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.
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About the Author
Da Chen is the author of Colors of the Mountain, a New York Times bestseller; Sounds of the River: A Young Man's University Days in Beijing; Brother; and two books for children, Wandering Warrior and China's Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution. He grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and now lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
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?"
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.Sounds of the River. Copyright © by Da Chen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not quite as mesmerizing as the first, but nevertheless an engaging read, about a sidelined country boy who made it to the most famous university in the country, and how he overcame all odds there to fulfill his dream. An inspiration for people who may be thinking that circumstances are too much for them to handle, this book tells us "don't give up!"
As part of my university's first year program, we reviewed Sounds of the River as an option for our common read. I could not put it down. It is a quick, easy read. Da Chen shares his experiences as a first-generation, low-income college student in the context of Beijing in the 1970s and 80s. Students will be able to connect with his transition experiences and will hopefully glean the message of hard academic work can lead to great success.
I enjoyed this sequel of his first book Color Of the Mountain. He exposed the struggle and hard life that ordinary Chinese had to endure to survive in the seventies and eighties. Only the smart people managed to navigate the system, not the honest and good people.
If you have read Da Chen's Colors of the Mountain, then you will enjoy this memoir. I can imagine that the story would be less memorable if I had not read his first memoir. Da Chen writes beautifully - as though he is an artist. His memory of his life's events will grab you and his language will ensure that you continue to enjoy the book. This book is more than just the story of a young man in college - it is a story of survival and love of family!