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China trilogy #1

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

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In the heart of China's Sichuan province lies the small city of Fuling. Surrounded by the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, Fuling has long been a place of continuity, far from the bustling political centers of Beijing and Shanghai. But now Fuling is heading down a new path, and gradually, along with scores of other towns in this vast and ever-evolving country, it is becoming a place of change and vitality, tension and reform, disruption and growth. As the people of Fuling hold on to the China they know, they are also opening up and struggling to adapt to a world in which their fate is uncertain.

Fuling's position at the crossroads came into remarkably sharp focus when Peter Hessler arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996, marking the first time in more than half a century that the city had an American resident. He found himself teaching English and American literature at the local college, discovering how Shakespeare and other classics look when seen through the eyes of students who have been raised in the Sichuan countryside and educated in Communist Party doctrine. His students, though, are the ones who taught him about the ways of Fuling — and about the complex process of understanding that takes place when one is immersed in a radically different society.

As he learns the language and comes to know the people, Hessler begins to see that it is indeed a unique moment for Fuling. In its past is Communist China's troubled history — the struggles of land reform, the decades of misguided economic policies, and the unthinkable damage of the Cultural Revolution — and in the future is the Three Gorges Dam, which upon completion will partly flood thecity and force the resettlement of more than a million people. Making his way in the city and traveling by boat and train throughout Sichuan province and beyond, Hessler offers vivid descriptions of the people he meets, from priests to prostitutes and peasants to professors, and gives voice to their views. This is both an intimate personal story of his life in Fuling and a colorful, beautifully written account of the surrounding landscape and its history. Imaginative, poignant, funny, and utterly compelling, River Town is an unforgettable portrait of a city that, much like China itself, is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be.

432 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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About the author

Peter Hessler

13 books1,357 followers
Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as Beijing correspondent from 2000-2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Book Prize, and Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,171 reviews
Profile Image for Shovelmonkey1.
353 reviews887 followers
November 28, 2012
China is bafflingly massive. And that is a bonafide geographical fact people. You can get one of those old fashioned things called a map and have a look. See, I am not wrong. Not only is it massive but the PRC is also the most populous country in the world with a population of over 1.3 billion. How do you even go about counting that many people? How do you get them all to stand still for long enough?

Peter Hessler, author of River Town, Two Years on the Yangtze, went to China not to check population statistics, but to immerse himself in the culture and physical geography of a place which still seems mysterious to a large portion of the world beyond China's borders. The result is a book which carefully documents Hessler's time and experiences living in the river town of Fuling on the banks of the Yangtze.

Hessler is an engaging writer but from the outset I found myself wondering why I should care about two years in the life of an American Peace Corps volunteer (probably in much the same way that people might wonder why they should care about my opinions of this or any other book). Why indeed?

Hessler presents the day to day minutiae of life on the Yangtze in a way which retains its personal element but also references the wider historical and cultural aspects which have moulded the lives of the residents of River Town (Fuling). Part travelogue, part diary, part Cliff notes to China's long and varied history, this book is a strong introduction to a culture which some may regard is largely impenetrable. After all so many books have been written on China it is difficult to know where to start.

Most interesting of all is the way in which Hessler and his friends gradually infiltrated the local traditions and way of life. It took time and patience but a polite determination to learn the language and self depreciating humour allowed him a view point that few other short term visitors would get.

Despite this book being a chance find, it is one that I'm glad to have read and I'm keen to learn more about China. Hessler has recently moved to the Middle East as a foreign correspondent and I look forward to seeing what his output from Cairo might be.

Profile Image for Donna.
543 reviews182 followers
March 28, 2017
I read this for my book club and it was unexpectedly difficult for me to get through it. I'm not completely sure why that is since the author's true life experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1996-1998 in Fuling, a remote Chinese village, were interesting and well written. But it was also repetitive and with too many details piled one on top of another, making for dense reading that slowed the book down. That and my incredulous reaction to some of Hessler's negative impressions of the Chinese people and their culture, which had me stopping and thinking more times than I could count. He had me shaking my head when he would grow frustrated by his students bowing their heads at their desks from something he said that offended them or made them uncomfortable. This truly frustrated me, as did the altercations he became involved in when living there, much as I tried seeing things from his point of view.

But this was more than an account of Peter Hessler educating future teachers in China about the subjects of English literature and culture. It was a progression of him learning much, himself, and much about himself during that time. When he first arrived in Fuling, with another volunteer who would become a good friend, Peter was a bit naive and had dreams of making a favorable impression on the Chinese people he encountered since this was the first time in fifty years than any Americans had been allowed to live in that remote area with its population of 200,000. He also wanted people, mainly his students, to be aware of their own oppression in comparison to living as an American. He wanted them to rally against the rules and seek more freedom by thinking freely instead of swallowing propaganda whole. This really surprised me as I thought his main objective besides teaching should be the sharing of cultural differences to form a bridge of acceptance and not a gulf of disparity. Fortunately, as both an observer and participant, he learned many lessons along the way outside of those taught formally by his tutors when he was learning the language in that region. He came to understand that not everyone has the luxury of deciding what their lives will be like or have any power to change things or even wish to.

This was a very candid look at Hessler's slow-going transformation in understanding culture differences and perceptions within their context. While he saw the land being changed by the people to make use of it for agricultural purposes, he learned the people saw themselves changed by the land such as their beauty or temperament being influenced by living near the mountains and or by being closer to the water. And then there were lessons like this that he learned later on from assignments his students turned in.

Each generation has its own happiness and sadness. To younger generation, the important thing is understanding instead of criticizing. Our elder generation was unlucky; they didn't own a good chance and circumstances to realize their value. But, their spirit, their love to our country set a good example for us.

This was the best part of this book, the personal stories and ideas his students shared with him, and him coming to know a good handful of people whom he would be able to call friends by the end of his two years there. And the village itself, with its constant noise and pollution and with Hessler fighting illness for two years, it was satisfying to learn that it became something like home to him eventually and not something to fight against as he had fought against a number of people who taunted him for being an outsider. It became a place rather beautiful to him such as this poetic passage he wrote indicates when celebrating the Chinese New Year.

At the stroke of midnight the entire city gathered itself and roared, its voice reverberating back and forth across the Wu, the windows of the buildings flickering in reflections of sparks and bursts of fire. The old year died; evil spirits fled; deep in the valley's heart the Wu trembled, its water colored by the bright shadow of the blazing city. And finally midnight passed, and the fireworks faded, and we were left with a new year as empty and mysterious as the river that flowed silently through the valley.

This book should make for an interesting book club discussion of both Fuling and its residents during that time, and of the author who spent two years in his late twenties growing up there.
Profile Image for Daren.
1,329 reviews4,400 followers
April 23, 2021
I found this book by American author Peter Hessler excellent.

He is finding his feet in China, where he is teaching English in the town of Fuling, at the confluence of the Yangtze and Wu Rivers, in the Chongqing Municipality. Employed by the Peace Corps, Hessler is paid a relatively low wage, which, amongst other things, makes his conversation with the Chinese interesting, as their expectation is that he would be earning much more. Hessler spent two years in Fuling.

Hessler approached his writing in an interesting way, arranging his chapters largely in chronological order, but also theming each chapter around a major event or topic, which allowed his to speak about the past and events in the future of his time in China. He explained well in his writing, and came across as honest and forthright about the mistakes he made.

His most interesting writing was about some of the people he met and the students, often quoting their work to make a point. Of course there was a lot of politics involved - from the politics of his being in China, to the politics of what he was allowed to teach (or not teach) and how he interacted with all people from his students to the senior management of the school.

