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 nervousness 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.
From The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min. Copyright 2013 by Anchee Min, reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury.