China, land of opportunity: Da Chen to speak at Oakwood

Photo of Da Chen by Barbara Gentile

When Da Chen wrote his memoirs of growing up in Communist China and of immigrating to the US as a young man, he put a decidedly empathetic face on a foreign culture and inadvertently became a personable ambassador for both countries. Now living and raising a family in Highland, he enjoys the best of both worlds.

Chen’s books, Colors of the Mountain and Sounds of the River, are included in curricula at Yale, Vassar, Wellesley, in the SUNY system and in high and middle schools throughout the country. They speak of unimaginable poverty and sociopolitical strife, as well as the constancy of familial love and the raw beauty of the human spirit. Chen adapted Colors for a younger audience in his book China’s Son, and has become a voice of passionate encouragement for all ages.

Chen will take the stage on Thursday, February 16 at 7 p.m. in the Collins Library of the Oakwood Friends’ School at 22 Spackenkill Road in Poughkeepsie. His appearance promises to be an animated, artistic presentation – he plays a bamboo flute and demonstrates Chinese calligraphy – and an exploration of ethnic values that will challenge contemporary Americans.

“I’ve become quite a speaker everywhere I go,” Chen says of the turn that his career has taken. “China is very big, and [students] read my book as a part of their history and social studies. Last year I was a speaker at the National Council of Social Studies in Denver, a conference where 7,000 teachers have their annual meeting. China is suddenly a place that all the teachers understand: This is the world’s future.”

He compares the opportunities for living in and becoming involved in businesses in China today with those of past generations of the world’s immigrants coming to America. “At one time, being global citizens meant coming to America. Now being global means for our kids to really go out there. I’ve met so many Americans living and working in Shanghai and Beijing; 100,000 American people there. So I say, ‘Why don’t you go do that? If Chinese kids can come here and pick any job they are qualified for, you should be able to go to Shanghai and do the same thing.’”

But without the language, you cannot do that. “Our government is depriving our kids from learning a very vital language. I asked someone in the Education Department of New York State [about this], and she said, ‘It’s hard. What am I going to do with my Spanish teachers? I can’t turn them into speaking Chinese. That’s the bureaucracy we are facing.’ I say, ‘Just grab anyone who is delivering Chinese food! It’s that simple, you don’t have to have a guy from Harvard to teach Chinese. There are a lot of Chinese people out there who would be willing to teach!’”

He’s shining a humorous light on the predicament, of course. But as a proponent of young people becoming truly global citizens, he offers his message very seriously. “I always have this I Ching message that I bring to kids. First I talk about my past and part of that history; and the second speech I give is about the future. I give them two words: ‘Chinese’ and ‘writing.’ If you want to do well in life, learn how to write really well. And learn Chinese – like yesterday, not today. Kids in China are speaking very good English already. Our kids need to learn to speak Chinese. China is exploding so huge, and the enthusiasm for going that way should be as much as the enthusiasm for the world coming to America half a century ago.”

Chen’s enthusiasm is contagious. “I’m a Dad, and I’m very concerned about the future. I tell my children the same thing – no, they don’t listen to me, but these guys do. I sent my daughter to China for one year, and will send my son in a couple of years, too,” says the man who arrived on our shores penniless and ended up at Columbia University School of Law. He tells his own kids, “Study in England and Europe. Study in Africa. Last thing I want is somebody who just wants to stick around!”

The event is free and open to the public. A question-and-answer period will follow the presentation, giving Oakwood Friends students and guests a chance to engage with this dynamic speaker, and Chen will sign copies of his books at the conclusion of the event. The Oakwood Friends School, founded in 1796, is an independent, coeducational, college preparatory day and boarding school serving grades 6 through 12. For further information call (845) 462-4200.


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