The most poignant moment in The Cooked Seed is when Anchee asked her lover, Qigu, “Do you love me?” They had been in a relationship for several months, but he had never said the words, I love you. It was not “the Chinese way,” he said. “You know how I feel about you, . . . and I know how you feel about me. Isn't that enough?”
They wed, had a child and remained together for six years. Qigu, an artist, was the grasshopper to Anchee’s worker-ant (although, she also was an artist).
Born into a middle-class family in Shanghai, China, Anchee Min survived a painful and heartbreaking chidhood. This was during the Cultural Revolution. Min’s parents “were teachers, and thus regarded as bourgeois sympathisers.” They lived in cramped quarters, in which the kitchen doubled as a bathroom, used not only by Min’s family but also by several neighbors.
Anchee as a child subsisted near starvation. Her mother pawned the family’s clothes and “the backs of her feet bled” as she walked in the snow.
Later—once Chairman Mao’s formidable widow, Chiang Ching, lost political clout—Min became a pariah. “I was considered a ‘cooked seed’—no chance to sprout.”
So Min was determined to emigrate to the US, in order to expand her life opportunities. She applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was accepted and managed to obtain the necessary visa.
In Chicago, armed with her “English-Chinese dictionary and English 900 sentences book,” she struggles to learn English. Once her college classmate explains the meaning of “What’s up, dude?” Min switches from the stuffy “How do you do?” she had learned in language class and which no one used.
Early on in the process of learning English, Min makes many language mistakes. Once, she tells Qigu he is “full of booloony” (she means baloney). “The big moving room—the elevator” fascinates her, but she confuses the word with “refrigerator.” One of the first phrases she understands fully is from Mr. Rogers: “The best gift you can offer is your honest self.”
A happy moment in the book is when Lloyd, her beau and husband-to-be, says he loves her and she says she loves him.
In The Cooked Seed, Min offers us an unflinchingly honest self-portrait. She does not exclude anything unflattering. Moreover, the book depicts an extraordinary metamorphosis, from loyal Chinese worker to an American woman. The book also depicts Min’s struggles as a single parent, and later, how she and her husband, Lloyd, prepare her daughter for the SAT’s and other college entrance exams.
The Cooked Seed is a compelling portrait of life in contemporary China and of the US immigrant experience. It is also the story of a strong pragmatic woman as she perseveres from “Chinese fatalism” and a propensity “to dwell on the literature of misery, exile, imprisonment, and despair” to American optimism, the “tomorrow-is-another-day attitude” of Scarlett O’Hara.
“Truth,” Min writes, “would lead to real beauty.” In The Cooked Seed, the language is spare, utilitarian, and true.
--Yolanda A. Reid
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