Arts & Lectures
Last week, Anchee Min stood in front of a full, luxurious crowd at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and described her "pot of noodles"--a bout of tape worm-filled diarrhea, finally cured with the medicine of "Pagoda candies." She contracted tape worms during a subsistence-level childhood. As the oldest child, with a mother whose lungs were punctured by tuberculosis, Min was responsible for walking to the market at three in the morning, socks frozen with the cold, fighting crowds in order to procure food. This was in Maoist, China. Most food was shipped to Vietnam or Russia. Americans were the enemy, and Min was trained to fight with a bayonet, visualizing spilling American guts. At the depleted market, Min said, there were "pig tails, but no pig." When there wasn't enough, she ate trash. And she was the lucky one, with her pot of worm-noodles, Anchee Min said. Another child died; tape worms punctured the girl's appendix.
The stories Min relayed, in this Arts and Lectures event, were horrific and astounding, bodily, and all too real--but somehow made wonderful through the telling. The talk was spontaneous and funny, driven by an honesty, the abundance of emotion rushing through Min's words, love and gratitude overwhelming the horror.
In the labor camps, she said, leeches climbed under her skin as she worked in the rice paddies. Pulling leeches off only made them burrow deeper. "Pet where you think the head is," a fellow worker said. But there was no time; she already worked 15-hour-days to meet her quota. The health care philosophy in the labor camps, Min said, was that "everybody who claims injury pretends." With her period, she would have infections. The paddies were full of chemicals. She was made to lift three hundred pounds at a time.
Min is the author of the memoir, Red Azalea, and the novels Katherine and Becoming Madame Mao. Her life took a turn when she was chosen in the labor camps as the "perfect peasant face," to star in Madame Mao's propaganda films. The films were never made, though. Mao died and Madame Mao was arrested. Min, who was still young, says she was immediately branded as Maoist political debris and denied an education or advancement. She said, "In China, it's very hard to commit suicide, because so many people are around. You're never alone. Our family had one room and six people. The bathroom we shared with 20..."
Her 1984 immigration to the U.S. was a desperate act and a last alternative to suicide. In the question and answer session after the talk, an audience member asked Min's opinion on the U.S. response to recent terrorism. Min said, "My answer may offend some of you. I think the U.S. can be excessively humane... Who would talk to bin Laden and say 'Is that your inner child speaking? Are you the victim of something?'" Min is now married to a Vietnam Vet, with a daughter she describes as full of love. She spoke as someone who knows life is precious and small pleasures are worth fighting for. In this country, she's a successful writer and the author of her own life. In China, for now, her words are still banned.