Equally interesting to his life for two years was the looming Three Gorges Dam, which was under construction at the time Hessler was living in Fuling. The TGD is a phenomenon, causing so much damage to ecosystems, to heritage (such as tombs which were below the new water level), and so much displacement of people, and yet overwhelmingly the general public support the construction of dam (largely because they are told it will be beneficial, and because they generally don't speak out against the wishes of the Communist leaders).

I sensed that this was a small part of what contributed to the passivity with regard to the Three Gorges Project in Fuling. The vast majority of the people would not be directly affected by the coming changes, and so they weren’t concerned. Despite having large sections of the city scheduled to be flooded within the next decade, it wasn’t really a community issue, because there wasn’t a community as one would generally define it. There were lots of small groups, and there was a great deal of patriotism, but like most patriotism anywhere in the world, this was spurred as much by fear and ignorance as by any true sense of a connection to the Motherland. And you could manipulate this fear and ignorance by telling people that the dam, even though it might destroy the river and the town, was of great importance to China.

4 stars.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,378 reviews139 followers
March 30, 2013
A volunteer for the Peace Corps, Hessler lived in Fuling, a little town in Sichuan province, on the delta of the Yangtze and Wu rivers, for two years teaching English. As one of the few Westerners in the town since World War II, Hessler becomes the focus of not always kind attention in town, but as he learns more Chinese and more of the Chinese way of doing things, he sees his place more clearly and almost, at times, seems to fit into the daily life there. Of course, nearly everything in China is political: the literature he teaches is used by his students as a springboard to analyze their own lives, even as Hessler learns how hard it is to broach certain subjects in a culture where everyone is brought up to believe the same things.

Written in calm, meditative prose, this is an excellent entry into the annals of the Westerner-in-China body of memoirs. Hessler is wise beyond his years, and his China (or rather, his Fuling) is never of the sadly typical “oh look how foreign everything is” variety. He recognizes full well how foreign he himself is, and even during his lowest points of cultural contact – when men try to pick fights with him simply because he’s a Westerner – he reports with a detached and reflective eye. He learns rather quickly how to deal with some of the illogical bureaucracy – I enjoyed his clever face-saving solution when confronted with the lie that he was required to get a chest X-ray to participate in a foot race, for example – but he is troubled and bemused by certain other aspects of Chinese culture. He cites the lack of empathy and collectivist thinking that he saw in Chinese crowds, and the disturbing lack of fixed individual values in a culture where “wrong” thinking can become “right” as easily as it takes for an authority to say it. In his own small circle of students and friends, he hears of two deaths, a suicide, and a kidnapping (of a woman to become a forced bride). Near the end of the book, he muses that he can only brush against “the slightest sense of the dizzying past” that informed the values and behaviors that he encounters. His Fuling is, as he says, “a human place,” and that puts his memoir in the top ranks of its kind.
Profile Image for Rachel.
152 reviews
July 7, 2012
For those who think this book is incredibly dull, I must say, I don't think it was intended to be a work of entertainment. It often reads like a personal journal, which can be both charming and a chore. If you're patient, I think you'll find it reasonably pleasant to settle in and listen to Peter Hessler tell his story.

For those who say that Peter Hessler is a conceited jerk ... mmm, I don't buy that. He makes observations about how rude and petty many of the Chinese people are, and he also freely admits to losing his temper and he feels remorse for instances when he treated other people cruelly. While he clearly cares about being kind to others and being empathetic to the various sides, he doesn't try to pretend that he's Mr. Wonderful and Always Kind and Patient in Every Scenario. Nope, sometimes he is kind of a jerk, as most of us sometimes are, especially when we're stressed. The fact that Hessler is able to admit to these things honestly and humbly is to his credit, I think.

Now that we got that out of the way ... I think this is an excellent memoir. After reading about all the struggles that Peter Hessler had, trying to adjust to life in the polluted, noisy, filthy, crowded town of Fuling, and how hard he worked to learn the language and make a difference for his students ... I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, as I read the last couple of pages when Peter made his final departure from Fuling.

I liked learning about different aspects of recent Chinese history, as the author brought up pieces here and there, prompted by people and places in the story. I also thought that the excerpts from the students' writing samples, sprinkled throughout the narrative, greatly added to the story.

Peter Hessler is from Missouri, like me, the Show-Me-State ... and I appreciated how he told it as he saw it ... often times being quite critical of the Chinese people he met.

Alas, sometimes Hessler even seemed to be ridiculing the Chinese people, which is a reason why, I think, some of the reviewers think he is an arrogant jerk. Here is one example, from pages 234-235 of my paperback (499 pages).

"Perhaps the strangest part of the Chinese fascination with Hitler was that simultaneously they had a deep respect for the Jewish people. Jews were the next best thing to Chinese--they were an extremely intelligent race, as one could tell from examples of Einstein and Marx. ...

"Ideas of this sort were standard and completely predictable ... There were buttons you could push--Hitler, Jews, the Japanese, the Opium Wars, Tibetans, Taiwan--and 90 percent of the time you could predict the precise reaction, including specific phrases people would use. It was natural enough, given China's conditions; virtually everybody was the same race, the country had been isolated for centuries, and the current education system was strictly standardized and politically controlled.

"And it was also natural that these conditions resulted in some particularly bizarre notions, like the admiration of Hitler or the fascination with Thai transvestites ..."

"It was interesting to figure out these common beliefs, and occasionally you could work them to your advantage. During the summer, my sister Angela and Todd, her Stanford colleague, had been bored by eating meals with their Chinese interpreter, so I gave them a list of subjects that would surely make things more entertaining ..."

It seems Hessler is ridiculing the Chinese people for holding stupidly to stereotypes and not thinking for themselves. I'm sure many people would be offended by this, but you know what ... this is his memoir, and the scorn that he felt was real. I hope there's nothing wrong with him documenting that. It just shows that he's not a saint, and honestly did we expect him to be one?

There were also parts of the book that made me laugh out loud. For example, at the beginning of the book, Peter Hessler kept seeing Communist propaganda messages (together with the names of sponsors such as Magnificent Sound Cigarettes, a private company, so it's a bit ironic), and one of the common phrases was "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics." Because of pressure from the Communist Party over what he could teach, he had to modify his literature class to be what he jokingly called "Shakespeare with Chinese Characteristics." etc. Eventually there is a faculty basketball tournament, and the referee is biased against Peter and Adam (the two Peace Corps volunteers), not wanting the foreigners to win. So Peter and Adam drop out of the tournament because of all the bad referee calls. Afterward, Peter was talking to his Mandarin tutor, a very prim and proper Chinese lady. Peter called the referee a bad egg, and the tutor told Peter he was wrong to say that; he was dribbling wrong and was not playing basketball the Chinese way. Peter was already exasperated with his tutor who had been very stern, constantly correcting his Mandarin without ever giving him any positive feedback. On page 74 he wrote:

"She said it in hopes of ending the argument tactfully, because she saw that I was annoyed. But I had already heard too many explanations about 'the Chinese way,' and I did not want to lectured about Basketball with Chinese Characteristics." ... and so he exploded in an indignant rant to the teacher about how basketball is an American game that he knew quite well and he wasn't about to be lectured about playing it the Chinese way ...

OK, Basketball with Chinese Characteristics ... yes, that's it, that's what made me laugh out loud when it appeared on the page. Hmm, not funny now? OK, maybe you had to be there. :)

One thing I found very poignant in the book was how Peter and Adam found ways to teach the students by having them perform skits and other creative activities, despite resistance from the Communist officials. For example, Peter had his students put on Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as a play, but the Communist leaders of the school would not allow him to teach the students Christmas carols, even if they were secular ones (p 336).

