Review: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

River Town was an exceptional look into the life of a waiguoren learning to become approximately local in rural China in the 1990’s. Frequently beautiful, often funny, sometimes repetitive, this travel memoir was full of insight and warmth.

I could go into detail about Hessler’s art, the history he skillfully introduces and explains, the friendships he makes, the few and minor triumphs and victories over a place that makes him feel otherized and strange, the sometimes tentative and frightening positions he finds himself in, and the students whose education is its own reward. But I’m not going to analyze or critique this book or do a close reading of it.  Instead, I’m going to relate to this book in an Oprah Book Club type of way: I’m going to say that I liked it, and then I’m going to tell you why. Because I don’t want to distance myself from China or even literature about China; I just want to take it in, absorb it, and begin imagining my own experiences, facing my own fears and disillusionment as well as building up my hopes and expectations.

Hessler talked a lot about his Chinese self, Ho Wei, compared to his American self. He said the greatest difference between these two selves was that Ho We, for a long time, was stupid. He was an illiterate, foolish, bumbling foreigner with the Chinese vocabulary of a toddler. And because of that, he was able to relate to locals in a way that he may not have otherwise. As a buffoon, he was harmless, and as a harmless figure, he was able to immerse himself in local life–and begin learning from his mistakes. Growing up, as it were.

I admire this optimistic point of view. I don’t mind being silly, but I have a horror of being supposed foolish or stupid. However, since my “Chinese self” will be much like Ho Wei was in the beginning, I need to try to get used to that feeling now, I guess. How exciting to be able to have a Chinese self! To be able to develop as an entirely new person. If language influences–if not creates–all of an individual’s perceptions, then going to a country illiterate and learning the language really will be like growing up again from infant to adult, with an entirely different culture as a backdrop to my life. But of course, I am already an adult. I came to adulthood in America, and being an American adult will flavor all of my interactions and observations and every aspect of my day-to-day. But perhaps my American adulthood can help nourish, nurture, and raise my Chinese infancy–perhaps I can at least reassure myself that this time around, adolescence doesn’t have to be so tough.

My own experience will be in a big, modern city, and will take place almost fifteen years after Peter Hessler lived in the “small” rural river town of Fuling. History as well as books like this have taught me that China changes constantly, so expecting my Chinas to be the same as Hessler’s is ludicrous. Still, from reading about his experiences, I feel closer to that far-distant country I’ve never seen, and I feel more confident now that I’ll be able to carve out a home for myself the way he did, through hard work, language study, flexibility, patience, understanding, and an interchange of kindness with people, who, if we seem to have nothing else in common, are people, as I am a person.


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