Students listened intently while best-selling author Da Chen spoke about his experiences emigrating from a rural area of Communist China. The event took place on Oct. 9 in the New Library auditorium as part of Experience Asia month.
The event, sponsored by the Asian American Association (AAA), also featured Chen playing his bamboo flute, answering questions from audience members and autographing his new novel using his native brush calligraphy.
“We hope that (students) gain more knowledge about life in China and general Asian American culture,” Jordan Lee, junior elementary education/math, science and technology major and AAA member, said.
“More specifically, students may realize the hardships that immigration brings about, and how one man was able to adjust to life here and overcome obstacles placed before him,” Lee said.
In 2001, Chen released his first book, a memoir titled “Colors of the Mountain,” which he said chronicles his family “caught in a grip of a revolution in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Along with having been on a number of bestsellers lists, some of his books are used as textbooks at universities around the country, including Yale and Vassar.
“Everywhere I go I bring these two treasures, these two legacies of my forefathers,” Chen said as he talked about his bamboo flute and brush calligraphy.
His father taught him how to play the flute, and he uses his playing as a way to connect with him. “The only way I can keep him alive is to talk about him and continue his legacy, and part of his legacy is to play flute,” Chen said.
His grandfather was the one who taught him how to write calligraphy. “He tried to instill in me a certain scholarliness,” Chen said. Even though his family was poor and starving, he said his grandfather taught him calligraphy because “your penmanship almost dictates how you will be perceived as a person.”
“It brings about a certain inner beauty, and I couldn’t find an equivalent for it in American culture,” Chen said.
Chen said he vividly remembers the day that completely changed his life and led him to where he is today. He was 8 years old, and he and his friends ran to the Commune Headquarters. They sat and watched a man as he was being beaten while he hung from both arms from the ceiling with his feet barely touching the ground.
“We were having fun until the string turned a little and I saw my father’s face,” he said. “It was a moment I could never forget – a moment of humiliation, fear, shame and deep sorrow.”
When Chen came to the United States, he attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and worked as a waiter until one of his customers told him he should apply to law school.
He took his advice and attended Columbia Law School on a full scholarship after having received his undergraduate degree in Beijing. “I was very intimidated because I hardly speak very good English, but I learned rather quickly,” he said.
Chen explained how he showed up to a prestigious Columbia reception wearing a “bright and shiny” tie that he got in Chinatown while everyone else was wearing expensive Italian ones.
“It’s all about the shirt and tie,” he said as the audience released an uproar of laughter.
Chen started writing down his childhood memories and didn’t expect them to ever be published. Within a week of sending his memoir was out, nine major publishing companies all responded with interest.
“It is a small book written by a small person, but sometimes the smaller the story, the better the story,” he said.
He met with the president of Random House Publishing and agreed to sell them the rights to the book. “They sent me to 60 different cities – cities I never imagined visiting,” Chen said.
“America is by far the best country in history and in the world . I can’t say enough about it,” Chen said. He said that he realizes this because he has been behind the “Iron Curtain” and knows what its like to grow up in those conditions.
Chen’s newest book “Brothers,” which was on sale at the event, has been called a “magnificent fiction” by the Washington Post and was recently listed as one of the “Best Books of the Year” in Publishers Weekly.
According to Lee, this event is part of “a month full of events that focus on bringing attention to the Asian American population on campus and spreading awareness about (its) cultures.”
“We felt (Chen’s) experiences and stories would be appropriate for the month of ‘Experience Asia’ and he would have a good influence on the campus,” Marybeth Competelli, sophomore psychology major and AAA member, said.
When asked what he plans on writing about in the future, Chen said, “All my readers want a third memoir . but my editor said, ‘Da, you have a great imagination.'” He now has a contract for several more fictitious novels and is in the middle of writing his second.
“It was an honor to have Da Chen come speak to (the College) campus,” Nishan Bhagat, junior psychology major and co-chair of Experience Asia month, said. “He was funny, motivational, and his speech (elicited) a powerful message.”