Little Seed

Wei Tchou

May 31, 2024 
The following is from Wei Tchou's Little Seed. Wei Tchou's essays and reporting can be found in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Oxford American, among other publications. She likes to write about food, nature, and the complications of identity. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and has an MFA from Hunter College. She lives in New York City, where she is tending a lemon tree.

The last time the Spider lived in America, he had been handsome. With a full head of hair and penetrating brown eyes, he was dreamy in that Connecticut way—lacrosse sticks and thick wool sweaters, dropping acid each weekend in a friend’s basement, chasing girls with feathered blond hair. But after school, he’d left for a job in Beijing as a reporter for English papers, James Dean on a motorcycle racing through streets teeming with Chinese, picking up scoops during the country’s turbulent eighties and nineties.

Article continues below

Now, more than twenty years later, he finds himself in North Carolina. He is beginning to stoop, the skin on his body becoming loose and translucent, the hair on his head thin enough to show glossy scalp. Like stepping out for a cigarette and coming back inside and finding that someone had swapped his body. He dons baseball caps, oversized T-shirts, and the kind of khaki cargo shorts that camp counselors wear. He makes his voice soft and unauthoritative, watches everything carefully from under the brim of his cap.

In California, he’d met a guru who was Beijingren, but tall, dark, and ageless. Like the Spider, Master Wang had also roamed Tiananmen Square during those devastating nights of bloodshed, heard bullets in the air, seen students lifelessly draped over each other’s shoulders. He fled. In America, he turned to Buddhism, finding solace and healing in the constraints of mystic Chinese wisdom of food as medicine: eschew animals and the heavy protein of nuts, beans, and legumes. No drugs like caffeine or sugar or alliums or starches. Only fruits, vegetables, seeds, and earthy pu’erh, steeped continuously. Just one meal each evening: a thin stew of quinoa, squash, and greens—wild fennel if you could find it. On such advice, Master Wang had turned his mother’s hair from white to black, had engineered his own eternal-seeming youth. He told the Spider: If you eat like a bird, you will fly.


In North Carolina, the Spider is hired at Duke University to lecture on Chinese studies and to help with the student newspaper. The job mostly amounts to attending events and getting to know students of Chinese descent, students who are learning Chinese, students who are curious about China, or some combination of the three. He slouches across campus, clutching a mason jar of hot tea tucked into a sock. Sometimes he carries a ragged backpack on his shoulders, sometimes he wheels a rusted blue bicycle beside him.

Article continues below

He tends an unruly garden in the backyard of the shared house where he lives, scattering squash seeds across worn-out soil. His housemates are mostly graduate students, and he offers them and their friends free vegan dinner any night they want: a bowl of his humble quinoa stew. And so, on weeknights, a lively party often emerges at the picnic table in the backyard by the garden, voices cheerful and argumentative, faces golden in the fading light.

Sometimes the Spider brings out his guitar to play standards: John Prine, the Beatles, Neil Young, and they all sing together until they have had too much to drink. The Spider likes to tell the story of how, when he first went to China to teach English as a teenager, he’d play “I Am the Walrus” for his class and encourage them to analyze the lyrics. The punch line is that he had to explain to his perplexed students that it’s a nonsense song, something just for fun. He punctuates this with a laugh, as if it reveals something profound about Chinese disposition, underscores the missing thing in Chinese people that he is able to provide—the goodness of absurdity, genuine Chinese laughter, forbidden Chinese joy. He is the American key in the Chinese lock.

He’s so cool, the students think as their vision blurs, imagining the world his stories belong to. How old is the Spider? they wonder, tabulating it in their heads—at least the same age as their fathers, their professors. If they squint just enough, they can imagine the Spider in tweeds, in blue oxfords and baggy belted jeans, but the man in front of them has the quality of youth, in his threadbare T-shirt, an acoustic guitar over his shoulder. He tells vulgar jokes, spins stories about women and drugs and foiled plans. He rolls his eight eyes when they bring up the idea of desk jobs and graduate school. Live another way, he says.

They wonder if it is his untraditional life, doubled by China, that has made him so alive. Or if it is really the exclusion of heavy foods, a single meal a day, a dedication to reducing harm for all sentient life. Live like water, shed all earthly attachment. One by one, they clear their bowls and glasses from the table, bearing them inside, sidestepping the garden whose shooting stems and creeping sticky leaves weave in and out of one another in the summer breeze, together a fantastic new life-form, its spindly structure arcing and creaking against the brief indigo sky before darkness falls.


Article continues below

The Olympics will be held in Beijing that summer. Thousands of Tibetans ask the world to pay attention to their oppression by the Chinese state. After months of peaceful protests in Lhasa, hundreds are killed or go missing. The Uighurs in Xinjiang protest for independence too, and millions of Beijing residents are evicted from their homes in winding historic hutongs. These homes are razed in order to make space for buildings shaped like bird’s nests and soap bubbles.

These stories attract the attention of the American media. Little Seed is glued to the news. She’s reminded of her home, where China is discussed and invoked constantly, like a shameful uncle she’s never met. Now, everywhere she looks, there is China, again, the obsessed-over stranger: Chinese human rights violations, Chinese poison in baby formula, Chinese dissidents stripped of their basic rights. Chinese people are either ruthless or too uncivilized to know better. The Chinese will never catch up to Americans. Or China is an immediate threat, a rising power.

