Saturday, March 30, 2013

River Town: Two Years On the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler

A volunteer for the Peace Corps, Hessler lived in Fuling, a little town in Sichuan province, on the delta of the Yangtze and Wu rivers, for two years teaching English. As one of the few Westerners in the town since World War II, Hessler becomes the focus of not always kind attention in town, but as he learns more Chinese and more of the Chinese way of doing things, he sees his place more clearly and almost, at times, seems to fit into the daily life there. Of course, nearly everything in China is political: the literature he teaches is used by his students as a springboard to analyze their own lives, even as Hessler learns how hard it is to broach certain subjects in a culture where everyone is brought up to believe the same things.

Written in calm, meditative prose, this is an excellent entry into the annals of the Westerner-in-China body of memoirs. Hessler is wise beyond his years, and his China (or rather, his Fuling) is never of the sadly typical “oh look how foreign everything is” variety. He recognizes full well how foreign he himself is, and even during his lowest points of cultural contact – when men try to pick fights with him simply because he’s a Westerner – he reports with a detached and reflective eye. He learns rather quickly how to deal with some of the illogical bureaucracy – I enjoyed his clever face-saving solution when confronted with the lie that he was required to get a chest X-ray to participate in a foot race, for example – but he is troubled and bemused by certain other aspects of Chinese culture. He cites the lack of empathy and collectivist thinking that he saw in Chinese crowds, and the disturbing lack of fixed individual values in a culture where “wrong” thinking can become “right” as easily as it takes for an authority to say it. In his own small circle of students and friends, he hears of two deaths, a suicide, and a kidnapping (of a woman to become a forced bride). Near the end of the book, he muses that he can only brush against “the slightest sense of the dizzying past” that informed the values and behaviors that he encounters. His Fuling is, as he says, “a human place,” and that puts his memoir in the top ranks of its kind.

five stars

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