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American Author of Chinese Novels - 2004-02-12

American writer Anchee Min draws on her experiences as a young Chinese girl growing up in Mao Zedong’s China both for her subject material and to help her face the challenges of everyday life. Her story today on New American Voices.

Anchee Min, a slender woman with feathery, shoulder-length black hair and a face that lights up when she talks, says twenty years in America have changed her.

“(Laughing) I dare to laugh now. And I think I actually became more Chinese. I’m going back to eating a lot of soy beans and all that. Because when I came I fell in love with American fast foods...”

But Anchee Min says she got her most essential characteristic -- her toughness -- from her early experiences in China. As a young girl she lived through the upheaval of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. At 17 she was sent to a labor camp, where the work was hard, food scarce, and every word, thought and action rigorously policed. After Mao’s death Anchee Min became, essentially, a pariah, classified as “political debris” for having been selected by Madam Mao’s talent scouts for a role in a government propaganda film. In 1984 she applied for a visa to come to the United States to study art. Without knowing a word of English, she learned, phonetically, a short biographical sketch a friend had written for her to deliver at the requisite meeting with the American consul.

“When Madame Mao – her people - talent-scouted me to be the actress for their propaganda movie, I was the worst, because I couldn’t cry or laugh on cue. But I delivered my Oscar-quality performance at the consulate. When my name was called I recited loudly, ‘My name is Anchee …’ I didn’t know what I was saying, all I knew was I had to push it through. And when he said ‘okay’, I understood that word. So that’s how I got my visa.”

Unfortunately, at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she went to enroll, it immediately became clear that Anchee Min didn’t speak any English. She was given six months to learn the language, or be deported. So, while working at odd jobs to support herself, she spent every free moment watching children’s television shows and talk shows, and taking English language courses at night. Her experience in China stood her in good stead.

“Well, it made me very tough. There’s nothing I can’t really bear. I had no money, and I envied the homeless. First of all, they speak English, and second of all, they’re allowed to work. But then I thought to myself, I’m new in this country, and it’s only reasonable that I have to earn my right, I have to be able to contribute to this country in order to gain the right to stay. So I worked three jobs…”

The only jobs she could qualify for were menial ones that required little knowledge of English.

“Oh, waitressing, and assistant to a plumber, where I scooped out the, you know, poo-poos, and messenger, baby sitter, house cleaner. The one that I enjoyed most was fabric painting, because I’m good with calligraphy, and I paint Chinese brush paintings, so I would paint women’s underwear for like fifty cents a rose.”

It was her desire for a better job that led Anchee Min to writing. Her ultimate dream was to become a secretary.

“So I thought I needed to study better English, so I started writing, and I knew nothing of any life here, so all I wrote was about my life back in China, and how I grew up, and all these regular things, and it became the rough draft of “Red Azalea”, my autobiography. I spent a lot of time on typing. I couldn’t afford a typewriter, so I practiced on a shoebox. Then I was rich enough to buy a five-dollar typewriter at a flea market. But the typewriter, when I type ‘n’, ‘p’ comes up, so you can see my manuscript with all the white-outs.”

The memoir “Red Azalea”, which ends with Anchee Min’s arrival in America, became a bestseller when it was published in 1994. Since then, Ms. Min has written four well-received novels set in China. Her most recent book, “Empress Orchid”, is a vivid depiction of life in the imperial court – and, by extension, in China itself - at the end of the 19th century.

“Now that I have published five books, I’ve become more and more concerned about – for example – why should people be interested in Empress Orchid, China’s last imperial ruler? And the answer would be that Americans in general lack an understanding of China and Chinese culture. Why don’t I provide, in the form of entertainment, some light on Chinese culture?”

In her own life, Anchee Min’s Chinese background and American experience have come together in sometimes unexpected ways. As a young girl, she says, Chairman Mao’s propaganda prompted her to dream of being sent to Vietnam, where the Americans were then fighting, so that she could tie grenades to her body and blow herself up along with many American soldiers, and die a heroine. Today she is married to an English teacher who is a former U.S. Marine and a Vietnam veteran. Anchee Min says their respective pasts did pose a potential problem.

“Oh yes, on the wedding night. He was really concerned, we were both concerned. And he said, ‘I hope I don’t have flashbacks’, and I said, ‘I hope I don’t have flashbacks’, because I was in the military garrison as the head of Little Red Guards to be trained to, you know, kill Americans. And we had dummies, straw dummies, with American soldiers’ helmet on it, and every day, you know, for six hours, ‘Shaaaa, kill, kill’. And I would have these kind of flashbacks when I came to this country.”

Now, however, Anchee Min says she is totally at peace with herself and her life in America. She lives in California with her husband and 11-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, concentrating on her next book, a sequel to “Empress Orchid”.

“I live a very isolated life, right now. But I feel that I am very much Americanized, I dare to be myself. So I grow bok choy in my back yard, you know, I feel very comfortable, very balanced, and happy, and peaceful. Every day, when I get up I read this phrase. It’s a Zen phrase. It says... (speaks in Chinese). Translation: ‘The wind shows its body through the trembling leaves.’ So – I’m in tranquility."

English Feature # 7-38346 Broadcast February 16, 2004