In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:
"I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; I wasn't there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn't built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations."
In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.
I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:
1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.
2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!
3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's return to motherland simply overwhelmed Peter (and myself): the handover lapel pin, the handover umbrella, and the handover rubber flip-flops!
4)Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, 'as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.' So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.
River Town is indeed one of the best books I've ever read for years. Peter is not only an on-looking 'waiguoren' (foreigner) but he has found his identity among the Chinese. He befriended the owner of the restaurant and his family. He established daily and weekly routines which include newspaper reading at the teahouse and chatting with the teahouse 'xiaojie' (girls), hiking up to the mountaintop, visiting the vendors at a local park, and hanging out with his students after class. During the summer vacation, he took an excursion to the Great Wall in Shanxi and Urmuqi in Xinjiang. The prose is vivid, crisp, and gripping. I really appreciate how he approaches the people and culture with an honesty-to have gone so far as some of the moments of candor become unpleasant. This is a page-turner, the kind of book that you don't want to end so soon. 5.0 stars.