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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Commons Day

On a recent Wednesday morning, a group of freshmen from the Honors College, University Scholars, and WISE congregated in the Wang Center Theater Lobby to hear Da Chen speak. This segment of the Undergraduate College Commons Day reception of the author of the first-year reading, Sounds of the River, commenced with breakfast.

As students helped themselves to coffee, parfait and bagels, the torpor imperceptibly gave way to animated conversation. When the author showed up in a trim, nondescript black suit, a frisson of distending interest became palpable. As he slowly made his way to the speaker’s podium, variant whispers (‘Look, Da Chen’s here,’ ‘He looks just like he does in the photos’) suffused the atmosphere.

Da Chen began his oration by declaring, ‘You guys are the highest achieving students. I can feel the vibe here’hellip;in the way you eat your breakfast,’ which immediately elicited an appreciative laugh from the audience. In another display of his droll wit, Chen facetiously asked, ‘Have you guys found a brook yet? Is there a stony brook somewhere nearby?’

Then, trading his mirthful gaiety for a more somber repose, Chen gave an account of his formative years. Growing up, he didn’t think much about becoming a writer; his turbulent milieu arrested the formation of any artistic ambitions.

Chen grew up during the Black and White years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As he recounted, his childhood was marked by starvation and persecution of his father and grandfather. ‘What I witnessed during the Revolution was horrendous,’ Chen said. ‘I have seen my father hung by both thumbs, his feet barely touching the floor.’ Such vivid description is prevalent in his memoir.

For a long time, however, Chen was ‘ashamed of being ashamed’ of the humiliating scourge that his family had to endure. It was not until one day, when his daughter asked him, ‘Daddy, are you really an alien?’ that he decided it was time for him to ‘confess’ and tell her the ‘story of my childhood.’ Thusly was he driven to write his memoirs, first Colors of the Mountain and then Sounds of the River.

All of us consciously craft identities that ineluctably lack verisimilitude to who we truly are. Chen opined that the greatest challenge is revealing our true personalities by tearing away the multitude of fragmentary facades we put up.

‘Every single one of you is stronger than any negative force coming at you. And there will be many negative forces coming your way, but you should not bow to them. The most important thing is to find yourself, find your own footing and don’t be defeated by what seems strong. Know your own strength.’ As Chen pointed out himself, the fact that he, a serious student with the soul of an artist, was able to thrive in a callous and tenuous world marked by internecine strife bespeaks the power of the will.

When Chen was kicked out of school at age nine because of his family background, he despaired of breaking from the chains that shackled him to a bleak, ubiquitous fate. He spent a year as the youngest farmer on a Chinese Communist farm where he routinely picked up cow manure to be used as fertilizer. This connection with the soil and nurturing earth is a perennial theme in his memoir.

In an approbatory statement that lent much gravitas to his speech, Chen exalted, ‘You are the chosen ones and as chosen ones you have a responsibility to this world ‘- to lead this world and help those who need help.’

Chen then dedicated an ineffably supernal bamboo flute melody to the audience. ‘You are welcome to close your eyes and follow me to China for a little bit,’ Chen said. The diaphanous cadence of the song entranced the students as some of them closed their eyes while others were wholly transfixed to the artist by a veritable gluon.

In the question-and-answer portion of the event, Chen responded to questions students had written down on scraps of paper. His vituperation for the society into which he was born was underscored in such statements as: ‘In our culture, we take everything upon ourselves. If you have a tragedy, it’s all thought to be your own fault. Fortune tellers will tell you that, your parents will tell you that and your neighbors will tell you that. Some traditions try to undo you at the very beginning of your life and blame everything on you rather than emphasizing the positive aspects of your life.’

Furthermore, Chen related how antipodal influences shaped his adolescence. The bete noires of his student days, the mercenary teachers, were ‘marginalized’ in his mind by ‘the grandeur and glory of kind people who could not afford to be kind, like Professor Wei who taught me English in my teens.’

In a wistful threnody for an archaic existence, Da Chen limned the abject state of his childhood village of Yellow Stone. Its once capacious rivers are now yellow puddles of industrial waste and its formerly monolithic mountains have been razed in the process of gentrification.

In response to a student’s question about his work ethic, Chen admitted that fear motivated him to achieve the best grades in college. The author claimed that to this day, he has incubi of failing exams and being sent back to the farm to labor as a prole. ‘But fear is actually good for you,’ Chen averred. ‘The extent of your success is based on the reach of your ambition. You wish for more and you will achieve more.’

In closing, Chen expressed obeisance to the American paradigm of enduring nationalism. ‘Every moment that I’m here in America, I feel fortunate. This is by far the best country in the world,’ the author said with brio. ‘Don’t let the French tell you otherwise.’

He relayed an anecdote apropos of a ‘great American moment.’ When he took his 11-year-old son to the Sundance Film Festival during the week of President Obama’s inauguration, the writer made it a point to imbue his son with a sense of reverence for the ideals upon which this nation is predicated.

As they entered an ice cream shop and watched Obama being sworn into office on television, Chen told his son, ‘This is the reason your father is here. This is the reason millions of mothers and fathers come from faraway lands to be here. If the son of an African, an immigrant, a foreign student, can become the president of the U.S.A., this is the greatest country because your achievement is based on the content of your character.’

Expounding on the definition of achievement, Chen asserted that it is not simply a matter of ‘redeeming oneself,’ but also of redeeming one’s heritage. When asked about the ‘main message’ that undergraduate students should carry away from Sounds of the River, Chen replied with one word, of which he is an apotheosis: perseverance.

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