harm’s way. In China, this is considered a shame. Silence is expected for a Chinese woman. No matter how American I become, I’m considered part of the Chinese community by my own family.
So this is what I’m dealing with. It took me 29 years to realize that the value of my material was the life I was living. And my everyday struggles in America reflect a part of immigrant history, and that it’s larger than myself, larger than my own sacrifice. I talk about giving back, this society talks about giving back. But when I really come to the bottom of what I can give back, is it the glorious moments? You know, ‘I made it, I have five toilets to show off, a big house’—or is it my failures, my humanity?
What was going through your mind when the literary agent called and said she was interested in Red Azalea?
I thought I was hallucinating. The moment before, my husband and I were mad at each other. We were taking down the plumbing because it was leaking, all because we were unwilling to spend $1.29 for [fixing the pipe]. If only I could afford $1.29, if only I could afford a new model, this would not happen. And next thing, Sandy [Dijkstra] was telling me the number [for the book]. In Chinese, the hard thing to translate is the math. I just couldn’t get it. I thought $750 would be great. I asked, "$750, or seven-five with two zeros?” And she said, "Three zeros, honey." I thought I heard her wrong. You can come here a nobody. You can come to America off the boat, a nobody ... and you can get [a book deal].
You worked so very hard to get there. You sent the manuscript out to 12 literary agents. That’s tenacious. Is it strange when you look at China today and it’s become this flourishing, capitalistic society? It’s so much different from your childhood.
The words that come to mind are "I’m not surprised." Not surprised. Because the people who are managing China are people like me. You see, during my time, half of the country's people were sent to the Cultural Revolution's labor camps or the countryside. So we knew what did not work. Our whole generation was a disillusioned generation, therefore politically mature and very practical. So look at the streets of Shanghai during three different decades: the first decade, there was a lot of [praise of] Chairman Mao and carrying on the Cultural Revolution to the end. And the second decade was Deng Xiaoping’s "White cat, black cat, whichever catches mice is the great cat" capitalism. And then the third was, "Let’s build 18 million toilets in Shanghai, and borrowing to take a loan is not bad." So I think this really reflects the Chinese middle-class mindset, which I think is the strength of my writing—I think I can easily penetrate that way of thinking.
What's going on China, I have no problem comprehending, understanding. I see in my daughter, and she is so ill-prepared throughout the American education system, she was not prepared with any knowledge of China. As a country, as Americans, I feel we can no longer afford to ignore China. And I think that I’ve made it kind of my mission, to help Americans understand where China is going by showing where China is coming from.
Will this book be published in China?
I don’t know.
Was Red Azalea published in China?
No. It was rejected. Many books on the Cultural Revolution are OK. China embraces them. But this one was an international bestseller, and China felt kind of unsure and vulnerable. When something’s big, it has to be perfect. If there’s any hint of anti–Communist Party [sentiment], any question of that, then they get nervous ... But this one, I’ve got so much positive feedback from Chinese friends. Actually, we’ve never discussed Red Azalea. With The Cooked Seed, we discussed it, and one person wrote to me saying that she cried in many places when she read The Cooked Seed. They feel they could share this American experience. In a way, it’s what China wanted to read. Red Azalea is something they want to forget. And The Cooked Seed, they feel like they can be inspired—it’s a piece about moving on.
The theme of mother and daughter is so strong in the book. When you were pregnant, you said you wanted a boy, because being a Chinese woman, you knew females have a tougher life. Are you glad now that you had a girl?
Oh, yes, I’m so thrilled that she’s a girl. I’m so blessed; I’m so, so happy. Also, she proved me wrong. She made me realize my core values. You can be constantly surprised by what your own American culture is doing to you. It made me see how corrupted to the core I was ... And I thank my daughter for educating me on that level. In a way, it is a fulfillment of a life. I probably never would’ve even reached that—reached enlightenment—if I hadn’t been in America. If I had remained in China, I would’ve been dead. Physically—and if not physically dead, then mentally dead. Because I would’ve never reached the spirituality, the enlightenment, the richness of my life, the potential of who I am, if I haven’t become American.
It sounds like your daughter is reaching her potential, too. In the book, we see her getting into Stanford.
The thing I appreciate the most is that she’s in the mindset of giving back. Because it was my biggest fear. I have witnessed so many, I'm sorry to say, self-centered people of this generation, my daughter’s generation. And I thought I couldn’t do anything about it. But I can do my best to avoid letting my daughter go in that direction. And I also have to give credit to my husband. He’s American, a U.S. Marine, and Vietnam Vet. He’s the Tiger Dad, still today. He’s the Tiger Dad at home. They all assume you’re the Chinese woman and you’re the Tiger Mom. I’m not; Lloyd is.