From China, With Love
At the close of Sounds of the River, Da Chen's second memoir set in the tumult of a rapidly changing People's Republic of China, young Chen is ready to depart for America -- a place akin to another planet for the country boy from southeast China, whose hard work and sizzling intellect have already helped see him through dirt-poor beginnings and the challenges of college life in Beijing. Though the third book in the series is yet to be written, Chen (who appears Monday at the Tattered Cover to read from Sounds) promises that it's in the works. And if you've read the first two, that comes as welcome news: One can only imagine the depth of that as-yet unrecorded journey, which includes a scholarship to the Columbia University Law School and a stint as a Wall Street investment banker.
"I see this as sort of a living autobiography, a true memoir of a modern-day immigrant from the first sentence, using myself as the example," explains Chen, now a full-time writer and calligrapher who lives with his wife and two children in New York state. "I didn't come off a ship, but still I came from a place no less dark than the one people came from 100 years ago. I came wearing different clothes, and I had no Chinese piggy-tail, but I came for similar reasons -- not to pick gold, but with an ideal of being free." They're words not to be taken lightly from a man whose family had been persecuted as landowners during the brutal and corrupt Cultural Revolution.
How did Chen's expectations of America compare to the reality he encountered? "In Beijing, America to me was very much a cartoon picture: I imagined men wearing top hats walking down Fifth Avenue in New York. The reality that there was actually a modern America in existence didn't connect," he notes.
"My first brush with reality was most amazing," Chen continues. "My first sight here was of the snowcapped peaks in Seattle as I arrived from the Pacific. It's a wonderful coast -- regal, heavenly, somewhat icy, almost forbidding. It really brought it home to me: I was on a new continent." From there, Chen flew to Lincoln, Nebraska, to continue his English studies.
"When I first arrived in Lincoln, I had a very strange feeling," he says. "But as soon as I landed, it was like, 'Whoa, I'm here!' The air was sweet, so fresh -- I connected with it immediately. I came from the country, and coming to a farming state was less intimidating for me." He knew he'd truly arrived in the promised land when he first set foot in a supermarket: "To me, it was far more impressive than visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art: the watermelons stacked up, the racks of meat -- hotdogs, chicken for two dollars a pound. In Chinese, there's a proverb: 'Food is heaven.' Here, I truly found food heaven."
He got over it quickly. "That's the paradox," Chen says. "When you can't have it, you want to have it. At least here you have a choice." But even as he enjoys a life of plenty in America, he's never lost sight of the boy readers meet in his first two books. "He's there every day -- even more as I grow older. You have to keep that boy going. He keeps curiosity alive, that urge, that desire to try everything." It's that boy who brings life to his books, he acknowledges: "I like to write each page as if I was taking the freshest breath of air."
Perhaps with help from his self-probing exercises in writing, Chen seems to easily reconcile his new and old lives. "I want simple things: I want to be a good Chinese and I want be a good American," he maintains. "It's not shameful to leave," he adds, offering this proverb in explanation: "Good sons and daughters will go to the far corners of the world!" Da Chen is living proof.
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