Chen Da boards a train bound for Beijing with a bamboo flute, the equivalent of $1.50 pinned to the inside of his pants pocket and a small bag of soil from the riverbank of his remote southern-Chinese hometown. As a matriculating student at the Beijing Languages Institute, which in 1979 is China's most cosmopolitan school, he is the ultimate rube. He has never laid eyes on a foreigner, listened to a radio, tasted coffee or seen a refrigerator, and when he opens his mouth to speak—whether in English or his heavily accented Chinese—his classmates and teachers just laugh in uncomprehending ridicule.
But the very existence of Sounds of the River
(Harper Collins; 307 pages), the U.S.-based author's second memoir in his adopted tongue, assures us that despite the odds against him, this callow country bumpkin will somehow make good in the big city. The book is comprised of a series of colorful vignettes that chronicle Chen's seven-year odyssey from the humiliation of his arrival on campus to the hard-won triumph of securing permission to study in America. Shuttling his narrative between Beijing and Yellow Stone, his home in the Fujianese countryside, Chen recounts his often-awkward coming-of-age with humor, affection and a freshness that derives both from his almost implausible naiveté 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. He and his friends are obsessed with the recently verboten. Female classmates totter on the dance floor in their first high heels as they attempt to keep time with the strains of The Blue Danube. His four childhood pals in Yellow Stone painstakingly divvy up pages of a Western girlie mag that he smuggles into town on his first trip home. By the time he's ready to graduate, Chen is on hand as a translator to witness the NBA's first visit to China, and is sent to track down Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has gone missing in Tiananmen Square.
But freedom brings responsibility, and Chen—whose father is a thwarted scholar and the book's most compelling figure—never takes his good luck for granted. In his studies he remains true to his roots as a hardworking peasant, rising before dawn to pore over piles of flash cards, "relishing the real taste of pretty words and beautiful phrases such as nostalgia, willow bay, nip and tuck, nape of the neck and tiptoe," and struggling his way through Jack London and James Michener. 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.