"No," said Dean Fu, still smiling tightly. "I'm afraid that we can have no songs about Christmas. I'm sorry, but you know it is not my decision."

I could have pointed out that even in the spring the campus propaganda speakers, as part of the noon entertainment program, often played a Muzak version of "What Child is This?" But I knew the argument was hopeless; there was no logic to any of it. And in the same spirit I instructed my classes to replace the Christmas carols with patriotic Communist songs, which is anything improved Dickens. My favorite scene was when a furious Scrooge swung his cane at a band of merry carolers who were belting out "The East is Red," singing the praises of Mao Zedong while the old man shouted, "Humbug!"

Toward the end of the book, they have a school play where Cervantez' Don Quixote is adapted for Chinese audiences. In the students' version, Don Quixote is instead Lei Feng (a famous Communist worker-martyr), and he offers Sancho Panza the island of Taiwan, if he will join in on the adventure.

In another assignment, Peter Hessler studies Shakespeare's Sonnet Eighteen (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? etc) with his students. In this section Peter notes that his Chinese students were more advanced at understanding the rhythm of poetry than their American counterparts (p. 42). Peter has the students write essays to describe the woman in Shakespeare's poem. Many of the students' responses are very similar, writing in English but using classical Chinese cliches to describe a woman's beauty, such as comparing her fingers to scallions or to the roots of an onion, comparing her hair to a waterfall, and comparing her eyebrows to the leaves of a willow.

Another excellent assignment was when Peter assigned the class to study Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (pp. 170-171). The students performed skits; one group acted out a Chinese Rip Van Winkle who had fallen asleep in 1930 and woken up in 1950, another group did a Rip who had fallen asleep in 1948 and woken up in 1968, and so on. He had seven groups, each highlighting a different piece of recent Chinese history. Given all the changes that have happened in China over the past 100 years, I thought this was brilliant.

Another thing I found interesting was the reaction of the locals to the building of the Three Gorges Dam (back then, the dam was under construction). Although the people were living in these centuries-old villages, for the most part they didn't seem concerned about losing the old towns. The old towns were dirty and crowded, and the people wanted to move somewhere new. Peter says that there was strong opposition to the project from academics and intellectuals ... (p.105) ...

"But there were always voices of dissent. Even in the 1980s, as Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng moved closer to beginning actual work on the dam, it was one of the few major issues in China that could be debated publicly. Criticism was accepted, and there was no shortage of it; many experts believed that constructing a series of smaller dams on the Yangtze and its tributaries would have many of the same benefits without the risks. The debates continued until finally in 1987 the government tired of this version of democracy and silenced it. If China's leaders wanted the largest dam in the world, it would be built, regardless of the risks. None of the difficulties mattered--the silt, the earthquakes, the lost relics, the extinct species, the displaced peasants. The experts could be ignored, just as they had been ignored so many times in the past; when Mao encouraged high birth rates in the 1950s and 1960s; when the Great Leap Forward was launched; when the Cultural Revolution began. Sometimes you need decision rather than debate. There's no sense in giving up eating for fear of choking."

Now, this last sentence ties in to an earlier theme in the chapter. Mr. Hessler had used an essay on the Three Gorges Dam, provided by the Chinese textbook, as a model of a "persuasive essay." The essay gave a standard essay format, beginning with points in opposition to the dam. Then, as a transition, before proceeding to the points in favor of the dam, the essay used the phrase "But we should not give up eating for fear of choking." After that time, to Mr. Hessler's great dismay, the students used that exact same phrase as a transition point any time they wrote an argumentative essay, whether the subject was the pro's and cons of morning exercises or an analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet (p. 100). I believe this phrase was an example of how much Mr. Hessler hated the lack of independent thinking / original ideas and "follow the pack" mentality that many of the students displayed.

A nice literary device I wanted to mention was how Peter Hessler spent a few pages (pp. 94-98) writing about the White Crane Ridge, which was a rock or a small island (about 240 feet long) in the Yangtze river, with thousands of years of inscriptions on it. Mostly the inscriptions noted the date and the level of the water, and some of them had predictions about next year's harvest, etc. There was also a famous carving of twin carp from the Tang Dynasty. The next chapter is a more detailed story about the Three Gorges Dam ... you continuing reading on this new topic, and then, just when you've nearly forgotten about the White Crane Ridge, he mentions how the Three Gorges Dam will affect the town of Fuling (p. 101) ... and among other things, he says "the new reservoir will be more than 130 feet above the Tang Dynasty twin carp."

I thought that was a very nice literary touch, as he got us all excited about the White Crane Ridge and how nice it must be to visit it, and a few pages later we learn that it would soon be lost forever.

On page 106, Hessler mentions that archeologists were proposing ways to preserve these cultural relics. In response, Hessler writes (p. 106):

All of these plans and complaints greatly annoyed the forces that were pushing the dam forward. Wei Tingcheng, the seventy-year-old chief engineer who spent virtually his entire professional life developing the project, scoffed at the "palaces" that archeologists were proposing. "To tell you the truth," he said, in a 1996 interview with the New York Times, "the common people of China have such a low education level that they will not be able to enjoy these cultural relics, and only some of these experts will go to these museums."

It wasn't a particularly tactful remark, but in some ways it addressed an important issue: a country like China is accustomed to making difficult choices that Americans might not dream of considering. I thought of this every time I visited the White Crane Ridge, where I was always amazed to see the conjunction of the ancient carvings and the timeless river. Nowhere else had I felt so strongly that there are two types of history, nature's and man's, and that one is a creature of cycles while the other, with mixed results, aims always at straightness--progress, development, control. And on the Yangtze I sensed that it was a particularly dangerous violation to force these together, pressing the river's cycles into stagnancy behind the long line of the dam.

But this was a poetic turn of thought, and most people in Fuling couldn't afford it. They didn't have the time or interest to visit the White Crane Ridge, and they didn't worry much about the relationship between man and nature. Often there were no other tourists on the ridge besides me, and the only time I ever saw a big crowd was the day I researched my story about the carvings, which was on on a weekend during the Spring Holiday Festival in 1998. ... Even educated people often weren't interested. If you wanted to see local history, it wasn't necessary to go to the hassle of taking a boat--you could wander into the countryside and stumble upon Qing dynasty tombs without even searching."

There is a lot to this book, and for once, I don't think it was too long. I usually complain about how books should have been edited way down. But this time, I think all the pieces presented in this 400-page diary were important in describing Peter Hessler's two years in western China. I like the way some of the chapters are simply "memories" which stand on their own and don't lead to anything else, like in real life. Meanwhile other chapters do relate to the others and help to propel the narrator forward.

I think I'd like to give this either 3 stars or 4 stars. I would give it 5 stars for technical mastery and completeness. If I were grading this for a class, certainly it would be an "A," maybe even an A+, depending on what the other students turned in. But as far as as my personal enjoyment of the book, I need to bring it down to 3 or 4 stars. This is partly because the book can be a bit dull at times, but mostly it's because it's rather depressing to read how close-minded many of the Chinese people are, and how poor the cities are, and how many people there are, living in those conditions. Most of the time the book doesn't evoke much sympathy (other than pity, possibly) for the people, and it certainly reinforces a lot of negative stereotypes about the Chinese. But ... I don't want to criticize the book for this; it was simply the narrator's experience, and that is valid, and I do appreciate Peter Hessler's honesty. Nonetheless, so many negative words about the Chinese people, and the narrators' constant battles with corruption and small-mindedness, tended to wear me down after awhile. All of this made me weary of this book, just as I'm sure the narrator became weary of life in Fuling.

