Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Book Review--Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

I can not say enough good things about Peter Hessler's 2001 book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, published by Harper Collins in 2001. Hessler wrote about his experiences as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in a small town in the province of Sichuan in China. Hessler, now the Chinese correspondent for The New Yorker and National Geographic, writes brilliantly about his experiences there and should be read by most anyone interested in the transformations of China, the interactions of westerners and Asians, and those with an interest in travel writing.

I should disclose to those that don't know that I spent a year in the mid 90s teaching English in South Korea, in fact almost at the same time that Hessler was in China. Thus I related to many of his experiences and wished that I had engaged the culture and language of Korea like he did with China. You can't change the past, but reading River Town made me somewhat nostalgic for being in Asia and made me angry that I did not take full advantage of the opportunity that I had.

But even if you've never been to Asia, you will value this book highly. A couple of quick examples. Hessler writes beautifully in chapter 2 about teaching English and American literature to Chinese college students. For these kids, everything is infused with Chinese politics and propaganda and while this obviously makes teaching complicated, the literature also means a lot more to them than to most American students. If you have any questions about this book, pick it up and read this chapter. His discussion of the building of the Three Gorges Dam, which flooded part of the town where he lived, the complications with crazy women wanting to marry a Westerner, trying to fit into the ridiculous drinking rituals that help define Asian masculinity, living with the pollution endemic to Asian cities (In Seoul smog made clearly seeing the buildings across the street challenging on some days), the bizarre and amusing respect Chinese have for both Hitler and Jews, and living through the seasons in a new land all make interesting reading.

But it's not just a book on a westerner in Asia. Hessler also provides enlightening discussions on both the meaninglessness and sometimes vital meanings of Chinese propaganda, stories of survivors of the Cultural Revolution and how that time changed China, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and the lives of people of all classes in the town that he lived. Really, this is a topnotch book.