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Min's first novel is less successful on a number of fronts than her outstanding memoir, Red Azalea. Narrated by a 29-year-old Chinese woman named Zebra whose family is poor and disgraced in the eyes of the Party, the story line traces the upheavals sparked by the appearance in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of a vibrant American teacher of English. When, in 1982, Katherine first arrives at the East Sea Foreign Language Institute in Shanghai, Zebra is a hardened veteran of the crushing Chinese system. Becoming Katherine's friend and prized pupil holds a dangerous allure for her: "Katherine. We enjoyed saying it. We liked to think that her name smelled of hot blood. We liked to imagine everything that came with the name. A story of the western world." Katherine meets Zebra's expectations, teaching her not only English but also the finer points of the Beatles, makeup and illicit affairs. Zebra is not the only one who finds the American compelling, however. So does a fellow student, who has the unlikely name of Lion Head and who is mixed up in political games involving the head of the Institute. Despite Zebra's multiple warnings, Katherine blunders into an unseemly incident in which the demands of the state trample the desires of the individual. One of Red Azalea's most enjoyable attributes was the tension created by the presence of a charged sensuality amid the gray uniformity of Communist China.
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