River Town; rekindling those memories.


I have been reading a book named River Town, by Peter Hessler. It recounts the two years Peter spent serving in the Peace Corps – namely, teaching English in the remote city of Fuling. Situated along the banks of the Yangtze, Fuling is biding its time until part of the town is flooded as part of the Three Gorges Dam project, and the impending rising of the river is a repeating theme throughout the book.

While I have not yet finished the book, I am really enjoying it. I am constantly surprised by how similar Peter’s experiences are to my own. For much of his time in China, he was one of only two foreigners in the entire city – something I can distinctly relate to. While we lived in the city of Wuxi – or rather the CBD was a 20 minute bus ride away, our day to day life was in the suburb of Dong Ting – or Xishan district – different depending on who you asked.

While the locals considered this area ‘country/rural’, it was built up and busy. There are many expats living in Wuxi, though not many in some of the more local suburbs. Many expats stick to the expat compounds or high rises closer to the city itself. Those of us who lived in places like Dong Ting got to experience a very local China. In particular, we were always the centre of attention. It was normal for us to walk down the street to the local supermarket, and have every single eye within a 100 metre radius focusing on us.

In his book, Peter explains that he went to lengths to study the language – something that I wish I had done. While I had enough Chinese to get by quite easily, I certainly didn’t have enough to breach the cultural barrier and really befriend anyone the way he did. I went to China hoping to come back with a ton of Chinese friends. I have a genuine interest in the culture, particularly in the cultural differences between my own culture and the Chinese, but could rarely explore this.

In fact, rather than coming home with a lot of Chinese friends, I came home with only a handful, and most of those were former students who I have kept touch with via email. In many ways I feel like the year we spent in China was a wasted opportunity, but in others it was something that was life changing. It gave me so many new perspectives, and more importantly, it created a solid link between myself and China. While there are many other places in the world I am looking forward to exploring, I absolutely can’t wait to return to China. If given the choice, I would fly back there tomorrow, if even for just a few days. I am almost positive it would feel as if I had never left.

The more I read Peter’s book, the more I am surprised by the amount of things that it answers for me – things that he has been able to come to understand thanks to his grasp of the language. I feel envious that he could do that, and hope that one day I can do something again similar. For anyone interested in a really accurate portrayal of China and the Chinese – from a down to earth, local perspective, I really recommend you check out River Town. If you have read it already, I would love to hear what you thought.

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6 Responses to “River Town; rekindling those memories.”

  1. wooSHE Says:

    Hi Marcus,
    I’ve read another book of his, Oracle Bones, for a couple of times. I couldn’t find River Town in any bookstore here in China, neither could I get the digital one from the Internet. I really want to download a piece. Can you help?
    By the way, I would like to be your friend, Chinese friend. I’m living in Wuxi right now.

  2. spans Says:

    I am inspired to read this now, thanks MMD. Really liked this entry too, I think anyone who has traveled and experienced living in another country will relate. You can always look back and think of what you should have or could have done differently. But at the end of the day you used your time to do what suited the moment, and that’s what life is all about. Wasted time? Never. Just different priorities at a different time. I hope you do go back, might see you there 🙂

  3. Marcus Says:

    Nice one Justin, how was Oracle Bones, and what was it about exactly? I put a link in that post to buying River Town on Amazon.com, I know for a fact they deliver to China, so maybe grab a copy there? I didn’t find many good English book stores while there – certainly not in Wuxi. There was a good store in Shanghai, and a few in Beijing, but unlikely to have River Town – your best option is Amazon – assuming it’s not blocked 😉

    Which part of Wuxi do you live in? Has much changed in the past year or two? The subway construction must be underway by now…

    And definitely Anna, get the book and tell me what you think, it’s written really well. I might check that other book out now. I wish I had cruised up the Yangtze pre-flooding, that’s one definite regret.

  4. Justin Calderon Says:

    I strongly recommend Hessler’s latest book, Country Driving. By this point in his career, he has established a bona fide working fluency in the language and most matters Sino-related.

    @wooSHE. If you are in China, Hessler’s books can be easily found at a few expat-orientated bookshops in Shanghai — but not too sure about Beijing. Amazon is barred; Hong Kong remains the next best option.

  5. Marcus Says:

    Hey nice one – coincidentally I just happened to notice Country Driving in the bookshop yesterday, and was talking about wanting to check it out to my wife just this morning. I think I’ll pick up a copy.

    Have you read Oracle Bones by the way?

    I was thinking that based on the writing style of River Town, Country Driving would be thoroughly enjoyable…and would have me absolutely craving to return to China.

  6. jseaford Says:

    Yeah, it’s a good read. It was nice to know that an Oxford grad experienced all the heart ache us under-educated masses faced.

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