The Turbulent Sea: Passage to a New World by Charles N. Li


A young teen escapes to America from Mao’s China in the early 60s and experiences the consequent culture shock of cruel racism, financial hardships, unexpected freedom, bewildering sexual mores, and the aching rejection and loneliness that so many immigrants face. Swept up in the 1960s antiwar movement in a pacifist and law-abiding way, Li is persecuted by the American law enforcement and immigration authorities. Timely and relevant for today’s enlightened anti-racist views. 

In The Bitter Sea, Charles Li’s unforgettable coming of age memoir, Li recounts the torturous pains of growing up in the early years of modern China. With his family’s fortune destroyed, he is left impoverished in a Nanjing slum and endures crippling starvation within the harsh confines of a Communist reform school, all set against the opulent decadence of the foreign “white ghosts” in British Hong Kong.
The Turbulent Sea recounts Li’s escape to America and the shocking, cruel racism he not only endured but observed nationwide. His fantasy of a fair and free United States is challenged by the behavior of law enforcement, government, and even his college peers whose permissive sexual mores and disregard for outsiders leaves young Charles with a heartbreaking feeling of disappointment and loneliness. As in the case of so many immigrants worldwide who are seeking a better life, his myriad challenges include staying at the top of his class while struggling with financial hardships. He can’t even afford a winter coat in the middle of Maine’s brutal snowstorms, and perhaps more heartbreaking, no one seems to notice or care.

Growing steadily more involved in the antiwar movement, Li, having suffered in Mao’s China, becomes a dissident among his cohorts for holding the view that Mao was the diametrical opposite of a revolutionary hero. Yet, for his pacifist and law-abiding protest activities, Li is persecuted by the American law enforcement and immigration authorities.

Li’s intellectual and psychological journey at Bowdoin College, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, is triumphant as he finds a group of talented friends who provide, at last, an opportunity for the love and care that eluded him for so long.

Riveting, witty and illuminating, The Turbulent Sea is also an unconventional history of America’s 1960s from the perspective of a brilliant, quintessential outsider.