River Town by Peter Hessler


Audiobook.  I was expecting one of those interesting "how strange it is to be immersed in a totally foreign culture" books, but Peter Hessler's account of his two years working for the Peace Corp in a remote part of Sichuan province in 1996-98 is much more than that.

Yes, there are the funny bits about how he enjoyed teaching English to students who chose their own English names, like a tall boy named Daisy who always wore a camouflage uniform to class, and Moe who later decided he wanted a last name and chose Money.  Hessler tells about the faculty banquets which involved competitive drinking and bullying of those who could not keep up.  And he recounts how odd it is to be the tall one in the room for a change.

But there is so much more to this book.  The teacher's college in Fuling was not a prestigious school in China, but because such a small percentage attended college in China, the peasants' children who qualified were very bright and highly motivated.  He taught English literature, including Shakespeare's sonnets.  The students were receptive to that poetry, because Chinese ancient poets were a part of their lives.

Hessler's goal was to learn Chinese; he studied with two teachers at the college who spoke no English.  It took months before he became accustomed to the treatment he received in the city; wherever he went crowds gathered and mocked him and laughed at his Chinese.  His found that if he endured the initial insults, people would talk to him and he became used to their strange questions.  It became a normal routine that one of the first questions asked of him was his salary.  During a summer vacation trip to a remote northern area of China, he was befriended for a day by three young women who gathered for a school reunion.  He was struck by their interest in spending time with not just a stranger, but a foreign stranger. 

During that same trip he was in the Uyghur Autonomous Region; you might remember news stories of Uyghurs who were in Guantanamo Bay.  These Muslims who came under Chinese domination after 1949 are very different from the Han Chinese.  They look like Arabs or perhaps Italians.  Hessler found that although he looked more like them than the Han Chinese, he had grown used to the standard interactions with the Chinese. 

During his second year he came to realize that Peter Hessler could watch his Chinese self, named Ho Wei, as he interacted with people, but he was ultimately pretty helpless.  Ho Wei had to figure out on his own how to manage some strange situations, like coping with the prostitute who tried to attach herself to him. 

Peter Hessler has written two other books about China and has written for newspapers and The New Yorker. 

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