An Emigre's Tale of What Happens after Survival

Article excerpt

Anchee Min's memoir charts her arduous path from a labor camp in China to art school in Chicago.

The Cooked Seed. A Memoir. By Anchee Min. 361 pages. Bloomsbury, $26; Pounds 14.99.

Chicago, the mid-1980s: Anchee Min, newly arrived from Shanghai to study at the School of the Art Institute, was invited to a meeting of the college's Communist Club. "Tell us about Red China!" urged the ardent U.S. students. "Tell us your firsthand experience!"

How to reply? Her vocabulary was small and her story was vast and bewildering, straining the confines of any language. "It didn't work," was all she could think to say. Baffled, the club members went on to watch a movie glorifying a Chinese peasant girl's heroic takeover of the university system. They ignored Ms. Min's protests that the film was pure propaganda. Hers was not a perspective these Mao-worshiping students wanted to hear.

In the years that followed, Ms. Min remained in the United States, mastered English, and became a writer, finding a way to tell the story for which she had originally had no words. In 1994, she published "Red Azalea," a memoir about her coming-of-age during the vicious cataclysm of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

Since then, she has published six novels, most of them about women who were influential in Chinese history. But in that moment at the Communist Club her survival tale was trapped inside her, thwarted by her "baby English" and buried under her immediate dread of deportation and mounting debts.

It has taken almost 20 years since her first book appeared for this follow-up memoir, detailing the story of Ms. Min's transformation, to emerge.

In some ways, her newcomer experience resembles that of so many others who have fled totalitarian regimes for refuge in the United States -- the post-traumatic stress, the survivor's guilt, the perplexities of learning English and finding a job. Yet it's also stamped with the particular circumstances of her birthplace and time.

By age 27 she had already endured at least a lifetime's worth of suffering: a hungry Shanghai childhood; 18-hour days in freezing rice paddies at a labor camp where she had been sent for "re- education" at 17; and a remarkable stint at the Shanghai Film Studio, where she was chosen for her "proletarian beauty" to audition for a role in Madame Mao's propaganda movies, only to be demoted to a studio flunky when Chairman Mao died and his wife was overthrown in 1976.

At this point Ms. Min was convinced that she had no future in China. There she would always be "a 'cooked seed' -- no chance to sprout." She thought seriously and repeatedly about suicide. Then came the glimpse of another way out, in a letter from a film-studio friend named Joan Chen, who had become a movie star in China and was now attending college in America. Maybe Ms. Min could also find a way to study abroad.

Through a long process of wheedling, subterfuge and absurd luck, Ms. Min was accepted at Chicago's Art Institute. …