The subtitle of this book is "Two Years on the Yangtze." It is an account of the years that Peter Hessler spent in China teaching for the Peace Corps. He was stationed in Fuling, a small city in the Sichuan province. I have been reading Mr. Hessler's pieces for years in The New Yorker, where he used to write the "Letter from China" feature. He often referred to his time in Fuling in the articles, which is probably why I bought this. It's a little hard to remember, though, since this has been on the TBR shelves for so long (thirteen years, to be exact).
Mr. Hessler and his colleague Adam Meier were the first Peace Corps volunteers to come to Fuling. They taught at the Fuling Teachers College, where most of the students were from farming families (peasants, in the local term) who were expected to return home to teach in the rural schools they themselves had attended. He wrote about his teaching duties, in a school rigidly bounded by the government's many rules and under the constant eye of the Communist Party members. He took a great interest in his students, in their stories and their futures. He was equally interested in Fuling itself, spending his free time exploring the city and trying to talk to the people there. On school breaks, he traveled around the middle part of China, sometimes with friends but often on his own. He studied Chinese (Mandarin) on his own and with tutors, to the surprise of many Chinese people that he met, who assumed that no foreigner could learn their language.
I found this book very absorbing. I know little about the middle part of China (which apparently isn't called "the midwest," as I kept picturing it). Obviously, a lot has changed in the country since this book was first published in 2001. And things had changed between Mr. Hessler's time there in 1996-1998, and the publication of the book. At the time he was writing, the Three Gorges Dam was under construction, and he wrote about the effects it would have on both the people and the land itself. But despite the lapse of time, I could see connections to the China that I read about today - a stock market crash in 1998, industrial pollution, the slow rise in the standards of living in rural areas, tensions with the Muslim Uigher population in western China. I learned something of the middle region's history, such as the Great Taiping Rebellion of the 1840s, when "a poor man from Guangxi province . . . decided that he was the Son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. After that, things happened very quickly." Within a few years, "Hong Xiuquan was leading twenty thousand armed followers..." In more recent history, Mr. Hessler talked with the people he met about their experiences in the "Great Leap Forward" and the Cultural Revolution, and about their parents' and grandparents', which often made for grim reading.
It was interesting to compare Mr. Hessler's account with those of Jen Lin-Liu, particularly in her memoir Serve the People. Though ethnically Chinese, and speaking Mandarin, Ms. Lin-Liu still felt like a foreigner, even in Beijing. It sounds like it was a thousand times worse in Fuling, where the two Americans instantly stood out as waiguoren, and crowds gathered just to stare whenever they went into the town. It seems like Beijing was marginally healthier than Fuling, blanketed in coal dust and smoke. Mr. Hessler managed to contract tuberculosis, among other health problems. But the friends he made there allowed him to experience something of daily life there. And many people he met were very hospitable and welcoming, eager to talk to a foreigner who spoke their language. He was equally eager to talk to anyone he met, and that openness reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Eric Newby.
The author returned to China after his Peace Corps stint ended, and he wrote two other books about the country, Oracle Bones and Country Driving. I am looking forward to reading them. I may as well confess that I have copies of them already, though this book languished on my TBR shelves for so long (a triumph of hope over experience, and/or book greed over good intentions). I also have my eye on Evan Osnos' Age of Ambition, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction last year. Mr. Osnos took over the "Letter from China" from Mr. Hessler, and I've found his articles equally interesting and informative.