Review: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I take to my blog once again to expound on the narrative excellence of Peter Hessler. He’s not necessarily a magician with words, but he is a master of narrative flow and he captures China in ways that most foreigners could only dream of.

Country Driving: a Chinese Roadtrip is the summer vacation you never thought possible. This book follows three stories 1) two separate car trips following a path set out by Great Wall of China; 2) his sojourns to Sancha, a quiet rural village two hours north of his residence in Beijing; and 3) the life of a factory over two years in a small city in southeastern China, Lishui.

My favorite bits of this book were undoubtedly the time spent keeping track of Hessler’s time in Sancha. He had rented a small home in this village to have a place to get away from the hustle and bustle and dirt of Beijing. It was a gorgeous place to write and relax, but soon he became friends with some of the villagers, and his trips there became less about writing and more about visiting. Over the course of the book, he becomes particular friends with one sweet little boy who becomes very, very ill. Hessler has to advocate for the boy in Beijing because his poor rural background means the busy nurses and doctors barely even look at the boy’s parents as they shout for help during the midst of a medical emergency.

I loved this part especially because it showcases, first of all, the intense and immediate friendships that can spring up between near-strangers. But I especially like the idea of life encroaching on what you think of as your safe space. Hessler wanted to “get away from it all,” but he learned that you can’t become a hermit in another person’s home. The people of Sancha made him very aware of that. It also functioned as a microcosm of China as a whole – as just a few years passed by, Hessler witnessed Sancha go from this rural secret to a tourist pit stop. It brought money to the people of Sancha, but at what many would consider a great cost of natural beauty and privacy.

The chapters about the journey along the Great Wall just filled me with envy – Hessler took about a couple weeks to go as far as he could. There is a point where the Great Wall stutters to an abrupt halt at the shore of the sea, and I would love to see that.

All in all – another great Hessler read.

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Review: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

A year ago, before I left for China, I read and reviewed Hessler’s “River Town,” a book about his 2-year stint as a Peace Corps member in the rural village of Fuling along the Yangtze River. The book was inspiring, thought-provoking, and compelling, in that I was compelled to think hard and dream big about the myriad ways my own experience as an English teacher in modern China could and would play out.

Reading “Oracle Bones” after the completion of my year abroad, I found myself nodding along to the cultural quirks, shaking my head at the recounting of struggles between protesters and oppressors, and feeling deep sadness for a culture that is congruently burying a past, living in a present, and ignoring a future except in the abstract.

Oracle bones are usually ox scapula or the underside of turtle shells which have been heated and cracked. The crack lines are used to divine oracles which are then scratched into or written on the bones. They weren’t recognized for what they were until 1899, when a Qing dynasty official, Wang Yirong, went to the pharmacy for some ailment and was prescribed oracle bone as a cure. He noticed the written glyphs on the bone before it was ground to powder, and he bought the pharmacy out so the bones could be studied. No one knows how many oracle bones had been ingested by your average Chinese citizen before the value of the bones were discovered.

Hessler’s a journalist who lives in the ever-changing cityscape of Beijing. “Oracle Bones” gracefully entwines the past and present of Chinese history by chronicling a few ‘ordinary’ lives: Polat, a black-market money-trading Uighur who seeks political asylum in the United States, William Jefferson Foster and Nancy Drew, two of Hessler’s former students who migrate to Wenzhou for work, Emily, another former student who migrates to what’s been called the “soulless” city of Shenzhen, and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle-bones whose story is remade, obscured, and revealed in small glimpses of truth all the time by the different people who tell it. Also chronicled are the brutal shutdowns of the peaceful protests of Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong is a religion based on meditation and qigong exercises introduced in China in 1992 and subsequently forbidden and prosecuted by the government.

Falun Gong members practicing meditation in front of their insignia.

Lacking some of the momentum and flow of “River Town,” “Oracle Bones” nonetheless creates an impressive dialogue between a complicated, hazy past and a likewise complicated and hazy present. It seems in all this history, a very common divination of the oracle bones is all that can be hoped for: “In the next ten days, there will be no disasters.” Throughout the book, or rather, throughout Chinese history as evoked by the book, there’s the sense that looking ahead further than those ten days would be nonsensical. In a world riddled with oppression and a rapidly changing and growing economy, there’s no guarantee that the future will in any way resemble what the world looked like a week ago.

