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River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) Paperback – April 25, 2006
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In 1996, 26-year-old Peter Hessler arrived in Fuling, a town on China's Yangtze River, to begin a two-year Peace Corps stint as a teacher at the local college. Along with fellow teacher Adam Meier, the two are the first foreigners to be in this part of the Sichuan province for 50 years. Expecting a calm couple of years, Hessler at first does not realize the social, cultural, and personal implications of being thrust into a such radically different society. In River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Hessler tells of his experience with the citizens of Fuling, the political and historical climate, and the feel of the city itself.
"Few passengers disembark at Fuling ... and so Fuling appears like a break in a dream--the quiet river, the cabins full of travelers drifting off to sleep, the lights of the city rising from the blackness of the Yangtze," says Hessler. A poor city by Chinese standards, the students at the college are mainly from small villages and are considered very lucky to be continuing their education. As an English teacher, Hessler is delighted with his students' fresh reactions to classic literature. One student says of Hamlet, "I don't admire him and I dislike him. I think he is too sensitive and conservative and selfish." Hessler marvels,
You couldn't have said something like that at Oxford. You couldn't simply say: I don't like Hamlet because I think he's a lousy person. Everything had to be more clever than that ... you had to dismantle it ... not just the play itself but everything that had ever been written about it.Over the course of two years, Hessler and Meier learn more they ever guessed about the lives, dreams, and expectations of the Fuling people.
Hessler's writing is lovely. His observations are evocative, insightful, and often poignant--and just as often, funny. It's a pleasure to read of his (mis)adventures. Hessler returned to the U.S. with a new perspective on modern China and its people. After reading River Town, you'll have one, too. --Dana Van Nest --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In China, the year 1997 was marked by two momentous events: the death of Deng Xiaoping, the country's leader for two decades, and the return of Hong Kong after a century and a half of British rule. A young American who spent two years teaching English literature in a small town on the Yangtze, Hessler observed these events through two sets of eyes: his own and those of his alter ego, Ho Wei. Hessler sees China's politics and ceremony with the detachment of a foreigner, noting how grand political events affect the lives of ordinary people. The passing of Deng, for example, provokes a handful of thoughtful and unexpected essays from Hessler's students. The departure of the British from Hong Kong sparks a conversational "Opium War" between him and his nationalist Chinese tutor. Meanwhile, Ho Wei, as Hessler is known to most of the townspeople, adopts a friendly and unsophisticated persona that allows him to learn the language and culture of his surroundings even as Hessler's Western self remains estranged. The author conceives this memoir of his time in China as the collaborative effort of his double identity. "Ho Wei," he writes, "left his notebooks on the desk of Peter Hessler, who typed everything into his computer. The notebooks were the only thing they truly shared." Yet it's clear that, for Hessler, Ho Wei is more than a literary device: to live in China, he felt compelled to subjugate his real identity to a character role. Hessler has already been assured the approval of a select audience thanks to the New Yorker's recent publication of an excerpt. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This book is an interesting -- and also intensely personal -- account of living in China. I was sorry to have the book come to its end. 5 stars.
I can only suppose Mr. Hessler is brighter and more dedicated than I am: in his second year in country, he was daily conversing and reading newspapers in Chinese as a result of his private efforts, his regular classes with two tutors, and his daily practice with Old Hundred Names, the people at the bottom of the Chinese socio-economic scale. They were willing--even eager--to talk with the strange-looking foreigner, and they had a great stock of concrete knowledge of the way the country worked.
It was from Old Hundred Names that Mr. Hessler got his basic anthropological understanding of the country, from the particular cast of mind shared by Chinese individuals, through the assumptions and taboos all societies possess, to the conditions imposed by Socialism with Chinese Characteristics permeating the society at all levels.
I am not yet done with this book; I shall be sorry to finish it.
Although almost 20 years old, the stories are still fresh and interesting. Chinese culture may have become more materialistic in that time, and large parts of the country resemble a building site, but the people are still governed by family and hopes for their children.