One saving grace was that Peter was able to understand people better once he was able to talk to people (and the students especially) in their own language. He found that much of the formality and lack of humor (sometimes perceived as rudeness) slipped away when the people were able to speak in their native tongue. The students spoke more candidly about their feelings about the government etc when able to converse in their native language; on top of that, Peter Hessler could see more of their playful / joking sides, which is so important for pleasant person-to-person interactions. This may speak to the importance of foreign language instruction here in the United States. Perhaps listening as someone discusses his or her country's problems in his or her own language can relieve tension and make people feel more at ease. If Peter Hessler's observations are transferable, it sounds like it might be a good idea to put more emphasis on learning foreign languages here in the U.S. I believe this may be a much better way of promoting peace and understanding in the world, as opposed to more advanced weaponry and nuclear arms races, etc.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,783 reviews1,458 followers
March 8, 2013
Interesting and well written, but some sections could have been tightened. The author spent two years (1996-1998) as a Peace Corp volunteer in Fuling, China. It is a remote town located in the Yangtze River Valley, in the heartland of the Sichuan province. He taught English, he learned Chinese and through his own learning, teaching, talking and living with these people he comes to understand what it is to be Chinese. His experience was one of total immersion. What he learned he has shared with us, and we don’t have to get sick as he did. We don’t have to be ostracized as he was.

Two things make this book better than most such books by Peace Corps volunteers. He really came to understand the people he lived with and his writing is better than most.
Profile Image for Anna.
129 reviews7 followers
April 14, 2007
this was the one of MANY peace corps memoirs i suffered through (reading material choices were limited to our paltry communal bookshelves in the volunteer lounge of the swaziland peace corps office).
anyway, i used to write a monthly literature review box or our volunteer newsletter, and one month i ranted about this genre. below are my thoughts:

Dissecting the Peace Corps Memoir
One of my least favorite genres of nonfiction is hands-down the “peace corps memoir.” I attribute it to both the fact that I am a volunteer myself, and thus more critical of the actual content. And then probably due to the sheer volume that I read, I’m picky about writing, appreciating only good prose. More often then not, I feel like returned volunteers have good stories to tell and get book contracts for these stories without actually possessing the literary training or raw talent to pull them off. Even the most talented editors couldn’t fix these calamities.
Just to prove that it doesn’t matter how bad of a writer you are, as long as your granddaddy is famous you can get a book deal, Jason Carter’s Power Lines is an embarrassment to his Duke education. Stylistically, his sentences and paragraphs fall flat, lacking cohesion. And grammatically, he leaves the reader reaching for her copy of Strunk & White. The award for most frustrating goes to Susana Herrera whose Mango Elephants in the Sun made me want to jab blunt objects into my eye sockets as I waded through nonsensical odes to lizards and out of place poems. I couldn’t tell if she wanted the reader to feel sorry for her or be envious. I suppose in the end it didn’t matter because I felt neither. I found Sarah Erdman’s Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, one of the newest in the genre, to be nauseatingly pretentious and self-congratulatory. From a literary standpoint, the lack of coherent theme or message was disappointing. As I’ve mentioned in a previous entry, Geneva Sander’s The Gringo Brought His Mother is ridiculously absurd. It’s a memoir written by a volunteer’s mother after a month-long trip to visit her son. The mother is completely nutty and paints a pathetic portrait of her son; then again whose mother actually writes a peace corps memoir ?!?! Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor was mind-numbingly boring and topped only by Peter Hessler’s River Town. Hessler’s was so dull that even Kelly (training director) couldn’t finish it. And in the “who cares” category is Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery’s Dear Exile, a collection of letters the two friends wrote back and forth during Montgomery’s service (Liftin was stateside). The reader is treated to a nearly constant string of Montgomery’s complaints to her friend about rural village life in Kenya. It’s very hard to muster up sympathy for her bouts of diarrhea when I (and all the other volunteers in Swaziland) still heroically troop to the pit latrine through thick and thin.
It’s not, however, a complete waste of a genre. Two gems sparkle in the rough including Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi. Tidwell does not shy away from his own shortcomings and writes candidly of his own vices and addictions. His clear and concise prose paints a vivid and enthralling picture of the fisheries program in Zaire.
And then there is George Parker’s The Village of Waiting. The first memoir to take a critical look at post-colonial class, race, and culture issues that surround the Peace Corps experience. Not only is Parker’s writing heads above the best (he’s a Pushcart Prize winning writer whose work has appeared in Harper’s, Dissent, and The New York Times), he’s also brutally honest about his work as white western volunteer living in an African village, acknowledging the inherent problems and paradoxes....less...more
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,461 reviews305 followers
January 11, 2021
I read this in the book format a considerable time ago. I am now going to listen to it in the audible format along with the Kindle version. I remember enjoying the several books by this author about China in the past. My interest was prompted by our adoption of a 3 1/2-year-old girl from China. She is now nearly 18 years old and we have a short lifetime of history with her.

I have just finished listening to this book in the audible version on January 10, 2021. This is 10 1/2 years after I first read the book. This time I also followed along with the Kindle edition so I was able to save A number of segments from the book here on good reads. I am not particularly adept at remembering books years later or movies for that matter. So in some ways I have not just re-experienced this book but experienced it as if for the first time.

One of the benefits of the Kindle book is that it includes A couple of sections after the end of the book including one where are the author talks about returning to the town where he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in later years. China generally and this area particularly radically changed quite quickly.

I had not remembered from my previous reading that the author made a brief but significant tour of far western China during part of his two-year Peace Corps stay. That is a part of China that particularly interest me since my adopted daughter was born in the Uighur autonomous district at the western border of China.

I continue to see this book as a significant cultural view by an American in the 1990s China. The author succeeded in immersing himself in a foreign culture by a determination to learn the language and get to know the people as best he could within a two year stay. His story is a fascinating one and he writes very well. I look forward to reading again his other two books that he wrote about China based upon additional time that he spent there.


Sorry, this is too long. I’ll try not to do it again!

You do need to remember that these events happened 14 years ago in a country that is changing incredibly quickly. Fuling is no longer an isolated city; it is accessible by train, expressway and boat.

If you want to know more about China – and who doesn’t – read this book. Me, I have the second Peter Hessler book published in 2006 to read:
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present

August 18, 2003 issue of Time Asia with an update by Peter Hessler about Fuling
And even this is seven years ago!

River Town is like a movie made with a hand-held camera: occasionally jumpy but some great close up shots. Hessler takes you through two years (1996-97)of living in a small Chinese city (200,000) in Sichuan province.

The writing style of the book is casual and colloquial (complete with hell and damn) with an occasional travelogue feel. Hessler shows a wide screen view but then shifts down to personal details in which he was a participant. You go into the homes and businesses of the city with him as well as going along on some interesting adventures. He presents an honest account of his experiences along with a good deal of information about the 20th century history of life in China. He finds the city dirty from coal dust and noisy from car horns. Humorously, he relates the number of honks/minute from an actual count of their cab driver in a 15 minute trip. (Could it be 37?) Set against this oasis of noise and grit “the mountains are green and impressive.” There are no bicycles due to the steepness of the mountainous area. There are numerous steps with some businesses actually on small terraces next to the steps. And there are porters who earn a living carting things up and down the steps. Manual labor is the norm for everything in the book. I can’t think of anything other than the cars that were mechanized. Of course there are the cell phones and beepers. (Actually not that many since this is a very poor area. One restaurant owner is mentioned as having a fake beeper on his belt for show!)

