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: 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.