Book Review: “River Town” by Peter Hessler (2001)

Image result for river town hesslerAnyone who’s ever taught English in China likely has a love-hate relationship with author Peter Hessler and his in-depth treatments of life in The Middle Kingdom. On the one hand, we dislike him because his experiences are not much different than those that fill the pages of our own journals and e-mails home, so we selfishly think, “Why should he get so popular and wealthy, while we’re still scraping by?” On the other hand, we also enjoy his books immensely, because he’s an expert at perceiving the realities and quirks of life in China, and he puts into grand words the perceptions and truths behind our common experiences. He’s like the successful bloke at your high school reunion: you scoff at him publicly, but then rush home and try connecting with him on LinkedIn.

Hessler fills this wonderful book with powerful insights into Chinese culture in the late 1990s (a vastly different culture from that of today), tinged with dry humor from an educated mind. This treatment of a small town along the YangTze River gives a snapshot of a thousand others just like it across that vast landscape. In this short review, I’d just like to share a few impressions that have stuck with me over the years since I first read it.

First, as a “long-time, part-time” student of the Chinese language myself, I really appreciated how he managed to record his growing understanding of Mandarin during his stay in-country. For example, he traces his progress by recording what characters he could slowly begin to read and understand on a single billboard, week after week. What began as an unintelligible garble of strokes, the message slowly came to light, a character here and a character there. Such is the process of learning an alphabet-less language, like a baby recognizing objects for the first time.

Second, I loved how he related his various classroom experiences with his highly-sheltered students. If any foreign teacher does not feel an extremely comfortable familiarity with those persistent scenes, then they’re likely one of those teachers who’s moved to China for the adventure and not for the people or the education offered. Both types are everywhere, and they separate the good from the bad. I’ve worked with them both over the years: the Canadian girl who fastidiously studied the language by drinking tea with and getting to know her students on a nightly basis and the Pakistani Londoner who admitted to me in the cafeteria during our first week, “I’m looking to bed one of my students.” China’s current standards for hiring English teachers are improving, but losers are still aplenty. Chinese schools might find more success if they judged all incomers on “The Peter Hessler Scale, 1-10.”

Hessler writes of unspoken and unacknowledged attempts to break his sheltered students out of their cultural shells, not with any political motivation in mind, but rather to let them simply open up about what they really thought about life in China. Rather than mimicking what they’ve always been taught to think, what does their gut say? What do their hopes and dreams really reflect? The answers from and growth shown by his students are very enlightening and well worth the read.

Finally, while Hessler describes many aspects of Chinese culture, he hits on one specifically that put into words something that had been nagging at the back of my mind throughout my first three years there. The Chinese people claim this powerful communal connection. They boast in their dependence. They rightly praise their “family-first” mentality. They often condemn (though these days, far less so) the independence of Americans and their flippancy about family connections. The Group Thought espoused by the Chinese people, however, is in reality a big sham. While the Chinese people certainly do love their family like no other culture I know, while they’re powerfully nationalistic, and while they certainly are sacrificial when it comes to serving and caring for guests and visitors, their claim to being community-minded couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Hessler describes a public argument in his book (and I myself have seen brawls and injuries and accidents and countless other prime examples over the years) where injured people are not helped but rather gawked at. The Chinese love to crowd around a poor, desperate, injured, crying person; but if that person is a stranger, he’s really nothing more than a passing source of interest. Good Samaritans the Chinese are not, and it’s really quite a despicable dark side to their otherwise kind façade. Rarely in America could a person fall down or drop a bag of groceries or even get a flat tire without having some kind stranger lend a helping hand. Americans don’t need these “Pay if Forward” commercials, for assisting the needy is just part of our fabric—it’s  one reason we root for the underdogs. Sure, in comparison to the Chinese we “hate” our families by living so far apart and we “turn our backs on” the parents who sacrificed us by helping them get situated into assisted living facilities, but when it comes to loving neighbors, America blows China away. In a sense, this could also be magnified by looking at America’s relationship with the world in general during our short history compared with their comparative hermitage of China over the past 5,000 years, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I loved this book and really do recommend it both to those seeking to teach overseas and to those armchair sociologists who want to learn more about what makes China tick. Hessler’s a fairly likable dude who’s chosen to make the dissection of this nation his life’s work, and I simply have to respect that.

©2016 E.T.

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