A prodigy’s promise: Escape from China, then Thailand, then uncertainty in Syracuse (Chapter 2)

Dai Wei’s father, Shen Xi, a political refugee, is shown on August 23, 2011 working at Terrells Potato Chip factory in East Syracuse, his first job in the U.S. He was a university graduate and television journalist in China. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

A prodigy’s promise: Escape from China, then Thailand, then uncertainty in Syracuse (Chapter 2)

By Dave Tobin | dtobin@syracuse.com
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on December 10, 2013 at 7:34 AM, updated December 10, 2013 at 8:06 AM

Syracuse, N.Y. — Watching a conveyor belt of potatoes eight hours a day was not a job Shen Xi ever imagined for himself.

He was a university graduate and television journalist. Yet toiling at a dank, monotonous job inspecting potatoes at the Terrell’s Potato Chip factory in East Syracuse was what he had to do last year to feed his family.

He had no driver’s license and no car. He rode his bicycle to work and home again through rain, cold and darkness seven miles each way. At day’s end he was exhausted and increasingly discouraged. He wasn’t home during the day to monitor his son’s violin practice, and he had little energy for it at night after he arrived home.

Yet for Shen, a political refugee who could barely speak English, this first job in a new land was a step forward. He had not had a job for years

In 2001 Shen was arrested by Chinese authorities for providing computer access to an outspoken dissident. Police searched his house and took his computer and diaries, he said.

He spent a month in prison, Chinese police records show. He worked 14-hour days making lamps and wallets, he said. He and 14 others slept on a floor without blankets, he said.

He went free only after his mother paid $3,000 for a doctor’s statement declaring her son mentally ill and after he paid an $800 fine to police, he said.

Twenty-six days after Shen’s release, on Oct. 26, 2001, Dai Wei was born to Shen and Rong Ping.


Gifted Child Violinist Gifted child violinist Shen Dai Wei plays Partita in E Major Gigue by J.S. Bach

After prison Shen lost his job as a television reporter and was demoted to assistant clerk. No other government-controlled media would hire him.

After six years of media banishment, he fled with his wife and son to Thailand. They didn’t tell anyone they were leaving, not even their parents, for fear of being found out.

They lived in Thailand nearly three years as illegal refugees. There they had a second son, Dai Lei. In early 2011 a United Nations refugee program helped the Shens get to the United States, records show.At the last minute, his wife’s expired passport led authorities to jail her and her newborn for nine days before they all could leave. When her paperwork was fixed, Thai police drove her and Dai Lei to the airport to meet her husband and son, she said. Dai Wei was nine.

They arrived in Syracuse on St. Patrick’s Day. They settled into a four-room apartment through the Northside CYO, a division of Catholic Charities that helps 500 refugees a year settle here.

Their oldest son, Dai Wei, already seemed different.

At age 1 in China, Dai Wei could hum entire melodies of children’s songs, said his mother. When Dai Wei turned 4, his father bought him a 1/16th-size violin and found him a class. But he could not sit still.

Though Shen wasn’t working and money was tight, he invested in a private teacher.


The Gift Gifted 12-year-old violinist, Shen Dai Wei and his father, Shen Xi, talk about balancing childhood and nurturing Dai Wei’s musical gifts.

Not to do so, he said, would risk his son’s future.

They tried several teachers, but none was a good match. Eventually they found on an older instructor who ignited Dai Wei’s interest in music. This is what his father hoped for.

Shen, 39, does not play an instrument. His father was a self-taught musician who played violin, bamboo flute and accordion, but he prohibited Shen from studying music, Shen says. In his father’s view, music was not a useful skill.

Shen grew up near the end of the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese authorities suppressed Western music. His musical exposure was heavy on patriotic, Soviet bloc songs.

His introduction to Western music came as a teenager, when his mother bought him a cassette player. It carried the added thrill of the forbidden. He loved the Beatles and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” He discovered that music could uplift and soothe, especially Western classical music.

Now he selects classical music to balance his mood.

“Beethoven offers a rich strength and strong will,” he said. “It helps me overcome the hard days. Mozart can be like angels singing. Some of his pieces sound like they’re coming from heaven.”

There were moments when his son’s violin riffs sounded heavenly, but they weren’t consistent. What more could Shen do to foster his son’s talent?

Practicing all day would take Dai Wei only so far. He needed a good teacher.

How in this unfamiliar city would they find someone to share their mission?

This is the second of a six-part series published each day through Saturday on Syracuse.com.
Read Chapter 1

Contact Dave Tobin at 470-3277, dtobin@syracuse.com or via Twitter: @dttobin