Sometimes Hessler can overdo it: “There are stunned bushes and exhausted flowers and broken-hearted patches of grass.” You might call it sappy or flowery but I mostly liked his turn of a phrase. Peter and Adam teach English and English literature at a teacher’s college. Their students are almost uniformly coming from a peasant background. Hessler shares quite a few things written by his students. They are informative and many are poignant; he uses this material to buttress his arguments. He writes a little like an English Major and I should know since I am one!

With the help of tutors, flash cards, repetition and immersion in the city, he spoke well in Chinese by the end of the first year and was using Chinese as his primary language for many of his remaining months. He considered himself as two people: the one who spoke English and the one who spoke Chinese. Because of his fluency in Chinese he was able to develop many kinds of relationships with people who lived there. He found that people are different when you can talk with them in their own language. He learns the local dialect and becomes a common sight in many places in the city. He also learned to read written Chinese, not bad for a boy from Missouri.

Hessler takes us on an anthropological adventure deep into another culture with his writing. We go to the Three Gorges Dam project that will put eventually flood the valley for hundreds of miles and force many people to relocate and he talks directly with the people affected. There are signs throughout the valley marking where the water will eventually reach. People go about their daily lives around the signs.

Would you call River Town a valid qualitative sociological study? He doesn’t suggest any methodology other than talking with people, observing and living with the people for two years. He does have some statistics scattered throughout. But he is predominantly subjective as he is living his study. He lives in a relatively elite apartment building on campus. Maybe he is one of those ivory tower academics living in his little protected territory. Hessler has written two more substantial books about life in China since this book. Some people, including some who have lived in China, have challenged his conclusions. I believe him.

Politics is throughout the book. Hessler is clearly not objective about the politics that he deals with in his daily work as a teacher and off campus. Is he anti-communist? He is opposed to how communism happens in the China that he lives in. He says, “In some ways this is what I had grown to loathe the most about communism. I could almost bear the falseness and the lies, but I could not forgive its complete absence of humor. China was a grim place once you took the laughter away.” But he did give a variety of views and interpretations of how communism works in China. I wonder what the administrators at the Chinese college thought when this book first appeared in 2001.

Communism with Chinese Characteristics and democracy come up frequently as Hessler attempts to encourage his students, who have primarily learned by rote, to do some independent thinking. The book certainly suggests that he had some success. His description of the path that took is well written and informative. It is a 400 page book so lots of things happen. You will have to read the book to see how one class skit moves from a study of Rip Van Winkle to a skit about the Cultural Revolution.

Hessler makes a good argument for more language skill in diplomats so that negotiations do not have to be passed through interpreters. (And he does not mean that everyone should learn to speak English!) With his students “uncertain topics were more easily handled in their native language.” Overcoming “cultural barriers that had made things so difficult in the beginning … was impressive because it had required a great deal of patience and effort from everybody involved. Mostly it had required honesty, even if those moments of candor were occasionally unpleasant.”

Local customs make regular appearances. Apparently drinking is a competitive activity in China. “One of the many good things about small Chinese restaurants was that they never cleared the bottles until you left, which meant that passersby could glance over and see how much damage you had done by two in the afternoon.” Read about the 50 hour train adventure traveling from northwestern China back to Fuling one vacation. Read about religion in China. Find out why Peter had a Chinese name of Ho Wei and his students went by English names in class. Meet the 10 year old shoeshine girl. Accompany Peter’s father on a 10 day visit. And learn how his Chinese students deal with the emotions of his leaving after two years.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,162 reviews1,262 followers
October 13, 2022
4.5 stars

This is really a fantastic memoir of the author’s experiences living in Fuling, China (in Sichuan province on the Yangtze) as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1996-98. He taught English literature in a local college where students from mostly poor backgrounds trained to be grade school teachers, though many wound up taking other paths. He also spent a lot of time becoming fluent in Mandarin and talking to people around town, and his experience clearly made a lasting impression, as he continued to live in and write about China for many years. As far as the book, it is insightful, engaging and well-written, bringing the reader into Hessler’s day-to-day and emotional experiences as well as providing vivid descriptions of places and people, and background research and information where helpful.

I actually like Peace Corps memoirs, which feels like a confession since they get a bad rap (perhaps because a large chunk of the audience consists of people with their own Peace Corps affiliation)—or maybe I just choose them carefully; at any rate, I’ve never read a bad one. They offer a unique window into distant places, written by people who are foreigners to the place and therefore notice everything, but who are also completely immersed in the culture and tend to approach it with curiosity and open minds.

Of the Peace Corps memoirs I’ve read, this is not only by far the most popular, but to me also clearly the best. Hessler is an accomplished writer and acute observer, which makes sense given his background in English literature and career in journalism. He knows how to tell a story. He offers thoughtful analysis, including of his own behavior and reactions. He’s fascinated by China, and shows respect for the culture and people without being afraid to have an opinion—while noting that he’s writing specifically about Fuling over the course of a couple of years, not attempting to generalize the entire country. He gets outside of his comfort zone: living in Fuling seems to have forced that, as foreigners simply going out on the street inevitably drew a crowd. And he’s genuinely interested in those around him.

A few observations that particularly interested me:

- On the “individualism vs. collectivism” question, Hessler notes that the people he knew in Fuling did indeed have strong family bonds, and older adults were given a valued role at home and had much fuller and more satisfying lives than in the U.S. People also tended to be very generous with family and friends. All this matches the stereotypes. However, the other side of the coin was lack of community feeling beyond one’s personal circle. Part of Fuling was scheduled to be flooded with the opening of the Three Gorges Dam, and even well-educated university teachers professed themselves indifferent since they didn’t live in that part of the city themselves. Car accidents drew crowds rushing to gawk, eagerly crying out “Is anyone dead?” When Hessler asked his students to write essays on “what if Robin Hood came to China?”, many had Robin Hood help someone who had been victimized in public, evidently seeing this as unusually heroic behavior. I’m really curious about this issue, how much of what Hessler saw was about scars from the Cultural Revolution and decades of repression, and how much might be (as he guessed) that individualism somehow makes it easier for people to put themselves in strangers’ shoes.

- Hessler and his fellow teachers encountered a lot of anti-American propaganda, including in the textbooks they were meant to teach, and had to learn various ways of circumventing authorities (sometimes by simply not telling them about things). Much of what was in the textbooks would be unrecognizable to an American audience, even if often true from a certain point-of-view: the section about “American religion” focusing on suicide cults, for instance. Hessler found ways to disarm expectations in conversation, for instance by regularly referring to himself as a “foreign devil.”

- Another aspect of American culture particularly railed against was acceptance of homosexuality. However, rejection of gay relationships seems to have gone hand-in-hand with never reading anyone as gay: physical affection between friends of the same sex in public was extremely common. When Hessler had his students stage plays, they would even cast opposite-sex couples as students of the same sex to avoid discomfort and cultural taboos. This reminded me of reading Surpassing The Love Of Men, the way acceptance or even awareness of sexual relationships can lead to taboos on platonic affection.

- People can be different depending on the language they’re speaking. Hessler considered his Chinese persona, Ho Wei, practically a different person (and not a very bright one, since he didn’t speak Chinese very well). Meanwhile, he found his students actually more willing to criticize the government when speaking Chinese, the risk of being overheard evidently outweighed by their feeling that English was the language of the classroom, and therefore of orthodoxy. He was also disappointed to find out that the more dissident members of the class tended to be the losers, with the brightest and most socially adept generally in line with the Party’s expectations.

- At the time of writing (this was published in 2001), China was apparently the only country in the world where the suicide rate for women outstripped that for men. The male work culture depicted here definitely seems unpleasant—featuring lots of mandatory late-night banquets mostly about getting drunk, to the point that they all know their precise ranking in the alcohol-tolerance pecking order, and those with lower tolerance are constantly bullied into drinking more than they’re comfortable with. However, unsurprisingly for a young man staying in a gender-segregated culture, Hessler’s analysis on women’s issues is uninspired.

