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215 of 219 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful account of an American's life in China, March 26, 2003
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 22, 2006 1:14:50 PM PST
I taught ESL in Beijing during 1999 - 2000. His observations are right on.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2008 5:52:45 AM PST
I was about to write a review of River Town as I was quietly, yet profoundly moved by it. But this review was really good, so I will just let it stand

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2008 5:52:57 AM PST
I was about to write a review of River Town as I was quietly, yet profoundly moved by it. But this review was really good, so I will just let it stand

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2008 5:53:20 AM PST
I was about to write a review of River Town as I was quietly, yet profoundly moved by it. But this review was really good, so I will just let it stand

Posted on Jun 25, 2008 7:15:45 PM PDT
S. Daniel says:
I agree. This review is superb. I loved this book. It is currently my all time favorite book --about anything.

Posted on Aug 27, 2008 8:23:59 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 27, 2008 8:28:55 AM PDT
Here it is, eight years or more after Peter Hessler's classic hit the streets. Having just returned from six weeks in China, half of it spent in Sichuan Province, I remain in awe of Peter's insights as to what it is like to be in contemporary rural China. The conditions he described in the rural setting remain, albeit those experiences are colored by a "new" type of Chinese student, one who has turned his and her focus to making money adding myriads of upscale purchases , and doing whatever it takes to achieve "success." For the past twenty years I've been spending time in Taiwan and many Chinese cities and towns, urban and rural, have journeyed via "hard-seat" train, long-distance bus, slow-boat, and pedi-cab, all of which are eloquently described in River Town. As he related the angst he experienced while learning Mandarin I felt every barb, being a still-struggling aged quasi-student of the language. I feel that, along with whatever Chinese language texts or learning resources are used by Western-based teachers, River Road should be required reading! One final comment: When I flew out of Chengdu I left my copy of River Road for two people to share, one an American expat, the second my Chinese assistant. The first recipeint was excited to read the book; the second, a University student, was skeptical that there would be much contained in Peter's work that would surprise him...we will see.

Posted on Mar 9, 2010 4:22:15 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 2, 2011 2:32:27 PM PST
An informative and helpful review!

- author Sam

Posted on Aug 4, 2011 9:30:31 PM PDT
Thanks for this great review. I have been to China several times, but as an independent traveler ~3 weeks each time. Next year, I will spend one year in Wuhan, also along the Yangtze, albeit in a much different context. I just purchased this book from B*'s liquidation sale today having never heard of it before. But now, it appears, it is essential background reading prior to my trip. Btw, I study rivers, so it will be interesting to see the role of the main non-human protagonists, the Yangtze and Wu rivers, how that has shaped the lives of the people in the town and how the people have shaped the river.

Posted on Jun 25, 2014 6:42:09 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 27, 2014 1:15:29 PM PDT
oliver says:
"This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control"

Not exactly, it's far more than that. Just remember, China is a country ruled by individuals instead of law for thousands years. I grew up under Mao's rule and I was amazed how quickly Chinese totally forgot their communism ideals within two decades but kept their traditions and attitude. That's why I never had any problem understand people living in Taiwan in anyway, which never had isolation and political control under communism. They have exact altitude as people who live in mainland China.
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