Tuesday, October 09, 2007

River Town

The mundane becomes masterful as Peter Hessler gives vivid accounts of his two years teaching in the Chinese city of Fuling.

About a month ago, I reviewed Peter Hessler's newest book, Oracle Bones, a masterful work that blurs the lines between travel journal, personal diary and compendium of Chinese archaeological knowledge. I raved about his easily readable writing style, how he blends past and present with uncanny ease, and how he has mastered the art of profile to the point that it looks like his subjects are his best friends (see "The Priest" chapter). In Oracle Bones, Hessler's vast knowledge of China is always evident, but he parlays it without the least bit of smugness. The book inspired me to keep dreaming toward China, and it helped me rethink how I organize my writings about the Middle Country while making me wonder how I would fare if I stayed there more than a month, the length of my longest trip there so far.

But my journey with Hessler, thankfully, wasn't over. I still hadn't read his first book, River Town. I wanted to buy it, but I decided to check the Decatur Library first. You can only own so many books, and there's a certain value to reading the books you already have before you start buying more. Luckily, Decatur's library had a hardback edition, and in it I traveled back in time to Hessler's "two years on the Yangtze" (as the subtitle says), to a period in his life only briefly mentioned in his second book.

Both books are great because you don't need one to read the other, in the same way that you don't have to tell someone your entire life story to give them a glimpse of what happened yesterday. But the big picture does matter in a storyline. It helps to know the whole journey because a broader perspective gives insight into the reasons people respond the way they do and shows the underpinnings of their decision-making rather than the bare facts of what occurred. It's like that with Hessler's works. I liked not reading River Town first, but after Oracle Bones, I was intrigued as to the steps Hessler took to achieve his China knowledge and his writing prowess.

To my surprise, Hessler's cultural savvy was hard-earned. The second book starts with him working as a clipper for the "Wall Street Journal" in Beijing. He doesn't tell us that he's Princeton-educated, specializing in literature and creative writing, or that he has two years of teaching in Sichuan province under his belt. Without perspective, Hessler's relatively low on the totem pole in Beijing. But as River Town attests, he was a veteran in China by the time he reached Beijing. He paid his dues on the banks of the Yangtze, in a small town where he was one of just a few foreigners in the entire city.

At first Hessler seemed to relish the role of laowai (foreigner), but as the pages turn I got the sense that he began to grow out of his isolationism and melt into the Sichuan countryside. It's hard to call someone who travels thousands of miles to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural China an isolationist, but as I can vouch, rural China is a lonely place for the foreigner. I chuckled to myself as Hessler recounted his efforts to balance on the pencil-thin line the preferential treatment you sometimes receive as a foreigner with the unrelenting awkwardness and exclusion you sometimes feel because of that very same status. It's celebrity without the glamour, and it wears on the psyche. At times you just want to shake people and tell them to stop staring. Other times you wave a let out a hearty "ni hao!" Such is the difficulty--and reward--of traveling as an outsider in the interior of the world's most populous country. (I particularly liked his discussion of Ho Wei, the Chinese identity alter-ego he gained when began speaking only Chinese and interacting with the townspeople in Fuling.)

On that and other issues, Hessler's candor is refreshing in River Town, and it's rewarding to see the end result as you plow through the pages with him. He struggles with his Chinese tutor, but the relationship emerges with a deep respect on both sides at the end of the book. He takes part in the faculty drinking contests to score points with the administrators, but eventually he realizes the error in doing so. Finally, after political rallies for the return of Hong Kong to Motherland, almost fighting with some local men, teaching Shakespeare using Communist propaganda, developing sinus infections from the rampant pollution and various other outlandish anecdotes, Hessler realizes the key to surviving in China is to stop asking why, and if you must ask why, always console yourself with the same answer: "Because it's different here."

Even in his first work, Hessler is a master of setting the scene for the reader. I still have a cityscape of Fuling in my head. It might not be realistic, but Hessler provides raw material for the reader's imagination, using his background in literature to produce poetic beauty in his prose. Hessler respects the natural landscape, particularly how it interacts with the rhythm of the people's livelihood. The Yangtze is a symbol of power and timelessness, but its flow replicates the monotony of modern Chinese life. I enjoyed how he weaves this respect together with down-to-earth realism. He's able to get close and understand his surroundings without forfeiting his principles and American values. And like one sitting on the river's bank, Hessler's book gives the world an insider's view of interior China. He's soaking wet but not submerged.

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