Thursday, December 3, 2009

Literary Bite: River Town

I was hanging out chez LLC a couple weeks ago, looking for good books to borrow, per usual.

“Oh, you should read this one. It’s the reason I got into China.”

Woah, back up. That’s a pretty strong recommendation, considering the fact that LLC is obsessed with China and has spent a whole year there! I mean, saying that LLC is “into” China is basically the equivalent of saying that I kinda like cake

And River Town by Peter Hessler did not disappoint! I’m not saying that I’ll be shipping out to Beijing anytime soon, but after reading this book, I would definitely consider it (the complete opposite of how I felt after reading Lost On Planet China – I thought that book pretty much killed any desire I would ever have to see the place!).

Peter Hessler was the first Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, a town on the Yangtze River in Sichuan Province. This book is part memoir, part portrait of modern China.
Hessler moved to Fuling in 1996, and served as a teacher there for 2 years. The stories he tells about his interactions with students and the excerpts from their writings that he includes show unexpected characteristics of modern Chinese society. 

Their perceptions of the world, their political opinions, and their cultural values are uniquely Chinese. I had so many Aha! moments while reading this book (haha, I totally just channeled Oprah). As he lives through his two years, we see Hessler’s opinions change. He goes through the confusion of being new and foreign, to annoyance and frustration with Chinese culture, to finally developing a love for the place and the people.

The cover of the book says that it is “a classic tale of the American abroad.” I kind of agree – the way Ho Wei (Hessler’s Chinese identity) developed his own characteristics, separate from Hessler himself, is something I experienced when I took on a Nigerian name. Also, he writes about how language structures interactions, and how the language people chose to use can completely change the tone of a conversation. Again, I agree. 

 And, another plus, Hessler is a runner! (All the best people are, right?) Though he eventually has to stop running in China because of the extreme pollution and the lung problems it causes…

He runs The Twenty-second Annual Long Race to Welcome Spring in Fuling:
“It was China. Chaos, noise, adrenaline; fear and surprise and excitement; a mass of bodies, everybody yelling, horns sounding, the earth pounding; all of us running madly, arms outstretched to clear room; legs pumping, dashing, sprinting, trying to keep the back kick low to avoid being tripped…The seconds slid past, each moment an eternity of concentration and effort.
To lead any big race is a strange feeling. People speak of the loneliness of running, but I’ve always felt that the sport is lonely only in races, and especially when the pack breaks and you find yourself alone in front…And it’s even lonelier when you are the only foreigner in a field of more than two thousand, and all along the course spectators are calling out, ‘Waiguoren, waiguoren, waiguoren.’ Out-of-country person, out-of-country person, out-of-country person.

And I thought: Not today. If you’re looking for people who are out of their country, out of place, out of step, out of shape, awkward, clumsy; if that’s what you’re looking for, look back there…Don’t look at me – I’ve done this for many years in many places, and always it’s been exactly the same. There are no referees, no language barriers, no complicated rules of etiquette. All you do is run.” (p. 90)
Sorry – that was a pretty long quote. I started copying it out, and just felt that you needed to read it all. Because I completely agree with Hessler when it comes to running in a foreign place – it makes you feel stable, comfortable, in control, and happy!
Conclusion? Good book. Well written, interesting, and amusing. Read it!

Where is Fuling?

NY Times Review