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Sounds of the River – A Young Man’s University Days in Beijin

Sounds of the RiverImprint: Harper Perennial
ISBN-13: 978-0060958725
ISBN-10: 0060958723
On Sale: 2/4/2003
Format: Trade PB
Pages: 320; $14.95;

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In this “equally beguiling sequel to his acclaimed memoir, Colors of the Mountain” (Kirkus Reviews), teenager Da Chen takes his first train ride away from the farm he was raised on to his new university life in Beijing. He soon faces a host of ghastly challenges, including poor living conditions, lack of food, and suicidal roommates. Undaunted by these hurdles, and armed with a dogged determination to learn English and “all things Western,” he competes to win a chance to study in America — a chance that rests in the shrewd and corrupt hands of the almighty professors.

Poetic, hilarious, and heartbreaking, Sounds of the River is a gloriously written coming-of-age saga that chronicles a remarkable journey — a travelogue of the heart.


Excerpt

Chapter One

The Beijing-Fujian Express! I had dreamed about the train, not once but dozens of times, in color. Each time it was different. Once, it had wings. Another time, it had the formidable head of a golden bear, the curling tail of a Eon, and flew off to an outlandish place where strange headless animals danced and welcomed me with slimy arms. I had awoken in a sweat. But this was reality. The express loomed large before me as I stood on the platform with my brother, shaking hands.

“Don’t forget where you come from, little brother,” my quiet brother Jin said, sucking in a large mouthful of smoke. His hands were a little shaky. “And watch your luggage closely. There are bad guys out there. Even when you’re asleep, try to wake up once in a while to check on your things.”

I nodded, all choked up, looking at my toes. From now on, it was just me against the world — an exciting but dangerous place. The three-day journey on this monster would take me to the capital of China. Soon Yellow Stone, the small village that had nurtured me for the last sixteen years, my family, and my grandparents’ tombs would be far away. The blue Pacific would be but a memory.

I hugged Jin. With tears in his eyes, he held me in his sweaty arms. The train whistled long and sharp, echoing against the mountains. Jin pushed me away and bit his lip. “Go, brother. Write us as soon as you get there, and then one letter a month like we promised Mom and Dad, okay? Don’t let us worry.”

I nodded and jumped onto the train. The mixed odor of sweat and some unnameable smell attacked me as I studied the route tomy seat. The overhead luggage racks reminded me of a butcher’s store. Bags big and small were packed right up to the ceiling. Lots of other objects hung from the rack, swinging overhead. Old farmers were squatting, lying, and sitting against their large sacks of farm produce, jammed in the aisle. They smoked pipes and chattered away. I wished I had wings to carry me through this throng to my seat in the middle of the compartment. It looked like I might even have to step on the old men’s heads and shoulders to get to my destination. I bent down, found a tiny space on the floor to set my feet, and moved slowly along, murmuring to the old farmers, “Grandpa, please let me through.”

I was six feet deep into the crowd when one funny-looking old man smiled at me with his yellow teeth. “First time on the train, young man?” he asked in heavily accented Mandarin.

I confessed with a nod.

“You might wanna go back and empty your pot before coming through again.”

It made a hell of a lot of sense, so I shoved my way back to the beginning of the compartment again, visited the windy loo, and slowly made my way back with an empty bladder as the old man suggested. I picked my way to my seat, stepped on a couple of toes, and received a few slaps on my leg for punishment. I sighed as I stood before what I believed to be my seat. An old lady was sitting in the spot matching my ticket number, looking out the window with a smirk on her face.

What should I do? If I followed the tradition of Yellow Stone, I should bow to her since she was my elder, and beg with politeness for her to let me use my seat. As I weighed my opening line, six pairs of eyes stared at me. The old lady winked, held her head high, and looked out the window again. She was playing it cool.

“Grandma, if I am not mistaken, you are actually sitting in my seat,” I said, forcing a small smile. My other seatmates looked on with jaded curiosity.

There was no response from the lady, not even the slightest movement of her proud head.

“Excuse me, you are sitting in my seat, old comrade!” I said in a firmer voice.

“Me, in your seat?” She turned and sneered at me, wrinkling her already wrinkled nose. The whole crowd turned their heads.