I should also note that his disdain for diversifying the syllabus, expressed early on, did sour me somewhat. Hopefully that has changed in the intervening years. And I wasn’t a huge fan of the short interstitial chapters devoted to describing a particular place or person, which felt a little too much like writing exercises for my taste.

But overall, I found this really immersive, thoughtful and interesting, and as well as a just plain enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of Hessler’s books!
Profile Image for Matthew.
234 reviews67 followers
April 28, 2008
Halfway through River Town, I can't help but observe that Pete Hessler was just 27 when he arrived to teach English for the Peace Corp in Fuling, the town on which his memoir/travelogue is based. My favourite books are like this, I can't help but see blurred reflections of myself in them. I wish I'd read Hessler before I went to China for exchange in 2002, but I try to forgive myself the immaturity at that stage; after all I was just 21 then. It seems so old, though, 21, after NS, and compared to how adult 21-year olds seem when you read about them in books about developing countries. 27-year old Hessler seems so intelligent about travel, so able to observe the surroundings and people and himself at the same time - perhaps a function of his literature/anthropology background at Princeton. I turn 27 in just over a month, and River Town makes me wonder about whether I'm as mature a reporter as he is. I'm no longer a reporter, to be sure, but I think of it less as a profession than as a way of being, a mode of living, of openness at a personal level, and of penetrating different niches of experience and observing and thinking through them, eventually perhaps writing about them.

In any case, here's a comment he makes deep into the book, which I think is so quintessentially journalistic. He's describing how he tried to use English to broach sensitive political topics with his students when he first arrived, and failed, but later, as he picked up Chinese, managed to do so.

"At last I realised that the fear wasn't of somebody else hearing. It was a question of comfort, because uncertain topics were more easily handled in their native language. But also I sensed that the true fear was of themselves: virtually all the limits had been established in their own minds. English had been learnt at school, and thus is was indistinguishable from the educational system and its political regulations... it was a school language, a waiguoren language, and in both contexts they had been trained to think and speak carefully."

More immediate than a historian would write, and more observational than a fiction writer would dictate, I think.

And elsewhere, later, just because I like this observation and not because its espescially poetic or anything: Of his students, he writes "They were tough and sweet and funny and sad, and people like that would always survive." I wonder about that.

On the whole, though, I'd say Oracle Bones - his second book, based on his later years in China as a freelance feature writer and New Yorker correspondent - is better written. He's perfected the feature magazine pace by then, the break in tone and subject, the circling back to subjects, the timed-release of detail, vital to the story like blood from a drip. River Town is more straightforward, less polished, his descriptions ramble more, but in that sense its also more poetic - a scene ends and you're not sure what the point is, because there is no point, its perhaps simply the writing down of a memory, and there is more in that than can be summarised into a point.
Profile Image for Aron.
133 reviews21 followers
August 29, 2011
Good: Hessler does a good job of describing the character of the people he meets and the complexity of their lives. Those stories are all interesting, funny and often touching.
Bad: Hessler is an arrogant & condescending jerk who thinks he is being sensitive & understanding, but really isn׳t. I give him a discount because he was young & stupid (despite his Oxford education) when he wrote this. Nonetheless I find the book insufferable when he writes about himself which is way too much of the time.
Worst: yes we all know China lived for many years under an authoritarian madman who caused great hardship. But Hessler's political critiques of the China he lived in are most often superficial and ridiculous. Worst of all, he refuses to connect the dots and see how many of the same issues exist in identical ways in the country he comes from. Are the advertisement slogans that pepper US countryside any less worthless mind numbing propaganda than "happy happy safe safe" Communist party slogans? And sure in the US you can call the President a socialist fascist yahoo and not go to jail or get censored, and that is a great thing. But if you smoke the wrong plant you end up in jail. There are far more people in prison in this country than in China (or any other country for that matter) even though we have a quarter of their population. So are we really more "free"? And the average citizen here has no more power to effect change than his Chinese counterpart. We just have the illusion of participation. At least the Chinese are more realistic.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,685 reviews347 followers
July 15, 2021
A truly excellent book, and a remarkable debut. What a writer! 4.5 stars, rounded up.

Here's the review to read, from the NY Times in 2001:
"The China that Hessler portrays in ''River Town,'' his finely drawn memoir of two years in Fuling, is a place on the knife-edge between stasis and change, where centuries-old certainties can vanish in a single revolutionary instant. Much has already been buried by the rising tides of the past century, and much more stands to be lost.

Hessler arrived in Fuling in 1996 to teach English classes at a local college, as one of the first two Peace Corps volunteers to serve there -- only three years after China first allowed the group into the country. And in fact, as far as his hosts were concerned, Hessler didn't represent the Peace Corps at all, but rather something called the ''U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers.'' The term ''Peace Corps'' had been so hopelessly tainted for most Chinese by decades of anti-American propaganda that a euphemism had to be invented.

''River Town'' is an important work of reportage, and not just because of the peculiar historical moment it describes -- a moment when Hessler's students can speak of their sincere admiration for the Communist ideals of Chairman Mao, then go off after graduation to seek their fortune in the tumultuous prosperity of China's southern cities. It's also a window into a part of China -- the province of Sichuan -- that has rarely been explored in depth, even though, as Hessler notes, it is home to one out of every 50 people on earth."

Reread notes 7/2021: Not quite as good as I recalled. Episodic: reads like a series of magazine essays. Which in part it was: much of the content first appeared in the New Yorker. The best of the essays are 5+ star quality, but there's a fair bit of Peace Corps travel-memoir stuff. which can still be very good. If you are reading this for the first time, or rereading, my best advice is, take it in fairly small chunks, and take a break if you bog down. The quotes below will give you something of the flavor of the book. China has changed a lot since 1996-98, when he lived in Sichuan. So this is a snapshot of a small Chinese city in the near past, and valuable for that. And a near-great book. Hessler was still inventing his mature style here.

I once saw Hessler in conversation on stage with John McPhee, his old writing teacher at Princeton. It was quite a show. Here's the video: https://podcast.lannan.org/2010/11/20... My, how time flies.
Profile Image for Hallie Taylor.
14 reviews3 followers
September 10, 2007
Since writing this book, Peter Hessler has established himself as one of the premier journalists writing about life in China today. You'll find his pieces in the New Yorker and the Atlantic. River Town is well worth reading. It is an introspective memoir of his first two years of living in somewhat rural China and is also very well written.

I met two of Peter Hessler's Peace Corps comrades in 1996 or 1997 in Xishuangbanna. I remember them telling me about their experiences and frustrations working in rural Sichuan. I guess it was during spring festival time, so that would be early 1997. Having lived in Sichuan during the mid to late 80's with my family, I was very familiar with the region and I loved talking to these guys. Hessler's accounts of his experiences rang very true to me and it is enjoyable to see what he learns about the people around him during his time in Fuling.

All in all, I'm a little biased because I loved reading this book because it is about Sichuan, (a place that is both familiar and well-loved by me). You may particularly enjoy this if you have some experience and interest in China, but it's all-around a great book.
Profile Image for Tony.
920 reviews1,556 followers
December 25, 2010
Peter Hessler is an observant soul. Here, he shares two years of observation from his stint in China's Sichuan province as a Peace Corps volunteer. Hessler is not there to teach farming or engineering nor to provide medical assistance (which was my erroneous presumption about the Peace Corps). No, he teaches English Literature. He sounds like a wonderful teacher and the interplay with the students was the best part of the book. River Town is full of anecdotes and reads well and informs. But Hessler is no de Tocqueville. There is a memoir feel to River Town. He generalizes, which is understandable, stereotyping all Chinese based on his small sampling. But he also romanticizes some horrible things, like rats crawling over him and pollution so bad he contracts tuberculosis in just two years. Just part of the Peace Corps experience.

