Friday, March 13, 2009


Sometimes happy endings can be a let-down.

A couple of weeks ago, something really bad was set to happen to one of the nicest people in the Quad Cities, and I was primed to rally to his aide. I was good and miffed and ready for action. Of course, given the fact the fact that I'm pretty much useless and lazy, my only action was going to be a newspaper column. But it was gonna be a GOOD column. Vitriolic words of rage and empowerment were bracing themselves to come flying from my keyboard. I might have even written a sentence or two in ALL CAPS (my angry font.)

But then it all worked itself out, dang my luck. Righteousness and a happy ending prevailed without me getting to bust out even a single inflammatory adjective. What a drag. Still, though, it's a story worth mentioning, even though I don't get to rage against any machines.

I first met Tien Chang at the club I DJ at on the weekends. Now, if you're a patron of the District, you know that there's sort of a standardized model of behavior to follow, right? Girls flock to the dancefloor to shake their assets, and guys try their best not to look like total nimrods while disguising their total and complete lack of rhythm. It's sort of like watching a nature show on Animal Planet, just with fewer caribou deaths.

One day I was up in the booth doing my best to provide a soundtrack to the human mating season when in walked an altogether different herd. A group of people who weren't there to show off, who weren't there to be fashionistas, who weren't there for any real reason at all. A group of gangly guys and girls who didn't care what people thought of them and didn't care how they looked on the dancefloor. A group of people clearly in the club to have a good time, listen to some fun music, and shake their booties in whatever haphazard manner they wanted. A group clearly after the heart of this card-carrying nerd.

And at the center of them all? A short, unassuming Asian kid who bounced up to the booth and insisted in broken English that I play some Michael Jackson in a hurry. And when I put that record on, he took to the floor and danced just like Michael -- were Michael suffering from some sort of tragic neuro-muscular seizure. Make fun of his dancing all you want, but Tien Chang's good heart and happy-go-lucky attitude made him an overnight institution in the District. Even on my worst night of DJ'ing, if I saw Tien and his gang walk through my door, I knew I'd be entertained.

Over the past few years, I became friends with Tien and his buddies -- so that's why I was stopped cold the other day when I saw an e-mail that Tien was being forced out of the country and back to his native Taiwan.

It turns out that Tien's student visa had come to an end. Having come to America at age 16 on what he calls "sheer impulse and a desire to learn," Tien's American dream landed him in Fort Dodge, IA. It was there at Iowa Central Community College that he discovered his passion for art.

When his mom came to visit, they took a roadtrip to Chicago, which brought him through the Quad Cities. Tien explains, "I just thought to myself, 'This place looks nice. Why not move here?' So I did." Coming from Joe Schmo, an impulsive decision like that seems reckless. Tien makes it all seem strangely normal.

After stints at Black Hawk and Scott Community Colleges, Tien ignored his father's advice to become a chiropractor ("NOT my scene,") and instead took a transfer student scholarship to St. Ambrose University. That led to an art scholarship and a degree this past December.

In the meantime, he became infused with the arts and culture scene of the Quad Cities. Tien's work has hung at the Leger Fine Arts Gallery and can currently be seen in several local exhibits. An avid rollerblader, his work with the Iowa Connection has helped unite blading enthusiasts across the state. On the weekends, you can find him working the door and keeping the peace at Icons in the District. And, of course, he's still a wicked force on any dance floor.

But before Tien could get his diploma and certification to apply to grad schools, his student visa expired and he found himself on the verge of being kicked out of the country. Too late to achieve a work visa, Tien posted plans for a moving sale to his shocked friends.

Overnight, a "Save Tien Chang" group was started on Facebook. Letter-writing campaigns by his friends went to every politician with an open ear (and merited a warm response and optimistic reply from Sen. Mike Jacobs.) But before any real action got underway, an advisor at St. Ambrose realized that Tien qualified for a temporary work visa. She rushed a request in and his visa arrived mere days before the plane for Taiwan lifted off. I'm happy to say he wasn't on it. He now has one year to sort out graduate school and wade through the red tape for a proper work visa.

"My dream is to become a naturalized citizen," Tien told me tonight over a pint at Bent River. "My life is here now. The art world in Taiwan is very commercialized. They don't appreciate the importance of showing personality through artistic expression."

Often we hear stories of lucky immigrants afforded the right to start over in the great American melting pot. In this case, though, it's WE who are the lucky ones, because the Quad Cities would be a shade or two dimmer without Tien around to shake things up. He's not a special case, he doesn't have a tragic human interest story that'll make you cry. He's just one of the good guys, and to his friends, he's as much a part of the Quad Cities as John Deere or Harris Pizza.

Here's hoping you can stick around for a long time to come, friend. Tien Chang: Talented artist, good friend, awful dancer -- Quad Citian.

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