Bloomsbury USA|May 7, 2013|Hardcover|ISBN: 978-1-59691-698-2
In 1994, Anchee Min made her literary debut with a memoir of growing up in China during the violent trauma of the Cultural Revolution. “Red Azalea” became an international bestseller and propelled her career as a successful critically acclaimed author. Twenty years later, Min returns to the story of her own life to give us the next chapter, an immigrant story that takes her from the shocking deprivations of her homeland to the sudden bounty of the promised land of America, without language, money, or a clear path. It is a hard and lonely road. She teaches herself English by watching Sesame Street, keeps herself afloat working five jobs at once, lives in unheated rooms, suffers rape, collapses from exhaustion, marries poorly and divorces. But she also gives birth to her daughter, Lauryann, who will inspire her and finally root her in her new country. Min’s eventual successes - her writing career, a daughter at Stanford, a second husband she loves – are remarkable, but it is her struggle throughout toward genuine selfhood that elevates this dramatic, classic immigrant story to something powerfully universal.
The Cooked Seed picks up 20 years after Min wrote “The Red Azalea”, her memoir of growing up in China during the violent trauma of the Cultural Revolution. The story left off as she fled her homeland, but a whole new life was just beginning.
Speaking no English, Anchee comes to American, she has no money, and no plan as to what she is going to do. She teaches herself English by watching, of all things, ‘Sesame Street.’
On August 31, 1984, Anchee landed in Chicago with $500 of borrowed money in her wallet, she was 27 years old. Prior to leaving Shanghai she worked at the Shanghai Film Studio. She was considered a “cooked seed” – no chance to sprout.
Anchee’s cousin, whom she’d never met before, picked her up at the airport in Chicago. They were unable to communicate with each other as Anchee spoke Mandarin and he spoke Cantonese. However, he was kind enough to allow her to temporarily stay at his student apartment until she was able to find her own accommodations.
Anchee had come to Chicago to study at the School of Art Institute. The foreign-student adviser was upset with her because she had indicated on her application that her English was excellent. Anchee confessed she was guilty of lying and was willing to accept any punishment the Art Institute might want to met out. She was sent to the intensive tutorial class held at the University of Illinois. The program cost $500 which she had to borrow from an Aunt she’d never met.
The Art Institute asked Anchee what type of roommate she’d prefer. She told them that anyone who spoke English, and wouldn’t mind her silence. That was when she met and made her first friend, Takisha, in America. Anchee found the dorm room to be very luxurious considering where she had come from. She found the fact that hot water was available 24 hours a day to be incredible considering she’d never grown up with that luxury. She said she “felt like a princess” because for the first time in her life she would get to sleep on a mattress.
Next, Anchee began looking for a job. The first day she spent hours walking and walking downtown Chicago visiting every single Chinese restaurant she could find but was turned away at every single one. She finally ended up visiting the school’s job placement office. Unfortunately, the majority of the jobs posted required English which Anchee had not yet mastered. Then she saw a job listing for a model with the school’s fashion design department. A little old lady received her in the office and hired her on the spot. She was so excited and the job paid $7.00 per hour which was more than Anchee’s “monthly” salary in China! She then moved all her courses to the evenings so she’d be able to apply for more jobs. Soon her schedule was full. She became an attendant for the student gallery and a helper at the admissions office. These jobs would not be Anchee’s last, there were many more to come.
The Cooked Seed is a powerful look at what we humans can achieve when our heart is in the right place. I would highly recommend this to anyone and would actually like to read this again.