I do not think Peace Corps volunteers are as bad as missionaries. However, there is a narcissistic quality in addition to the altruism that carries an American to another land to help the indigenous people. When Hessler gets into a pissing contest with a shoeshine man, he can't resist telling us the irony of he, someone "educated at Princeton and Oxford," stooping to argue with someone of a low status.

Finally, he lets his true self show:

After two years I was sick of the countless anniversaries and commemorations; I was tired of the twisted history; and I had enough propaganda-laced textbooks.

What book would his students write about America, based on that one small sample?
Profile Image for Ryan Louis.
115 reviews9 followers
February 7, 2012
David Sedaris told me to read this book. So I did.

At a public reading, Sedaris made a recommendation for, what he called, someone who can actually write. Oh David Sedaris...

I've read Hessler's "New Yorker" articles and love them. So it didn't come as much surprise that this ended up being good. The funny thing, though, is that even though I was familiar with and appreciated the author, I started the book seriously skeptical. I'm not super-patriotic or anything (if I'm anything "super," it would be: super-libs), but I do find myself buying into the punditry and its [usually] negative rhetoric regarding China.

As I started "River Town," I was quite resistant--to the point where reaching actual empathy felt as probable as me going to the moon.

Oh how happy I am to come down off my pedestal. This richly rewarding novel is full of beautiful passages. It's not quite coming-of-age because the main character is 27. But it's one of those coming-into-their-own memoirs. And, consequently, because the author's journey was so manifestly transformative, I found MY journey to be as well.

Basically the memoir follows Mr. Hessler through his Peace Corps experiences in a small-ish town in Sichuan Province (Fuling) during the Clinton Era. As he negotiates cultural boundaries, he gets hit--albeit slowly--by a concatenation of revelations: interpersonal, intercultural, all humanizing.

In our current Geopolitical Battle Royale (or, as I'm being led to see things these days, an International Hunger Games), I forget that the most manipulating thing about politics is that it makes us forget the real people subject to neolithic systems (like autocratic regimes).

Books out about why we should FEAR China make the best-seller list and regretfully alienate readers enough to avoid finding common ground.

But after this book, I find myself using engaging examples about China in all my classes. I feel empathic at once and, yet, feel objective enough to freely criticize. I know I'm only one book in, but it's revelatory to consider both sides of the "China coin"--one that is not entirely Western or Chinese.

To demand change from a country with traditions stretching back millennia undermines the value of culture; to ignore the objectionable human rights abuses, equally undermining. Hessler finds a middle-ground. One that, I hope, provides insight for a way forward together.
Profile Image for Aoi.
793 reviews73 followers
March 25, 2018
On an assignment with the Peace Corps, Peter Hessler was unceremoniously dropped into Fulin, a remote, rural part of the Sichuan province to instruct future English teachers. As the only foreigner to live amongst the locals in living memory, Hessler struggled with day to day interactions with his students and fellow teachers, who had been educated/isolated and molded by the communist revolution. And yet, change is always afoot - the world renowned Three Gorges Dam project was underway - soon taking over these smoky, dusty towns and its thousand years of history with it under the waters.

What resulted from this - River Town - is a charming part diary, part travelogue that puts into context the people of Fulin, their magnificient (and neglected) rich history and their hopes of a transformed future.

Hessler's interaction with his students was often a linguistic and cultural minefield, given the stormy years after the commnunist revolution and the rife anti-American sentiment. He often raged at their 'follow the pack' mentality, even when it came to writing persuasive essays and stating an opinion in class.

Parts of it, however, are downright hilarious -

essay - Why Americans Are So Casual:

For example, when Mr. Hessler is having class, he can scratch himself casually without paying attention to what others may say. He dresses up casually, usually with his belt dropping and dangling. But, to tell you the truth, it isn't consider a good manner in China, especially in old people’s eyes. In my opinion, I think it is very natural.

..as are Hessler's attempts at making his students act out Shakespearean plays -

The play ended in a flurry of swordplay and kung-fu kicks, Laertes and Hamlet and Claudius involved in what could have been the climax of a Hong Kong martial arts film, until at the end only Hamlet and Horatio crouched in front of the class.

At the end of two years , however, with Hessler's much improved Mandarin (with a Fulin dialect), he was able to communicate much better with the people and form friendships with some of them. I would like to rate this as a full 5 stars - given the sheer depth of subject matter and the narrative finesse shown. However, certain sections were fairly repetitive and they brought down my personal enjoyment.

Hessler's writing gave life to this quaint, mountain abutting town, and towards the end, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a place I had lived in for the two years of his contract.

The river was the same as it always had been. It wasn't like the people, who had changed so much in my eyes over the course of the two years, and who would now go their own separate and unpredictable ways even as they were frozen in my mind, pinned by memory -making chaoshou, teaching class, standing motionless on the docks. But it was different out on the river, where my guanxi with the Yangtze had always been simple: sometimes I went with the current, and sometimes I went against it. Upstream it was slower and downstream it was faster. That was really all there was to it - we crossed paths, and then we headed off in our own directions.
Profile Image for Troy Parfitt.
Author 5 books22 followers
March 7, 2011
Almost nine years to the day after a young Peter Hessler first set foot in Fuling, I floated by that remote city on the first night of a three-day Yangtze river cruise. I stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the place I had been reading about for the past two weeks, so wrapped up had I become in Hessler's story. A vague assemblage of lights appeared and I gazed silently at the town as it gazed silently back. Then, as quickly as it had emerged, it melted into and inky, airless night. In China, as anywhere, you often pass by these middle-of-nowhere towns and think, "I wonder what goes on there." After reading River Town - Two Years on the Yangtze, I had my answer.

Hessler's tale is a compelling one, and - it must be said - told from the heart. Essentially, he fell in love with living in Fuling, a rustic ville in the bucolic province of Sichuan. He found college teaching, learning Mandarin (and slurry Sichuanese), and exploring the city and its surroundings to be nothing short of exhilarating, and his zest for discovery is infectious. Although Hessler elaborates on much of the oddness that is China, he seldom does so in a disparaging manner. Except for a few obtuse administrators and the occasional hostile bumpkin, the author treats virtually everyone he meets with respect and empathy. He's even tolerant of his assigned Chinese teacher in spite of her obvious intolerance and disdain for foreigners and their depraved ways. On occasion, Hessler can be cutting, but it is subtle; tactful.

