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River town : two years on the Yangtze

bookcover
Author: Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler's account of his 2-year stint with the Peace Corps in Fulong, a city of 200,000 in Sichuan China is a gem. Thanks to him, we catch a glimpse of a China rarely studied. Far from the coast, near the 3-Gorge Dam, Fulong seldom sees a waiguoren, a foreigner. Hessler is as curious of the Chinese as they are of him and despite the frequent insults he must put up with from strangers on the streets, he is given rare insights into his students and teachers' ways of thinking. "Their" China is no more monolithic than "our" United States". As many expats, Hessler confronts his own pre-conceived notions and feels compelled to defend his country. Willing to commit to learning not only Mandarin Chinese but also its written form as well as the Sichuanese dialect, the author paints a lyrical and evocative picture of this area by the Yangtze with its people brutalized by Mao's capricious campaigns yet still able to give the man credit for "Liberation".

Only 10 years since the beginning of Reform and Opening, many speak to the author candidly about mistakes made and innocence lost. Female suicides, the one-child policy that can be subverted by paying fines, the displacement of over a million people living by the dam, the construction of a brand-new city and the covering of century-old artifacts are all objects of Hessler's keen interest and sensitive treatment. His slow but conscious acculturation takes place before our very eyes and his demanding tutor, the restaurant owner who invites him for the Spring Festival and his young neighbor who eludes his own parents to play with him grow on us as the 2-year commitment comes to an end.