Much like the book China Road by Rob Gifford, another very young man but heavily loaded with Western ideals of personal religious upbringing, Peter Hessler of River Town is also strongly soaked in his Western cultural upbringing but he is not so close-minded and biased without ever questioning on his own earlier perception in view of his new encounter in China. Gifford had gone to China as a college lower division (sophomore) student attracted to China by writings from Pearl Bucks except Gifford could not be a missionary. Peter Hessler came to China as a college teacher under the Peace Corp volunteer program and engaged in teaching, not preaching. But most importantly he was open-minded enough to see, though very slowly, how the Chinese people, particularly, his students and his fellow teachers view their country.
It is worth noting that the strongest gift Hessler possessed while in China was his ability to observe critically not only what he sees in China but the contrasting Western views also critically as well. He noted how his students conducting
themselves in class, often very self conscious but he grabs the opportunity to introduce Western perception on various cultural ideas to his students. His students, most of them, are from rural peasant background, a background none of his American readers can truly appreciate. They are poor, POOR, and going to a teacher college is almost heaven sent opportunity not to be wasted. Some of his students came to realize Hessler¡¯s style approach to his teaching and the relation with his students¡¯ ' informal and sincere ' is a great way to build relationship with their future students.
The two fellow teachers at the college to teach Hessler Chinese are two very contrasting characters in their personality as well as temperament and they both became good friends at the end but not without a very difficult struggle between Hessler and the woman teacher, with surname Liao, who is a very strong minded person with her opinion and also deep conviction with what she believes. But after long, in fact, very long last both Hessler and Liao came to recognize the strong points of each other and becoming good friends. Readers may feel frustrated with Liao because of her rigidity yet a great movie buff of Charlie Chaplin satire movie of Adolph Hitler, The Great Dictator, but the ending relationship would undoubtedly ring a cheerful sounding bell in the mind of the readers. And this little dialogue between these two was one of the ¡°bridges¡± connected them.
There was a Catholic Father in his 80s and the readers certainly will adore this old priest particularly in the current world wide scandals of Catholic priest behaviors one would wonder why such kind of conduct is so prevalent in Western culture.
Hessler is a frequent jogger and hiker in the country side that brings him in contact with rural peasants and their families. Such encounters brings wonderful visits between him and the common peasants who often invited him to their house for tea or even meal and that is a common tradition Chinese do with people they like and rarely be discouraged by the humbleness of their homes.
Another daily routine of Hessler is his meals at the very inexpensive restaurants or roadside stand eating places from someone who brought simple, but tasty, food to sell on the sidewalks. But there were two ugly incidents Hessler had to confront, one was a woman who might be a part time prostitute, and the other was a small mid-aged shoe shine fellow, and these were the two incidents Hessler did not settle with kind words. While reading the incident between him and shoe shine small mid-aged man, I wrote my marginal comments in the book that Hessler was one who had gone to study at Princeton University and then two more years at Oxford, but could not take a more thoughtful gentlemanly approach toward this little fellow who clearly resented this wai guo ren (foreigner) privileges.
Throughout the book Hessler introduced Chinese expressions or words and one particular expression is bu dui (wrong, incorrect) often used by his Chinese teacher Liao when Hessler made a mistakes or said things she did not agree. But I would suggest to him, and other writers of this kind of writing, to introduce certain good and helpful expressions to Western readers. It is proper and respectful to address a college teacher as Professor Smith but it is not very respectful at all to address a teacher as Teacher Liao, in America or in China. The correct and respectful way in Chinese language is Liao Laoshi (ÀÏÊ¦¡ÖOld Master, Honorable Teacher). If insisted, a translation such as Master Teacher Liao . The word or character Lao (ÀÏ¨T old) should NOT be literally translated as old in American-English when used as part of a respectful title, because the word old, in American-English contains much negative, weak, bad and undesirable quality implications while the opposite is true in Chinese language; it means experience, wisdom, knowledge and maturity through life-long years. In fact, this writer of this review would be happy to testify that in his retirement years he has had much more opportunities to reflect and think as deeply as he knows how and study as widely as he is able to on various subjects he could not have done when a younger person, say at age of 50 or even 65! However, one universal aspect of not being readily to consider innovative new ideas is quite often brushed aside in many folks in more advanced age, perhaps, undesirable characteristics of aging.
(Footnote: I have read Hessler's second book Oracle Bones, so the 5-Star rating is saved for that book!)