Review: Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman

My foray into Chinese travel memoirs has been backwards, chronologically speaking. I began with Chang’s Factory Girls, which was written in 2008, then journeyed to 1996 with Hessler’s River Town, and then wrapped up this morning with Iron & Silk by Salzman, the events whereof began in 1982.

Iron & Silk I read off and on throughout a day and a half. Salzman’s style was blunt, crisp, and to the point. He wrote about what interested him: wushu and his study thereof (with, among others, the famous Pan Qingfu), and calligraphy and his study thereof. His friendship with a peasant fisherman’s family was recounted, as were relationships with his various teachers and students, including an interesting young boy who was continually on the run from his family, staying with strangers and stealing trinkets as mementos until officials dragged him home again.

This book surprised me–was even unsettling–because, although it chronicled events that occurred in 1982, so much closer to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s time in power than the events in Hessler’s River Town, when China was still so far from the modern, progress-guzzling behemoth we know it to be today, the Chinese people in Salzman’s books were characterized as much more irreverent, much more unfettered in their language and criticism of Chinese politics than the Chinese citizens in River Town.

The irreverance of the earlier book, the careful close-lippedness of the later book: nothing could be so indicative of the shift caused by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Not yet a part of history in Salzman’s books, and only briefly covered in Hessler’s, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the government crackdown afterward nonetheless influenced nearly all of Hessler’s interactions, and caused me to see ghosts in Salzman’s, ghosts of a future that hadn’t yet taken place.

There’s more to be said of this book, certainly, but there’s not much more for me to say. It was a good read, but not a remarkable one, and in the end, it made me feel kind of spooky.

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.

Review: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang attempts to interweave her own family’s history and migration from China to America with a different migrant story entirely: that of 130 million Chinese youths who leave their families, homes, and schools in the village for  unknown factory jobs in the big cities. Chang focuses on two teenage girls, Wu and Chunming, who job-hop relentlessly in the city of Dongguan, always looking for the next big thing: the highest paying factory with the least amount of overtime, a pyramid scheme that destines them for success, a new boyfriend who isn’t a loser (jobless or an “ordinary” bottom-rung factory worker) with whom they can share a mobile phone and perhaps, in time, even an apartment.

It’s a strange world that Chang depicts, one utterly alien to me. These young girls often work 11 hour days, with just a few days off per month, for very little pay, and yet their high-energy, high-drive, non-stop race for success leaves me, the reader, more exhausted than they ever appear to be. They think constantly of money, social status, and self-improvement. In China, a self can be remade overnight. Quit a job at your old factory, start a job at a new factory, get a haircut, get a new boyfriend: none of these is more important than the other on the road to success.

These migrant girls are the basis for the world Westerners live in. They are the ones who assemble the pieces of the clothes and handbags and phones that we can’t live without. Many of them stay their whole lives in a single factory, leaving for a while to get married and have children, and then returning to help support their family, while others strive constantly for something better.

Although the world they enter is one completely unfamiliar to me, their journey out and away from home isn’t. I, too, come from a “village” (literally, Thompsonville, MI), where opportunities are scarce and money is tight. I, too, left that home for a city, and higher education, and a hope of something bigger and better than what I left behind. The pull of home will always be strong. The girls Chang interviews idealize their homes to a certain extent, declaiming the beauty and rural quietude. But they all say “there is nothing to do at home.” Nothing is available to them, either in the way of job prospects or social opportunities. Their only choice is to go out to the city, and once they do, there is virtually no going back. Even the youth who come home to marry often return to the cities to find new work. Many people from different provinces and regions meet in a factory and when they marry, instead of settling in either’s home village, they find a new home in the city where they work.

I can’t help but feel lucky, and undeserving, that by virtue of my foreignness, and my native ability to speak English, I am able to get a job in a highly economically desirable Chinese metropolis, making a modest sum that is still far more than the factory girls’ monthly income. But Chang’s book did illustrate one thing that should lend hope to every “factory girl:” for the enterprising young person bent on making a name for herself, all doors will open with enough persistent shoving.