The date was August 31, 1984. It was China's midnight and America's morning. I was about to drop out of the sky and land in Chicago. What made me scared and nervous was that I didn't speak English and had no money. The five hundred dollars I had folded in my wallet was borrowed. But I could not let myself be frightened. I was twenty-seven years old and life had ended for me in China. I was Madame Mao's trash, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which meant that I wasn't worth spit. For eight years, I had worked menial jobs at the Shanghai Film Studio. I was considered a "cooked seed"—no chance to sprout.
Sitting in the airplane crossing the Pacific Ocean, I felt like I was dreaming with my eyes wide open. I tried to imagine the life ahead of me, but my mind went the other way. I saw myself as a child attending kindergarten, where everyone called me Stink. My mother was ill with tuberculosis and never got the chance to wash the blanket I brought home every month.
"It's just a matter of time," Mother said. She was thirty-one years old and she expected herself to die. Watching her labored breathing and thinking about how my grandfather died of tuberculosis at age fifty-five and my grandmother at forty-nine, I didn't have the heart to keep asking my mother to wash my blanket.
I brought the unwashed blanket back to the kindergarten. My teacher rolled her eyes. "And look at that pair of animal claws!" She turned away in disgust. I was embarrassed. I wished that I could tell her that I had tried to do it myself, but the scissor was too rusty to cut. I couldn't get help from my father either. He was rarely home. He spent his days knocking on people's doors asking to borrow money, wearing tattered clothes patched at the knees and elbows. People avoided him the moment they saw him approach.
In the hot and humid summer, pimples began to bloom on my forehead. Infected, they swelled and oozed pus. Flies landed on my head. I tried not to scratch the pimples, but the itch was unbearable. To lessen the chance of passing germs to others, I was restricted from play and had to stay away from the crowd during lessons, especially during story time.
I begged my mother to take me to a doctor. One pimple was now the size of a grape. My mother said that she had no money. She had four children, and I was the only one who was not sick.
"Your father has exhausted every relative," Mother said. "No one will help us anymore." Every month I witnessed my parents struggling against their late debt payments to relatives, friends, and colleagues. We didn't own a towel. For years, the six of us had been sharing one dirty rag. Pinkeye spread to every member of our family. In the end, my mother told me that the zits would not kill me.
We were considered middle-class in Shanghai. I wished that my parents were proletarians like our neighbors, so that we would qualify for free medical care. Unfortunately, both of my parents were teachers, and thus regarded as bourgeois sympathizers. To be reformed was their fate. When the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1965, my mother was sent to a factory. Her job was to pick rubber boots from molds on an assembling line. To get to work, she had to transfer three buses every morning, which took hours. My father's work was farther. He labored in a printing shop.
One day, I was sent home with a notice from my kindergarten. The inspector from the public health bureau was concerned about the spread of my infection. My parents were ordered to "take action," or the government would do it for them. My mother decided not to respond.
A blue tricycle with red stars painted on each side came for me on a Monday afternoon. I was taken to a hospital where a surgeon removed my infected pimples. The surgery left an inch-long scar on the left side of my forehead.
My mother was horrified when she opened the bandages. She protested that she hadn't given consent for the surgery. "For heaven's sake, you have ruined my daughter's appearance!"
Mother was told that a girl's looks carried no meaning in a proletarian society. "You ought to be grateful that the surgery cost you nothing, thanks to the Communist Party and the socialist system!"
When I graduated to elementary school, I was still friendless. My clothes were covered with patches and my shoes were falling apart. Bullies competed at hitting me over the head with umbrellas and abacuses and seemed to enjoy the sound of beads hitting my skull. The more I ducked, the more excitement I generated. I never told my parents about what happened to me at school, because I believed they would only make the situation worse.
"I am going to leave you on the street," my kindergarten teacher threatened. "It's ten p.m.! Your mother is taking advantage of me. I have my own three young children to attend!" I was scared. Finally, my mother showed up. She was so thin she looked like a ghost under the dim streetlight.
On the day my mother got paid, I took my siblings to wait at the number 24 bus stop on Shanxi Road. We had been hungry for days. I licked the rice jar clean with my tongue. I also picked apple cores and sucked on popsicle sticks from public trash bins. The thought of Mother buying bread helped us endure our stomachaches. We cheered the moment our mother stepped off the bus. One time she arrived with bad news—her wallet had been stolen on the bus.
Waiting for my mother in the hospital was another thing I often did. My mother wanted so desperately to qualify for a permission-to-rest slip that she was almost happy when she felt dizzy, for she knew that her condition might earn her the slip. I saw Mother throw away medicine to ensure that her condition would not improve.