“Yes, here is my ticket.”

“It don’t do you no good. I was here first.” She shook her head and crossed her chubby arms over her big chest.

“No, no, you are wrong again. I was here first, way before you were. See the luggage up there?” I pointed at my pathetic two pieces, now buried under the heavy pressure of some huge sacks of dried goods. “And these people saw me here also.” I looked to the four men and one woman around me, begging for support. Their expressions remained blank. What a lame crowd.

“No, I’m not moving. You, young man, can stand till we reach my stop. Then you can sit.”

Finally a bespectacled seatmate spoke up in a weak but precise voice. “This young man was here first, and he has the ticket. You ought to move.”

A few of the other people nodded their agreement. High time!

“See? Please move. I have a very long journey.”

“How long?” she asked.

“To the last stop, Beijing.”

“Then there’s no hurry for you to sit. You will have plenty of time to sit. My stop is only the first from now.”

“Where is that?”

“Hangzhou.”

I wasn’t too sure, but it sounded very far away. I hesitated.

“Young man,” the bespectacled man said, “you don’t need to think about it. It’s twenty-four hours away from here.”

Another man joined in. “Old lady, you ought to get out of here.”

She sat there stubbornly.

“I’m going to call the conductor,” I said firmly, deciding to leave the sticky old lady to the hands of authority.


From The Critics

“A story about suppression, humiliation, vindication and, ultimately, triumph…Da Chen once again describes his past with fondness and buoyancy.”
New York Times Book Review

Readers will already be looking forward to the next installment.
Kirkus (Starred Review)

Da…is certainly likable. And his transformation from country boy to big city college professor moves briskly and entertainingly along.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“…Da’s prose is truly lovely and hints at the true depths of his gifts as a writer.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Da Chen’s latest book confirms that he is an extraordinary individual. In SOUNDS OF THE RIVER, the Chinese immigrant continues his dazzling autobiography…”—USA Today
“Chinese émigré literature has brought to these shores many new and interesting voices—the haunting lyricism of Ha Jin, the harsh worldview of Anchee Min, the righteous indignation of Adeline Yen Mah. Da Chen’s voice comes from the soil of China…his exuberance for life and its possibilities set him apart from others in the genre.”—Los Angeles Times

“An extraordinary writer…I found it narcotically entrancing — almost impossible to put down…”—Baltimore Sun

“…Da Chen’s soaring prose…He is not just Huck Finn, as has been said; he is also Tom Sawyer… SOUNDS OF THE RIVER is an engrossing sequel…and leaves us wanting more…”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“…Da Chen’s touching new memoir…is refreshing in its simple, conversational tone…his most lyrical prose often emerges when he is writing about his roots: the fields, smells, and foods of his rural homeland. No matter how high he will climb, it’s clear he was nurturing a gift for language and observation long before he reached Beijing or America…With frankness and elegance, Chen paints himself in this memoir as a bridge between old and new, connecting the struggles of his ancestors with his own success.” —Boston Globe

“…Chen recounts his often-awkward coming-of-age with humor, affection and a freshness that derives both from his almost implausible naivete and his relish at writing in his second language. Sounds of the River’s greatest strength may be the way Chen’s own awakening mirrors that of the country around him as it emerges from the Cultural Revolution…By the heartwarming tale’s end, the bumbling country boy Chen Da is well on his way to becoming the talented American writer, Da Chen.”—TIME Asia

“An evocative, informative memoir of life in China…Da Chen uses the ‘most romantic language’ to tell his life story.”—Chicago Tribune

Da Chen’s absorbing and moving new memoir, SOUNDS OF THE RIVER, is about a Chinese boy desperately making his way West…What makes this vivid coming-of-age story so worthy is not so much the lively and amusing anecdotes of university or city life…or the often lush descriptions of life in Beijing…but a bracingly wry self-awareness that gives traction to a story that could be cloying but is instead funny, exciting, and moving.”—New York Magazine

Chen’s books do not merely record an interior life; they also document the harsh and startling beauty of China’s physical landscape.”—Newsday

Chen delicately weaves his own personal story…by its end readers will already be looking forward to the next installment.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

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