June 7, 2013
On the day that Anchee Min realized it was her mission to help Americans understand the Chinese, she had taken her daughter to a park in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport.
Min had been in Chicago for most of a decade by then, attending the School of the Art Institute, living in risky neighborhoods, working odd jobs for bad pay and stumbling through the labyrinth of English.
Finally, on that day in the park, Min heard what she now refers to as her calling, a moment she recounts in "The Cooked Seed," her new memoir:
"Are you Chinese?" I heard a tender voice calling behind me.
It was a white boy about ten years old. "Are you Chinese?" he repeated.
"Yes, I am." I returned his smile.
"They" — the boy pointed at three white teenage boys sitting on the fence — "They asked me to ask you if they can **** you."
I was stunned. I looked at the boy and said, "Did I hear you say the f-word?"
The boy scampered back to his friends, and Min headed home with her daughter, thinking that those boys hated Chinese people because they didn't know the Chinese, just as she had been trained to hate Americans when she was growing up in China.
She resolved, she writes in her new book, to "help defrost the ice in the hearts of Americans."
Min now lives in Walnut Creek, Calif., which is where she was when I called her this week in preparation for interviewing her Saturday at the Printers Row Lit Fest.
"Chicago was the foundation of my success," she said.
It was in Chicago that Min wrote "Red Azalea," the first installment of her memoir, about growing up during China's Cultural Revolution under the harsh communist rule of Mao Zedong.
Published in 1994, "Red Azalea" became a worldwide hit, and she immediately got a contract to write the sequel, about her struggles as a Chicago art student, her marriage, her divorce and her move to California.
The sequel she embarked on was, in her view, terrible.
"I killed it myself," she said.
Min went on to write instead about Chinese history and women's history, determined to avoid more autobiography, until events conspired years later to change her mind.
Her mother died. Her daughter grew up and begged for the rest of the story. She herself grew older.
"When you go past 50," she said, "you develop a different, I wouldn't say attitude, a different understanding of life."
But Min wasn't sure she had the courage to write her American sequel.
"There was a lot of fight with myself during the writing," she said.
Could she write, for example, about the man, another Chinese immigrant to Chicago, who rented her a room and then raped her? By the rules of her native culture, she couldn't.
"Anything done to a woman, it's a woman's fault and you should stay silent," she said. "My family would be humiliated. That rape scene was very hard."
Could she write about the loneliness that in her early Chicago days repeatedly sent her to a neighborhood video store to rent the same porn movie over and over?
"I didn't have the guts to write about my relationship with that tape," she said. "But I thought: I don't have the right to own this material. Because that's part of the immigrant history. That loneliness, like acid that drizzles on you, and the hopelessness and helplessness and human desire to be touched."
Min's life is more settled now. In the hills near San Francisco, she lives with her second husband, an author and Vietnam vet she met through a dating service. He writes down in the basement. She reads up on the observation deck. Her daughter is on the other side of the bay, at Stanford University.
It's a part of the world famous for wealth, education and beauty, a place where, as Min puts it, people "talk seriously about implementing strategies," which is to say it's far from the Chicago that taxed her survival skills.
"Chicago was milk and butter, bread," she said. "Chicago is more human in a way."
At 11 a.m. Saturday at Lit Fest, we'll talk about Min's writing, her Chicago past and the future of China, which she visits routinely.
"McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hollywood movies are taking over," she said. "The next generation of Chinese, there is some potential cancer there. They've become an entitled generation. That's how you rot — you become entitled."
For more information, go to printersrowlitfest.org.
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