Min: Author learned English by watching 'Sesame Street'

Posted 10/10/17

"I [did] not now know the word of 'depression,' but that is what I went through," she said. She recalls seeing herself reflected in a mirror. "I saw the face of death coming out of my own shape," she …

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Min: Author learned English by watching 'Sesame Street'


"I [did] not now know the word of 'depression,' but that is what I went through," she said. She recalls seeing herself reflected in a mirror. "I saw the face of death coming out of my own shape," she said.

Min was being punished because of her connection to Madame Mao, fourth wife of Mao and a political figure in the revolution.

Madame Mao had selected Min, out of hundreds of young Chinese women, to be a leading actress in a propaganda film.

Min, who said she grew up brainwashed to support the revolution, remembers showing up to the audition straight from laboring in a cotton field, where she had been scouted.

"I was embarrassed by the color of my fingernails," she recalled. She had just been carrying manure when she showed up for the screen test. She was chosen, she said, for her proletarian look.

All she could think was "This is my chance, not going back to carry manure."

When Madame Mao was arrested and sentenced to death, Min was considered her "trash," and forced to work in conditions that led her to become depressed, to coughing up blood. She knew she would die, she said.

When a friend living in America encouraged her to leave China, she seized on the idea. "I had nothing to lose," she said.

In a series of circumstances set in motion by her being accepted into the Art Institute of Chicago while still living in China, Min made her way to America with incredible determination, she said, lying when she had do; doing everything she could. Upon arrival at the university, she was given six months to learn English or else she'd be deported, she said.

She recalled seeing the homeless in Chicago. "I envied the homeless," she said. "They spoke English, and they have the right to work."

To earn a right to work was paramount, she said.

Min started learning English by watching "Sesame Street." She worked five jobs at once, she said, and slept in unheated rooms. She married for fear of her visa expiring, and then divorced and raised her daughter alone.


To pay back the country that had saved her life, Min began to write books that would illuminate life in China for the American public.

She has published two memoirs and six works of historical fiction.

Her life story and writing are those of an underdog, she said. Her parents "were nobody," she said. But people like her parents made up 95 percent of China when she was growing up, and are what made China what it is today, she said.

In her writing, she uses metaphors specific to China that American readers would understand, she said.

She notes one metaphor that describes her parents as a pair of chopsticks: appearing to be parallel and aligned in harmony, but always fighting against each other in the way chopsticks "fight" when one uses them to eat.

As far as she knows, she said, she is the only American writer to compare a couple to chopsticks.

Seeing her writing published, she said, was a way to earn honor for America.

"I was very, very pleased when 'The Cooked Seed' was published," she said of her most recent memoir, which NPR called "the ultimate immigrant story." "The Cooked Seed" tells of transition from a student who couldn't speak English to a best-selling author. It was published in 2013, following her 1994 debut memoir, "Red Azalea," about her life growing up in the trauma of the Cultural Revolution.

She's grateful to the response from the media, she said.

"It was the media that really helped me with becoming a best-seller," she said. "It literally is the journalists who thought my book worth enough."


Today, Min visits China, where she still has family, and said that it's important to understand its history in order to know where that nation is going, especially in its relationship with America.

"I feel it's a crime to erase history," she said.

She's deeply saddened by the state of today's political climate in America, and said she devotes time to monitoring world-politics news, and America's role in other countries.

She still feels indebted to the country that saved her life, and doesn't take living in America for granted.

"You should not just sit here and feel entitled," she said. That's the philosophy by which she raised her daughter, too.

"In America, you've got to prove yourself, and you're given the chance to prove yourself," she said. "That's the beauty of this country."

"In America, you've got to prove yourself, and you're given the chance to prove yourself. That's the beauty of this country."

Anchee Min

2017 Huntingford Humanities Lecture guest

Huntingford Humanities Lecture 2017

WHO: Anchee Min

WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 19

WHERE: Chimacum High School auditorium, 91 West Valley Road, Chimacum.

COST: Free


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