Lunch, ordered in by Chen’s minders, is an excellent, enormous Italian meal of pasta, pizza and salads from Otto Enoteca Pizzeria on nearby Fifth Avenue. Before we start eating, he asks if he can hold my digital recorder. “I have a deep fondness for audio recorders,” he tells me, as he examines my device with his fingertips. “I was given one in 2005 that I used to document accounts of the government’s violent family planning practices. It survived countless confiscation raids on my house and I still have it today.”
His casual, dispassionate reference to the work that got him into so much trouble is striking, as is the serenity and forgiveness he displays while describing horrific events and the people who subjected him to them.
. . .
As we start our meal, I ask Chen how he likes the food in New York. His wife gives him a piece of pizza, telling him what it is and that he can use his hands to eat it. He smiles and says he likes all kinds of cuisine, especially Japanese and Indian. He explains that, while under house arrest in his village, he was regularly stopped from going out to buy food and supplies, and he and his family often went hungry.
In his simple, aphoristic style he continues, “Sour, sweet, bitter and spicy – they all have their own nutritional value, and it’s the same in a person’s life – eating some bitterness [having bitter experiences] also has its benefits and value.”
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