Posts Tagged ‘Peter Hessler’

River Town; rekindling those memories.

September 2, 2011

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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