My mother was once a beauty. Though she was never interested in her own good looks, she was praised for having a pair of bright double-lid "Indian eyes" and a slender figure. She loved ancient Chinese poetry and singing, although with her poor lungs she could barely hold high notes.
Another strong memory is of waiting for my mother in a pawnshop. It had a huge black door and a high counter. My mother stood on her toes and reached up toward the counter with her bag. The night before, she had mended the clothes and sewed on buttons. She pawned her winter clothes in the summer and her summer clothes in winter. In the end, she ran out of things to pawn. I will never forget the disappointed expression on her face when her items were rejected.
Once I saw Mother's eyes light up when a relative bought us children's jackets as gifts for the New Year. I anticipated wearing the new jacket to school the next day. But the clothes disappeared. My mother never told us where the jackets had gone. I knew she had taken them to the pawnshop. She must have convinced herself that she would get the jackets back before the expiration day, but she never had the money.
I remembered the traces of blood on the snow where my mother walked. Her frostbite wounds cracked open and the backs of her feet bled. Her shoes were made of plastic that cut like a knife in winter. She couldn't afford a pair of cotton shoes or socks.
I followed Mother and walked in her bloody footprints. I was amazed that she never complained about the pain. Occasionally, her face would screw up, and she would let out a muted cry.
In the days before my departure for America, I went to a hair salon on Shanxi Road. It was called the Shanghai White Jasmine. I was asked the nature of my "occasion."
"The style must go with the occasion," the hairdresser announced. I told her that I was going abroad to America. The hairdresser looked me up and down in disbelief. I took out my passport and showed her my American visa.
"America!" The hairdresser shouted for the whole room to hear. The salon's workers abandoned their customers and gathered around me.
"You don't go to America looking like a peasant!" one hairdresser said.
"You don't parade the American streets with your moplike straight hair!" others echoed.
After a serious discussion, the salon's hairdressers came up with a style called Esmeralda.
I had no idea what "Esmeralda" meant. They explained that it was Shanghai's hottest style and that it was inspired by a beautiful Gypsy named Esmeralda in a newly imported foreign movie, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
I rushed to see the movie to make sure that the Esmeralda style was what I wanted. It was convenient, because the movie theater was located a block from the salon.
I fell in love with Esmeralda. I returned to the salon and requested the style. Seven hours later, the hairdresser announced that my Esmeralda was complete. During the process, I had endured pulling, curling, and blow-drying. The chemicals they used stunk worse than manure. The heated ceramic rollers were heavy on my head. Finally, I was led back to my chair. The moment I saw my reflection in the mirror, I fell out of the chair.
"This is not Esmeralda!" I cried. "It is a basket of seaweed!"
The flight captain's voice came through the speakers. I didn't understand what he was saying. I looked around and saw the passengers on my right and left buckling their seat belts. I copied them.
The plane began to descend. I saw a sea of lights outside the window. The beauty stunned me. "Capitalism rots and socialism thrives" was the phrase passing through my mind. Was this the result of rotting?
The plane rattled as it touched the ground. The passengers cheered when we finally came to a stop. One after another, everyone stood, picked up their belongings, and exited.
"Chicago?" I asked the flight attendant.
"No," she smiled.
"Not Chicago?" I took out my ticket.
"This is Seattle." She signaled me not to block the way. The rest of her words I couldn't understand.
I followed the passengers moving toward a big hall. My growing nervous ness began to choke me. The hand that held my passport became damp with sweat.
I didn't feel like I was walking on my own legs. The sound inside my head was louder than the sound outside. It was the noise of a tractor with loose screws going over a bumpy road.
I feared getting caught. I was not the person I had claimed to be—a student ready for an American college. But what choice had I had? I wouldn't have been issued a passport if I hadn't lied through my teeth and claimed undying loyalty to the Communist Party. The American consulate in Shanghai wouldn't have granted me a visa if I hadn't cheated and sang my self-introduction in English like a song. I had charged forward like a bleeding bull. I had not had the time to get scared until that moment.
My father was scared to death for me. He didn't think that I would make it. No one with common sense, or who had anything to lose, would do what I was doing. But I didn't have anything to lose. I was a caught frog, kicking my last kicks. I jumped the hurdles in front of me.
Off the plane, I went in search of the ladies' room. All the signs in English confused me. I followed a woman into a room with a sign showing a lady in a skirt. I was glad that it was the right place. There was no waiting line. I looked around to make sure that I was where I thought I was. I entered a stall and closed the door. I had never seen such a spacious and clean toilet room. A roll of paper came into view. It was pure white and soft to the touch. I wondered how much it would cost. I would not use it if I had to pay. I sat down and pulled the paper a few inches. I looked around and listened. No alarm went off. I was not sure if I was allowed to use the paper. I dragged out a foot more, and then another foot.