Stylistically, I found River Town a touch stilted, but then, it’s only Hessler’s first book, and he wrote it in his twenties. It's the story itself (the characters, his observations) that carries the narrative, not necessarily the style, and the story is good. Hessler has gone on to write Oracle Bones and Country Driving, which reportedly, are excellent. Peter Hessler has become one of the most important – and most honest – commentators on China.
Profile Image for Kelli.
1,083 reviews36 followers
September 3, 2020
I read oracle bones and loved it. It was written at the end of the author’s time in China. He writes his understanding of the country, as an American, which was masterful. Most America’s struggle with their view of China as industrial. But few see it as it is. A country with rich history, farmland, mountains and hazy cities. I’ve visited China three times and stayed the first time for a whole summer. It was the most interesting time. I find Peter’s books on his time in China written in the way that I understood China, as well. He gets it, I think.
River Town starts nostalgic to me. It starts like how I looked at China when I first came in 2009, pleasantly surprised at the people and ‘small towns’. I never saw the industrial-ness of China, I only saw the people and the food and the landscapes. I saw China as I hope it’s meant to be seen by foreigners. The communism is there, but the country is more than what politics has done to it. Peter knows that too, which is why I think if you want first hand knowledge of China, it’s Peter’s writing of it that will give understanding. The cultural bumbles and quirks that college Chinese students have is interesting. Toward the middle of his writing to the ending, you see the cracks of communism come thru.
I remember the stares when walking down the street. The whispers of waiguoren. I feel a kinship to Peter’s writing and I really enjoyed reading this book. I would recommend for anyone wanting a more complete knowledge of a foreigner in the middle of China.
Profile Image for Laine.
224 reviews3 followers
January 19, 2018
I must admit I expected to be bored to tears by this book - I most definitely was not. In fact, I actually loved it. Sure his writing is not always perfect but I found that unevenness to be part of its charm and believability. As someone who also works overseas in often difficult and very confusing circumstances, I could feel and thoroughly relate to his own shifting between the pain of fear and failure to the thrill of adaptation to the weird, wild, wacky world of Fuling. The book holds an honesty that I find rare in travelogues. This includes the complications of sexual (near) encounters with locals and the blatant misunderstandings that invariably become somewhat clear only after the fact.

If you fancy yourself a traveller or even dream of experiencing a vastly different world, do read this - It may just put you off the false assumption that travel and new experiences are always wonderful. But it should help place such experiences on a more realistic plain. Travel as non-tourist is alway hard work and no matter how good you are at it, in local eyes, you are still a tourist and you will always make horrible mistakes. But then, this is very much a male perspective, too. I only wish Noreen and Sunni would also write about their experiences in Fuling to provide a woman's experience in contrast to this one.... Or then, maybe it's time I wrote about my 30 years in Indonesia......????
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,552 reviews604 followers
May 29, 2017
You would think that a memoir written by a Peace Corp volunteer in China 20 years ago would feel outdated. But I found Hessler's experience as a 28 year old teacher in Fuling (1996-98) both fascinating and relevant. I especially liked the parts that focused on Hessler's English literature classes, perhaps because they reminded me of the stories my 28 year old son told me about his experience teaching in Shanghai last summer.

Hessler is an excellent writer and I look forward to reading more of his books and articles. After finishing "River Town" I enjoyed his article for National Geographic in 2013 about the changes that Fuling and its citizens have experienced.

Profile Image for Yangzi.
25 reviews1 follower
January 31, 2021
This book is hilarious. I sometimes paint while I listen to audiobooks, but I couldn’t while listening to this one because it often got me laughing and my hands would shake.
As someone who grew up in China, I’m impressed by how Peter Hessler observes and chronicles his Peace Corps volunteer years in China. Although it was in the mid-90s, a lot of core things are still very much relevant today.
I do think this book might be more enjoyable for “foreigners” who have visited or lived in China, or Chinese who have an overseas experience. I also recommend the audio version to anyone who would like to listen to the pronunciation of my name 10,000 times.
4 reviews
January 30, 2021
I really enjoyed Hessler's unique perspective and interactions with the Chinese people of this river town -- as a foreigner, he was respectful, funny, and empathetic. And while he does have certain political opinions, he really tries to understand the Chinese people and their history. He uses beautiful language to describe the scenery and the hustle, which makes you feel like you are there! As he says in the book, this is just his experience in a small part of China, in a specific time in history.
56 reviews
September 14, 2020
This book has some or the strongest sense of place and character I've seen in a nonfiction work. The cast of characters is fleshed out and the setting is poetically yet simply described. Despite its many personal anecdotes, the writing manages to keep a journalistic detachment, not bogged down with over-personal diary-like elements. River Town is educational, inspiring, and entertaining; everything I look for in narrative nonfiction.
366 reviews179 followers
August 23, 2022
As good as I thought it would be. I have been a fan of Peter Hessler's free flowing, remarkably well crafted essays, and have been meaning to read this for a while. River Town has that quality I so love, of course, but it also has something more: Space. Hessler has somehow, in a portrait of one place in China, made it possible to see it as a whole. An achievement.
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34 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2013
A good friend recommended this book to me after hearing of my interest in learning more about opportunities for Americans to volunteer in international settings.

The story of Peter Hessler’s two year stint (1996-1998?) as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling (pop. 200,000) in the Sichuanese hinterlands of China , teaching English at a state-sponsored school to the next generation of Chinese teachers of the English language, reads a bit like a China-based “To Sir with Love.”

It may lack some of the drama and character development that I remember from the movie starring Sidney Poitier, but many of the cultural issues Hessler encountered are similar: living life as an “outsider” in a homogenous society; the daily anxieties that derive from not being able to communicate with others at the level to which one is accustomed and the glacially slow but gradual gaining of acceptance that occurs via the accrual of daily actions and conversations that build trust.

However, in addition, Hessler had to struggle with an entirely new and difficult language as well as a Communist Party orthodoxy that stifles the imagination and creativity of his students, and carefully scripts what subjects he is “permitted” to teach and discuss.

Admirably, through a creative series of routine homework assignments, and by leveraging his deft political skill and humor, Hessler is able to communicate to his students some of the most fundamentally important differences in Chinese and American society, as well as other aspects of interest to them; despite the significant hurdles placed in his way. Kudos to him for the significant effort he makes to accomplish this and for his achievements.

Yes, at times, I was a bit bored. The format is more journal than novel, and it's therefore hard for the author to develop any kind of momentum. But ultimately, the unique strength and primary value of this book is in the way Hessler chronicles China – its people, history and a very specific region – in a brief period of time just prior to certain massive changes that were forthcoming: the completion of the Three Gorges Dam; the destruction the newly-created lake will bring to the eternal villages and cities resident in the lower river valley and the new buildings, roadways and railways being constructed at breakneck speed in the upper towns and cities along the Yangtze.

I particularly enjoyed the book for cultural insights like the fact that the Chinese are huge admirers of Mark Twain, the sense of how one passes time in a Chinese river town and the relationships Hessler forges with diverse characters like a local priest and a restaurant entrepreneur.

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199 reviews4 followers
February 10, 2011
I hope to one day meet Peter Hessler and thank him for this book. He writes of his life in Fuling, China, just downriver of Chongqing, where I currently reside. Though he was there in 1997 just before the great opening, the attitudes of the people he met, befriended, and fought with, are still with the people of this region today. Hessler's insight into Southwest China where the language is lispy and the weather hot allowed me to ease into my life here.

Teaching in China is a totally new world. Students in China learn in much different environments than in the West, and Hessler captures the feeling of being in a classroom in China wonderfully. The blank stares, uncomfortable silences, and random fits of emotion are described with such clarity that as I read, I sat in class with with Peter.

This is a must-read for anyone living or traveling to Southwest China - or anyone interested in a good story! A fun, engaging, and can't-put-it-down read!
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14 reviews
July 24, 2022
I really enjoyed this book. It describes the author’s life in Sichuan in detail, the good and the bad. I lived in China for 9 years and a lot of the situations were very familiar. I thought it was respectfully written with a good sense of humor but at the same time he does not shy away from criticism (also towards himself). He added some historical background about the region which makes the book more than just a journal.
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844 reviews448 followers
August 19, 2012
Informative and charming account of two years teaching in a small town. Follows the progress of his students and his own progress learning about the country, its history and customs. Really enjoyed this.
6 reviews
April 8, 2021
I thought it was extremely well-written and I was reminded of my own first two years of living in a small town in Zhejiang. So many relatable experiences, even with mine being 20 years after his
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