Big Brother is studying Chinese history for his master’s degree, but his absence still lingers inside of her. Without him, she feels lost, but she’s determined to find a new way for herself. When she asks Mama and Baba about China, they simply make a distinction between old China, where they are from, and new China, which started after they left. They agree with American reports that new China is gauche and greedy and individualistic. They feel sorry for the Chinese who came after the Cultural Revolution, who have lost their histories. Speaking to them about the politics of China makes her feel connected. Something about this surprises her. Big China, China as it exists in newspapers, offers a way to be close to her family without reentering the cramped China of her childhood. Or dwelling on how distant Big Brother has become.

Little Seed is becoming a journalist.

In Chapel Hill, she observes the international students in her journalism classes who are from China. She feels a faint repulsion at their seriousness. They feel foreign. Do they think of her as linked to them? She cringes. (She is not like other Chinese people.) But they naturally embody something she lacks. She wants them to recognize that she is Chinese too, but they never do. For some reason, that makes her feel angry and sententious. What of China does she contain?

Article continues below

She attends a lecture by a professor from Beijing on the crisis in Tibet. She is on the side of Tibet, of course. She arrives to a full auditorium, brightly lit by morning sun, attended mostly by international students from China, dressed plainly to her eye. She is wearing a gray sundress with sunflower-yellow Converses. Her hair falls in waves to her waist. She’d traced her eyes in black eyeliner. The last year of beer and cafeteria food has added an extra twenty pounds to her body, which she confronts when she sits down. The air is filled with chatter in Mandarin that she wishes she could interpret. She has been taking classes in Mandarin, but only for three semesters.

The professor, in aviators and a polo, walks to the podium and the room grows silent. He announces that he will give his remarks in Mandarin rather than English, and Little Seed feels annoyed and slightly embarrassed. But she’s too close to the front of the lecture hall to leave. She tries to pick up a sentence here or there. Eventually, when it’s time to ask questions, they are all in Mandarin. One voice politely and firmly disagrees with the content of the lecture. From the languid pace of the Mandarin, Little Seed recognizes words like freedom, and justice, and heart.

“My Mandarin is not proficient enough to speak confidently on complicated politics,” the voice continues in English, soft and apologetic. “So I hope you all don’t mind if I continue in English.” Heads turn. The Spider is sitting in the very back of the room, wearing a knit cap, and Little Seed feels relieved to see another American here. She is impressed that his Mandarin is so good, like a real Chinese person.

The Spider goes on to speak of the brutality he witnessed and endured as a journalist in China. Little Seed is in awe. He speaks of starting an English-language magazine in Beijing, of the Chinese police breaking into his home, shooting his dog, and throwing him into a dank cell for two months before deporting him. “The Tibetan people deserve rights,” he says. “The Chinese government must learn to value human life.”

Little Seed approaches the Spider nervously after the lecture and introduces herself as a journalism student. She asks if she might interview him for a class assignment. He smiles and agrees, and asks her questions about her studies as they exchange phone numbers on a sheet from his reporting notebook. A real reporter’s notebook! Little Seed thinks. She thanks him for speaking up at the lecture on behalf of Tibet and for agreeing to help her.

Article continues below

Leaving the auditorium, Little Seed feels proud for having approached someone who is so important. She leaves excited; she has uncovered something that might finally put her on a path to understand what it means to be Chinese.


Later that evening, as she is reading in bed, a new number lights up her phone. She picks up, and before she can say hello, the Spider’s voice unfurls as if in mid-conversation.

“The students are going wild over here on campus,” he says. “Some are protesting China, and others are counterprotesting Tibet. Things are going to get ugly. You’re going to want to come out here first thing tomorrow morning.”

Little Seed hesitates, thinking about the plans she’s made with friends to have breakfast in the morning then lounge around in bars and drink until night. She wants to know who hooked up and what everyone wore and talked about. She wants to be invited to a house party or to a football game. She wants to sit in the corner of a patio, flushed from cheap beer, and have someone notice her. She dithers.

“You want to learn about journalism, right? Well, here it is. Come along,” the Spider says, irritation in his voice. “Meet me in the Duke auditorium at ten.” Little Seed senses that if she doesn’t go, she might lose her chance to know him.

“Okay,” Little Seed says. “Okay, I’ll be there.” There’s a pause on the other end of the line, as if the Spider hadn’t expected Little Seed to say yes.

“Your people are crazy,” the Spider says, gently now.

“My people?” Little Seed asks, bemused. Does he mean college students? People from Tennessee?

“The Chinese,” the Spider clarifies.

“But I’m not—” Little Seed begins, but the line is dead. Yet she’s filled by the feeling of being identified as Chinese, of being placed somewhere for once. Her people, she repeats to herself, a deep thrill moving inside her.


From Little Seed by Wei Tchou. Used with permission of the publisher, Deep Vellum. Copyright © 2024 by Wei Tchou. 

More Story
Why it's so hard to lend a book to a friend, according to the internet. I spent a few days in DC over the long weekend for a wedding. Walking around leafy and well-appointed Capital Hill, I overheard...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.