I put the paper under my nose and smelled a lovely faint scent. Perhaps it was free, I decided. Carefully, I wiped my behind with the paper. It didn't scratch my buttocks. What an amazing feeling. I grew up with toilet paper that felt like sandpaper. In fact, it was what I had packed in my suitcase—toilet paper made of raw straw.
People with different colored eyes, hair, and skin confirmed that I was no longer in China. I hoped my seaweed hairstyle didn't offend anybody. I inched forward in the line leading toward the immigration station. I heard the man behind the booth call, "Next!" My heart jumped out of my chest.
I forced myself to step forward. My surroundings started to spin. I was face-to-face with an immigration officer. I wanted to smile and say, "Hello!" but my jaw locked. My mind's eye kept seeing one image—a group of peasants trying to haul a Buddha statue made of mud across a river. The Buddha statue was breaking apart and dissolving into the water.
Shaking, I held out my right arm and presented my passport.
The officer was a middle-aged white man with a mustache. A big grin crossed his face as he greeted me with what I later came to learn was "Welcome to America!"
My mind went blank. I tried to breathe. Was the man asking me a question or was it a greeting? Did he mean "Where are you from?" or "How are you?"
I had been studying a book called English 900 Sentences. According to the book, "How do you do?" would be the first words you would say when you met someone for the first time. Obviously, this was not what the officer had said. How do I respond? Should I say, "I am very well, thank you, and how are you?" or "I am from China"?
What if it was a greeting? Did I hear "America"? I thought I did. "America" meant "United States," didn't it? Did he say, "Why are you in America?"
I could feel the officer's eyes as they bore into me. I decided to give him my prepared response.
Lifting my chin, I forced a smile. I pushed the words out of my chest the best I could: "Thank you very much!"
The officer took my passport and examined it. "An ... ah Q?" he said. "Ah ... Q? A ... Kee? A ... Q?"
On my passport, my first name was spelled "An-Qi." I had no say in choosing the spelling of my name. The Pinyin spelling system was invented by the Communist government. If the actual name was pronounced "Anchee," the Pinyin would spell it "An-Qi." The Communist official in charge of Chinese language reform believed that a foreigner would pronounce "Chee" when he read "Qi." No Chinese was allowed to spell their name any other way on their passport.
Should I have answered "Yes, I am Ah-Q"? I didn't think so. "Ah-Q" was the name of a famous Chinese idiot. If it was "Ah-B" or "Ah-C," I would have gladly answered yes. But I hadn't come to America to be called an idiot.
The officer spoke again. This time I failed to comprehend anything. The officer waited for my answer. I heard him say, "Do you understand?" The voice was getting louder. He was losing patience.
The mud Buddha dissolved. The river swallowed it.
The officer looked me up and down with suspicion.
I gathered all my courage and gave another "Thank you very much!"
The officer waved me to move closer. He began to speak rapidly.
Panicking, I shouted, "Thank you very much!"
The man's smile disappeared. He asked no more questions but took away my passport. He pointed behind his back at a room about twenty feet away with a door that had a large glass window.
My world became soundless. My knees gave way.
I was escorted into a brown-colored room. A lady came. She introduced herself as a translator. She began to speak accented Mandarin. "You don't speak any English, but you are here for college. How do you explain that, Miss Min?"
I had cheated, I told her. And I was guilty.
"Your papers say you speak fluent English," the translator continued. "I'd guess that you didn't fill out those papers yourself, did you? We need to deport you, Miss Min."
I broke down. "I came to America because I have no future in China. If there hadn't been so many people in the middle of the night at Huangpu River bund, I would have carried out my suicide. I wouldn't be here to bother you."
"I am sorry, Miss Min." The translator looked away.
"I didn't have the fortune to die in China," I cried. "I'll be as good as dead if you deport me. My airplane ticket alone cost fifteen years of my salary. My family is in debt because of me. I am begging you for an opportunity!"
"Miss Min, you wouldn't be able to function in this country." The translator shook her head. "Even if we let you go, you wouldn't be able to survive in an American college. Do you understand? You will become a burden on our society!"
"I'll be nobody's burden. I don't need much to live. I'm an excellent laborer. I'll deport myself if I don't speak English in three months!"
"Miss Min ..."
"Oh, please, my feet are on American soil! I might not be able to communicate, but I can draw. I'll make people understand me. Look, here are pictures of my paintings. I am going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—"
The translator looked at my paintings with a stone face.
"Help me! I'll forever be grateful."
The translator bit her lip. She looked at her watch.
"I am so sorry to bother you." I wept.
The translator stared at me in silence, then abruptly stepped out of the room.
Excerpted from The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min. Copyright © 2013 by Anchee Min. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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